Review of the Bull Valley Roadhouse
Reborn, Rustic, and Refined: New American cuisine and craft cocktails infuse today’s Port Costa tavern.
Bull Valley Roadhouse
Kristy looked radiant in her satin gown when I picked her up in my dad’s leased, lemon-chiffon Lincoln Continental. The luxury ride was less to impress—Kristy wasn’t my girlfriend; I was standing in for her boyfriend in the service—than to smooth out the long and winding ride to Port Costa for our pre-senior ball dinner at the Bull Valley Inn. This was back in the culinary dark ages, before the advent of California cuisine, when we called restaurants “fancy” not “upscale,” and a fancy restaurant served French or, more likely in the suburbs, “continental” cuisine.
Fast-forward a decade or so, and I’m back in Port Costa, this time with a large party that includes my even-more-radiant lifelong prom date, Robin, and our friends Ann, Greg, and Norm. We dine at the Bull Valley Inn, where the menu has changed very little. (I have vague recollections of filet mignon, escargot, and sole meunière.) No one has yet added “artisan cocktails” or “farm-to-table dining” to their vocabulary. Then we spend the night in the adjacent Burlington Hotel, a funky, timeworn Victorian relic built in 1883 and so proud of its history as a brothel that we get to play dress up with lady-of-the-evening petticoats in the velvet-wallpapered rooms.
Fast-forward another two decades (but don’t do the math, please) to 2013 and find Robin and me making the 28-mile drive, in our Honda, from Oakland to Port Costa three times (once with our friends Steve and Judy) for dinner at the renamed Bull Valley Roadhouse. All of the aforementioned foodie trends are now in full swing, and they have infiltrated this tiny waterfront town, founded in 1879 as a railroad ferry landing. Although not much else has changed on the single commercial block with a half-dozen storefronts, The Bull Valley Roadhouse has been remade into a tavern-like bistro serving “new American” cuisine—mussels, ribs, chicken, steak, stew—and craft cocktails on par with the best of the same trendy ilk in Oakland or San Francisco.
Actually, in terms of interior design, the Roadhouse, though dramatically spiffed up and polished for its November 2012 opening, has an “older” look now than it did, lo, those many years ago. After entering beneath the golden bull that hangs outside over the door, you’re transported to an elegant turn-of-the-19th century saloon, a combination bar and parlor with velvety and satiny Victorian sofas and chairs, rococo chandeliers, and a wall papered with sepia photographs of, presumably, California pioneers. On the other side of that wall is the large dining room (more like a dining hall in proportions), which looks as it was lifted from the Hotel Carlton where Paladin lived in Have Gun—Will Travel. Dark brown wainscoting climbs high up the walls, which are painted a dusky green to the ceiling, where fan light fixtures hang. The walls are also adorned with gaslight-style sconces and more vintage portraits and paintings.
The menu is perfectly harmonized with the décor, from the exquisite classic or pre-Prohibition cocktails (all $11) through the crunchy, fritter-like fried green tomatoes ($6) and crispy fried beans (green one night, yellow wax on another) with chile salt ($10) to a Mexican-themed slow-roasted pork stew ($26) over polenta with tomatillo, guajillo chile, lime and crème frâiche, and such desserts as warm apple crisp with walnut-oat topping and honey ice cream ($11) and pound cake with Flewellen’s wildflower honey and whipped cream ($8).
The whole project, which includes the revived and refurbished Burlington Hotel next door, is the brainchild of owners/partners Earl Flewellen (yes, the honey maker and beekeeper) and Samuel Spurrier, with chef/co-owner David Williams, plus barkeep Tamir Benshalom, who supervises the cocktail program developed by Erik Adkins. Both Williams and Adkins hail from the Slanted Door in San Francisco, so I shouldn’t be surprised by the commitment to fresh ingredients and balanced flavors, the precise but unfussy execution, and the ambiance meticulously styled with emphatic but not brash character.
But I have been surprised, each time we’ve eaten there. On the first visit, it was by the expertly concocted whiskey cocktail (something between a Manhattan and a Sazerac) with the hand-cut ice cube; the side dish of kale with chile, shallots, and garlic ($7); the dry-rubbed St. Louis pork ribs ($18) flavored with maple and fennel seed; the steamed P.E.I. mussels ($16) with excellent fries and aioli; and the smart, buoyant server who won hearts with charm and attentiveness, and not just because her name was Robin.
At other dinners, the unexpected delights included a superb Roadhouse martini; large toasts with generous schmears of fava bean purée accented by chives, hazelnut oil, and sun gold tomatoes ($7); a wonderfully vivid and complex roasted chiogga and golden beets salad ($10); the aforementioned fried green tomatoes, which inspired Robin (the wife) to buy some coarse polenta to replicate the masterpiece at home; roasted macaroni gratin ($8) made with Gruyère and Parmesan; the pozole-like pork stew; a down-home cheese-topped buttermilk biscuit ($3); a server-suggested glass of 2011 Gamay Beaujolais ($9) that paired well with the crispy-tender brick chicken ($28) with mashed potatoes and country gravy, which I had to sub for the popular fried chicken that had run out by 7 p.m.
Whether you order from the starters, salads, entrées, sides, or dessert sections of the menu (all of which change according to seasons and markets), the portions are huge and homey and meant to be shared. The servers explain the family-style approach and warn against ordering too much, but I’ve yet to let that stop me. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but my spoon repeatedly found its way into the apple crisp and the dark chocolate pot de crème with sea salt and caramel ($10).
My recurring amazement at the way the Bull Valley Roadhouse has been reborn, as a beckoning destination both rustic and refined, no doubt owes to the fact that my images of the Bull Valley Inn were indelibly etched into the concrete of my memory in 19-oh-nevermind. But my own personal time warps aside, this is a place where you can have your nostalgia and eat beyond it, too.
The Bull Valley Roadhouse. American. 14 Canyon Lake Drive, Port Costa, 510-787-1135, 5 p.m.–9 p.m. Thu., 5 p.m.–10 p.m. Fri., 4 p.m.–10 p.m. Sat, 10:30 a.m.–2 p.m. (brunch) and 4 p.m.–9 p.m. Sun. www.BullValleyRoadhouse.com.