“One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.” — Luciano Pavarotti
The area of Smith Flat is named for rancher and farmer Jeb Smith who settled in the area in the years after the Gold Rush. If he were alive today he would have been pleased to see what farm fresh food chef Jason Spencer is serving up at The Smith Flat House, 2021 Smith Flat Road in Placerville.
A couple of months ago The Smith Flat House — already known for its summertime pizzas at The Courtyard — opened another restaurant called The Cellar in the building’s basement and the owners are seeing crowds that have them booked up most weekend evenings. The Cellar has a refreshing menu that’s earned the attention of the local foodie population.
Carmichael resident Jason Spencer, 35, is the brains behind the eats at The Cellar, and has been at The Courtyard as well for the past season. Spencer worked in restaurant kitchens for 10 years before going to college and landing a job with the California Department of Education where he helped get healthier food into schools across the state.
Spencer found that he really belonged in the kitchen.
“I was trying to make it easier for students in schools to eat healthy and I thought: ‘I’m doing all of this work to get people to eat healthy, why don’t I just open a restaurant that serves healthy food?’” Spencer said.
John Conforti and wife Cathie have owned the Smith Flat House since 2002 and revamped the property over that time to establish The Smith Flat House Center For Health in 2008.
The Center for Health is home to several health practitioners, and according to John, was inspired by Dr. Benjamin Ling who specializes in non-surgical orthopedic and sports medicine.
In 2009 The Courtyard began serving it’s first brick-oven pizzas on the elegant and spacious back patio venue of The Smith Flat House.
John and Cathie were running The Courtyard themselves until Spencer “rescued” them.
Now Cathie can focus on the decor around the restaurant — which is quite tasteful and lovely, by the way.
“Other chefs wanted fryers but Jason was enthralled with the idea of using local produce from Willow Pond Farm,” John said. Willow Pond Farm is practically right next door to the restaurant. “We wanted to keep our food and what we do here consistent with the Wellness Center,” John said.
The Cellar was an ongoing project over 7 years according to John and finally opened this fall. It was worth the wait — the food is something to jump up and down about, so is the space, but not too high because the ceilings aren’t that tall.
The Cellar transports diners back to the heyday of the Gold Rush when The Cellar was just as it appears now — a mine.
The Smith Flat House is built on top of a mine, originally constructed in 1853 and known at the time as the Three Mile House because it was three miles east of Placerville.
While it may be rustic The Cellar is also quite regal and provides a great atmosphere for diners. The Cellar also regularly hosts local music acts.
Having worked side by side with farm to fork icon and author of “Earth to Table,” John Ash, Spencer may be Placerville’s own visionary champion of the healthy, locally grown food movement.
“Everything is fresh and seasonal. The whole point of this restaurant for me was familiar food with a healthy twist. And everything is as fresh and local as we can make it,” Spencer said.
At The Cellar diners will find only local wines, tea from the El Dorado Tea Company and produce from Willow Pond Farm.
Let’s talk about the menu.
Everything this writer has tried was amazingly delicious but I’m particularly excited about a couple of things that I just really think people should be eating.
The Manhattan mussles are probably my favorite thing to eat right now. Mussels are low in fat and high in protein. And once you’ve tried them in Spencer’s andouille sausage bourbon broth — you, like me, will be on the Manhattan mussels diet.
“The mussels are my grandma’s bourbon sauce recipe with a little white wine, garlic and her secret ingredient,” Spencer explained. The andouille sausage is from local Smokey Ridge Charcuterie and the appetizer is served with a house-baked focaccia that is fresh and perfect for soaking up the leftover sauce.
At The Cellar, the menu features foods that are seasonal. The seasonal change of fall into winter brought figs, apples, pears and mushrooms to the menu. For winter Spencer is working up a new menu that will include a baked brie.
“We are located in a facility with a health center so we try to keep things a little healthy. We use less salt and we don’t have a deep fryer,” Spencer said.
Spencer and his crew make everything possible in-house including the soups, dressings, pastries and the whipped cream.
One menu item Spencer is excited about is the root vegetable mash. He serves it alongside his blockbuster entrée, the Porkerhouse chop.
“This dish uses a unique cut of pork. It’s a t-bone pork chop that’s the most juicy, flavorful pork chop you can find,” Spencer said. It’s finished with a white wine apple and pear sauce that Spencer calls “a local spin on pork chops and apple sauce.”
It is ingenious.
And definitely one of the most interesting items listed on the menu is an order of “support health care for our crew” that Spencer says is the free market version of Obamacare. Comprising the super charismatic crew is chef Jessie Shadle, sous chef John DeSilva, and server Timmy McCrary to name just a few.
The Cellar also boasts an awesome selection of desserts such as the citrus mascarpone filled chocolate crepe.
The future holds great things for The Smith Flat House, with plans in the works for theater and events in the building’s main hall. Alcohol is served on weekends and evenings at The Smith Flat House.
For more information or to make reservations call 530-621-1003 and check out its Facebook page. It is filled with a bunch of helpful information for the restaurant’s fast-growing following at facebook.com/SmithFlatHouse.