June 5, 2006
Taste: More Than Beer

We spent much of the weekend in the Sierra foothills, catching up on wineries in Nevada and El Dorado counties. This is largely red-wine country, and reds are what we mostly tasted. And since most of them were young and astringent, our mouths were stained, parched and puckery as we headed home Sunday evening. When your mouth is in such a state, nothing is more refreshing than a cold beer, so we stopped at the Plymouth Hotel in Plymouth.

It was only about 5 p.m., but the place was closing, and the bartender advised us to keep looking. This could have been a historic moment. I've never heard of anyone ever being turned down for a beer at the Plymouth Hotel. We were even more startled, however, when the bartender said he was closing early because the rustic old hotel was to be setting an an art exhibit and reception. I went outside to make sure we actually hadn't made a wrong turn and stopped in Drytown instead.

But Plymouth, long considered the poor and forlorn cousin to Amador County's more gussied up gold camps, must be changing. But we had yet to discover the most dramatic evidence of that evolution. On our way back to the car we spotted an oversized fork of a door handle on the old Sportsman Bar. When we gave it a tentative tug, the door swung open and we found a cheery staff just setting up for the night's trade.

Mark and Tracey Berkner, former owners of the St. George Hotel in Volcano, spent more than a year gutting and rebuilding the old Sportsman Club from foundation to roof, and about a month ago reopened the place as the highly contemporary restaurant Taste.

It's too young to review, but the early assurance we saw in the creativity and consistency of the kitchen crew, and the agreeability, attentiveness and knowledge of the staff left us looking forward to returning for something more than a beer.

Actually, we couldn't pass up a few items on Mark Brekner's bright and frolicsome menu. His version of the creamy and cooly refreshing soup vichyssoise is made with purple sweet potatoes instead of leeks, its lavender hue dappled with dots of green herb oil ($6). Sweetly roasted tomatoes, kalamata olives, feta cheese and a vinaigrette made with pungent oregano from the couple's garden provided a novel and wholesome take on the Green Goddess salad ($7.50). Halibut au poivre with a fresh and fruity tomato fondue and zucchini noodles brought just the right notes of sweetness and spice to the thick, white and moist fish ($20).

We'd been nibbling appetizers at winery open houses all day, but Taste's desserts were just too imaginative to pass up, including three eclairs filled with a tangy curd made with Meyer lemons off Frank Dal Porto's ranch in the nearby Shenandoah Valley, the same ranch that long has provided Alice Waters with lamb served at her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse ($7). Berkner's rewriting of the classic creme brulee involves not a custard but dark, glassy caramelized sugar on banana halves and a thick slice of forthright pineapple, topped with a scoop of mango sorbet ($7). It was colorful and fun, and all that fruit made it seem actually good for you nutritionally.

The quarters are spacious and comfortable, with intricate wood and tile work bringing a classy yet unpretentious destination restaurant to downtown Plymouth. All that wood, however, has competition for the diners' attention in large and dramatic black-and-white photos of the local rural landscape by longtime foothill photographer Larry Angier.

Oh, yeah, the beer also was first rate, a sweet and smoky amber ale new to me, by MacTarnahan's Brewing Co. of Portland, Ore. ($3.50).

Taste, 9402 Main St., Plymouth, opens at 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday; (209) 245-3463.

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