Restaurant: Sierra Nevada House
Address: 835 Lotus Road in Coloma
Hours: Thursday through Monday at 4 p.m. and closed on Tuesday and Wednesday
I am ashamed to admit this but in the five years I have lived and worked in El Dorado County I had never set foot in the gastronomic landmark that is Sierra Nevada House until the other night.
Even worse, for the last year I have lived a short 12 minutes away by car. Shame on me!
Mimi Escabar and her husband Henry, themselves mainstays of the El Dorado County restaurant scene for decades, convinced me that the time was right for a visit to this Coloma institution.
The history of the Sierra Nevada House is long and involved; much too involved to go into it all here.
Suffice it to say that it involves Miwok Indians and a Swiss immigrant pioneer by the name of John Sutter, who built a dwelling, a sort of ‘fort,’ for himself that quickly became a focal point for weary pioneers coming to the Coloma Valley.
It became such a popular destination, in fact, that Sutter was forced to hire a craftsman to build a saw mill to supply the necessary timber to support the expansion of the building in order to keep up with the demand.
The carpenter’s name was James Marshall. Then some tiny flakes of a golden metal were found in the tailrace of the mill on the American river and as they say, “the rest is history.” The Coloma Valley exploded with people eager to make their fortune and in July of 1848, construction of the Sierra Nevada House began.
It remained a popular hotel until 1902, when it burned down. It was rebuilt as a silent movie house. The structure was once again claimed by fire in 1925 and wasn’t rebuilt until the 1960s.
Fast forward to two years ago, when Keith Merson, who has deep roots in the hospitality industry, decided it was time for a change of pace and bought the Sierra Nevada House.
Merson and his wife Kristi have lived in Cool since 2000. After visiting with Merson for more than two hours it became extremely apparent that he not only shares a passion for preserving the rich history of the Sierra Nevada House but also maintains strong convictions on how his business, especially the restaurant portion, needs to run.
The first thing Merson told me — which took me aback (pleasantly so, I may add) — is that he encourages his executive chef Diana Greer, to come up with fresh and creative ideas for the menu.
In turn, Greer challenges her sous chefs — Casey Moore and John Bayne — to do the same, regularly. I have found that when afforded full creative freedom, most chefs will rise to the occasion and invent some absolutely delicious and memorable dishes. Not all work, of course but the dishes we were presented were all extraordinary — no kidding and no exaggeration necessary.
Greer is originally from the Huntington Beach area and has been involved in the food service industry, in one form or another, for more than 20 years.
Like many, me included, Greer moved here for the outstanding schools available in El Dorado County and then the history and natural beauty that this area affords. Greer and Merson were gracious hosts and on our visit we were blessed to have them join us at our table.
Greer, of course, was intermittently getting up to check on things in the kitchen.
We started our dining extravaganza with mac and cheese and before any of you out there start poo-pooing this as something pedestrian, let me say, this is white truffle mac and cheese which is a blend of Cheddar and Gruyère, baked until a delicious, golden crust forms and then topped with a heap of fried onion strings to garnish. “Decadent” doesn’t do this dish justice. It is a really well put together dish, well thought out, especially texturally. You get the creamy cheeses, the al denté macaroni, the crisp crust and the onion strings for that all important crunch element. It’s all there.
I was informed at the beginning of our culinary voyage that there would be served approximately seven courses, so even though it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, I stopped at just a few mouthfuls of that delicious mac and cheese, cleansed my palate with some ice water and eagerly awaited the next offering, which just happened to be … fish and chips, done the Sierra Nevada House way.
Generous helpings of beer-battered cod (the beer used was, of course, the Sierra Nevada variety), served with crunchy home-made seasoned French fries and tartar sauce.
A bar above
Perhaps this would be an opportune time to mention bar manager phenom Samie Campbell, who is in charge of pairing each dish with an appropriate beverage.
Campbell who has worked at the Sierra Nevada House for more than eight years, has a gregarious and fun personality but is deadly serious about her charge and on the night of our visit hit home run after home run with each pairing. Each wine and/or beer fully complimented each dish wonderfully and completely.
Merson makes it a point to stock a huge selection of local wines as an homage to the wonderful bounty of vineyards here.
The fish and chips were way above average, elevated by the fluffy and not-greasy-at-all batter and the flakey cod. The fries were pretty terrific as well.
“Maintaining a high quality of service is important to me,” Merson told us between bites. “People may enjoy your food but if they receive sub-par service they may never give you a second chance. So I feel really lucky to have the employees we have now, who are all exceptional at what they do. It may be a cliché but I really consider us a family.”
Next up we were presented with blackened meatloaf. On the surface another staple of “Mom’s All-American Kitchen” but look deeper and you’ll find that, once again, Merson, Greer and her crew of exceptional sous chefs have elevated this dish into something very special.
Like their burgers, Greer uses only Angus beef for the blackened meatloaf, a special blend of secret spices, roasted red peppers, black bean salsa and the most jaw-droppingly delicious Cajun gravy you are ever going to find.
I have to say that this dish stood out as my favorite in an evening of favorites. I could eat this every day for the rest of my life, although my cardiologist would advise against indulging in something this rich with such regularity.
Besides, something this good needs to remain special, a treat for when one wins the Nobel Prize in economics or something of equal importance like a great day in El Dorado County.
You think I’m going a bit overboard here, don’t you? Go try it, then drop me a line. You’ll see.
Next up was the chicken and dumplings, once again the meal was turned into something more by the talented folks in the kitchen.
The free-range roasted chicken, glazed with a thyme and sage sauce, is tender and juicy and almost overshadowed by the super tasty home-made dumplings. This particular dish is a favorite among the regulars and it’s easy to taste why that is the case.
In keeping with the chicken theme, Greer brought us a delicious entrée of chicken and waffles, which was not on the menu that night but is an up and comer, I’d say. The chicken was great but the star here was Mr. Waffle. Not just any waffle, mind you — this waffle has bacon, bacon, bacon and cheddar cheese blended within its fluffy and maple-burbon syrup drenched shell. This dish was off-the-charts fantastic, so ask for it when you’re there.
From late May to mid-September the Sierra Nevada House offers live music covering every genre and sub-genre of music you can think of. It’s also a great place to host a private party or wedding reception, and they have the staff to make it memorable, too.
Oh, yes, they offer lodging as well, six nicely appointed rooms with a rustic beauty that is unique and stays loyal to the rich history of Coloma and the beautiful natural surroundings.
Merson would like the community to think of the Sierra Nevada House as “fun dining” rather than “fine dining” but the truth is it is both.
He can’t escape the fact that his chef and her amazingly talented sous chefs are creating Class-A dishes. If El Dorado County had a restaurant hall of fame the Sierra Nevada House would be one of the first inducted. It really is special and my first visit has ensured that it won’t be my last.
Sierra Nevada House is located at 835 Lotus Road in Coloma and its phone number is 530-626-8096. Restaurant and bar hours are Thursday through Monday at 4 p.m. and closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Website is sierranevadahouse.com.