Photographs: Stephen Ashton, Jay Odee, John Swain
& Lisa Spradin
Londoner Peter Wells and his wife Diana settled on
the placid Mendocino Coast, there were only a few
places to grab a bite to eat. In 1971 Peter first
happened upon the Albion buildings that would become
the sanctuary that it is today. A couple of years
later, he met and befriended a retired railroad man,
Flurry Healy. While sipping a nip or two of Single
Malt they sang the praises of the magnificent coast
and climate, which was for Peter a lot like his homeland,
the Albion property went up for sale in the late 1970s,
the two entrepreneurs, who had by then become very
good friends, decided to buy the place which originally
was only two buildings, but the location... ah, location!
location! location! Perched on a bluff overlooking
stunning coastal-scapes on the north side of the Albion
River, their place could be seen easily by travelers.
I have to confess,”the stylish Brit says as
if it would be a secret, “we really wondered
who in the hell would want to come to Albion.
on Images for Captions
Albion a town”is an overstatement but it does
have a post office, general store and… now
one of the best damned places to eat and stay on the
North coast. It also has its share of lore. Legend
has it that Sir Francis Drake named California New
Albion” after annexing it to his motherland
England, then known as Albion. Another Englishman,
William Anthony Richardson, was given a parcel of
land in the 1800s along the North Coast from the Mexican
government which he called Albion Rancho Desino.He
named the river at its center, Albion.
The transformation from a fisherman's bar and bohemian
entertainment spot to its current incarnation is as
colorful a story as one could find anywhere. The 1919
building was first a Blacksmith shop, then a Ford
dealership, a grocery store with fish bait, a hamburger
place and finally a restaurant in the 1940's.
two entrepreneurs gutted the building in 1981making
it a bit more fashionable. We couldn't move too quickly
because we wanted to keep the place local friendly
–and I kind of like it that way,” Flurry
says. By the mid 80's the B&B scene took off and
we really started to grow.
son David, who acquired a taste for cooking at a young
age, and Flurry's young nephew, Stephen Smith, helped
the chef in the kitchen. One night a group of businessmen
who had made reservations arrived at the restaurant
but nothing had been prepared!
“We had a great chef at that time but sometimes,
well, he would have his “spells" and would
be rendered incapacitated. David and Stephen, just
teenagers, were pressed into service to prepare the
meal and as fate would have it, the group was delighted
by their fare,” says Flurry. Peter proudly adds
that David went on to work as a private chef for such
luminaries as Steve Jobs and George Lucas and is now
a highly respected nutritionist (www.nutracoach.com).
Stephen relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area to
pursue his culinary interests where he worked at the
renowned Stars under Jeremiah Tower. He attended and
graduated from the California Culinary Academy in
San Francisco in 1991, followed by a stint at Sacramento's
acclaimed Chinois East/West working with owner/chef
David Soo Hoo. Stephen returned to the Albion River
Inn to rejoin its culinary team in 1993 and at the
age of 26 took the reins as Executive Chef. In 1997,
he was given the distinction of being Invited Guest
Chef at the James Beard Foundation in Greenwich Village,
where he prepared a Mendocino Christmas dinner for
the Foundations guests. We actually brought all of
the ingredients with us on the plane. It was quite
a scene,” Stephen humbly shares.
Chef Stephen Smith calls his acclaimed and innovative
style, Coastal Cuisine, a lively mix of Asian, Mediterranean,
regional flavors and fresh seafood, especially with
local products. His culinary creations are made from
the freshest local and regional ingredients, infused
with complex flavors that utilize reductions, purees
and sauces to complement the taste, texture and design
of each dish.
night our dinner featured a series of “sampler”
dishes expertly paired with Deerfield Ranch (Sonoma
Valley) Wines: Fennel and Black Pepper Crusted Ahi
Tuna, served rare with a nappa cabbage salad, sesame
(fresh and roasted), soy & ginger dipping sauce;
marinated cucumbers and wasabi. Succulent and delicious.
Oysters Gratinée: fresh Washington oysters,
in a rich cream sauce with mushrooms, garlic, Pernod,
lemon & wilted spinach, topped with herbed Japanese
breadcrumbs & served golden. A fine combination
Lime & Ginger Grilled Prawns: sweet jumbo Mexican
white shrimp marinated & basted on the grill with
lime, ginger, garlic & soy, sauced with tangy
cilantro/lime butter, served with steamed coconut
Jasmine rice & caramelized beets. This reminds
me of the Yucatan and is a favorite of regulars.
Oven-Roasted Quail: tender birds, wrapped in honey-cured
bacon & marinated with Burgundy vinegar, garlic,
rosemary & soy, finished with sweet butter &
served with toasted orzo pasta-wild rice blend and
caramelized beets. Very tasty and fun to eat.
Poached Asian Pears with cloves and fresh vanilla
beans with vanilla sautéed cinnamon wontons.
After this exceptionally fresh and flavorful meal,
we meandered back to our cozy cabin with its custom
Jacuzzi bath and balcony overlooking the sea. A toasty
fire was the perfect setting for a night cap.
The offshore foghorn warns sailors of the jagged coast
that has claimed countless ships since the 1600s when
the Portuguese, in the service to the King of Spain,
were the first to explore the coast. The Albion River
Inn provides earplugs for those who want to block
out the singing horn.
There are no TVs so don't even think about it! But
there is plenty of entertainment” from the natural
stage of gardens, sky and sea. At dawn, we were awakened
by a rare thunder storm and a magnificent show of
lightning. Locals said they had not seen such a display
in years while some worried about the fires that the
storm had ignited.
Mid morning we meet with Chef Stephen Smith in his
kitchen. He is soft spoken, friendly and knowledgeable.
With the sea being a constant inspiration his menu
offers six or seven fresh seafood dishes nightly.
As Stephen prepares to smoke his own salmon I ask
him what he considers to be the most important aspect
of being a successful chef.
He responses instantly with:“Team Work! We are
a team here and I am proud of the fact that all of
my guys have been with me for years. And my purveyors
have been with me for years as well. I have used the
same seafood guy for the last 11 years. I wish more
chefs would get the idea that their team members are
their greatest asset. Some chefs think that all the
dishes should be done exactly BY THE BOOK. They don't
even want the staff to taste the food. Who wants to
stay at a place like that! Flurry, who joins us overhears
and adds, “Steve also has a great palate and
a real instinct for great cuisine.”
Steve loves to travel especially when he can bring
back a nuance or recipe he discovers abroad. His favorites
are Asia, particularly Korea, India, Nepal and Thailand.
He cooks 4 days a week and can often be found surfing
when the North Coast curl is at its best.
He is working on a book and teaches a series of Cooking
Classes each March & November and oversees the
Albion Winemaker Dinners.