The thought was fleeting. It involved dinner at the Inn at Park Winters, a reach for a companion’s carrot cake, and the subsequent recognition that a fork already encrusted with chocolate from another dessert would not be the best vessel with which to taste it.
The fork was set down again, but only for a second, before our server, who was nowhere near us when the reach was made, quietly swooped in to replace the chocolate fork with a fresh utensil. She might have been watching from afar. But let’s not rule out mind reading.
This moment sealed our impression that the Inn at Park Winters, a high-end establishment sitting on 10 manicured acres within the farm fields of western Yolo County, was like no other place in the Sacramento region.
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Park Winters, a popular destination for weddings and corporate retreats, recently raised its profile by hiring chef Scott Ostrander, who had helped open midtown Sacramento’s Paragary’s last summer after its makeover. Ostrander and Park Winters recently began offering reservation-only fine-dining events featuring “hyper-local” ingredients from Yolo County, and more specifically, Ostrander’s 1.25-acre garden on the property.
The landscape around the inn, which sits 9 miles north of the town of Winters and 2 miles from Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument’s foothills, suggests Napa County, which lies just over the range. But traffic is lighter, and farm equipment more visible, along the route to Park Winters.
Rafael Galiano, 48, and John Martin, 38, already owned a large San Francisco Victorian when they spent nearly $2 million, in 2011, for the Winters property, which holds a Victorian mansion built in 1865 by Yolo County pioneer George Washington Scott. They opened the Inn at Park Winters as an event venue and bed-and-breakfast in 2012.
“At the time, we wanted to do town and country” in their events business, said Martin, a longtime Marriott hotels employee who is in charge of hospitality for Park Winters. “But we ended up falling so in love with the country that we didn’t want to go to town anymore.”
The couple sold the San Francisco house in late 2012, and have spent $3.3 million over the years, they said, transforming the Winters property. Along with making improvements to the house, which holds three guest rooms (rates start at $275 and include breakfast), and the self-contained, three-story “tower suite” beside it (it was built as a water tower), the pair built a saltwater swimming pool and spa accessed via a striking oversized white door attached to a perimeter of shrubbery.
The renovation culminated in a new 4,800-square-foot “event barn,” complete with a professional kitchen in which Ostrander and staff could prepare the seven courses of Park Winters’ $125 tasting menu. Ostrander’s successor at Paragary’s, Paul DiPierro, followed his longtime kitchen colleague, as did sous chef David Dein. They are now chefs de cuisine at Park Winters.
Park Winters often gets mentioned in the same breath as tapas spot Ficelle, charcuterie restaurant Preserve and Berryessa Brewing Co. as indicators of forever-farm-to-fork Winters’ growing hipness factor. But access to the inn always had been limited to wedding and B&B guests.
Martin and Galiano, a longtime real estate agent and developer, built the barn partly to extend wedding season at Park Winters, which up to now held most events al fresco. Also, any Northern California inn worth its kosher salt offers dining, and demand was growing for Park Winters to follow suit, Martin said.
“We would have more and more people from the surrounding area say, ‘We really want to have dinner there, but we haven’t been invited to a wedding yet,’ ” Martin said. “This is our answer to that.”
The barn is open for dinner Wednesdays-Sundays, except on those nights when the room has been booked for private events, for which Ostrander and crew also prepare food.
Whitewashed Oregon Douglas fir lines the walls of the airy barn. Through the building’s rear windows, one sees a glowing outdoor fire feature framed by the rich greens of the alfalfa field beyond it (the Rominger family farms the land surrounding Park Winters and plowed Ostrander’s farm) and the hills rising in the distance.
The feel is rustic and relaxed, but swank. Galiano said the barn was inspired by architect Howard Backen, who designed St. Helena restaurant Press. The inn, with its plentiful use of thick, high-quality woods, also evokes Cavallo Point, the Sausalito military base turned resort.
The house, which contains a modern kitchen and smattering of Modern furnishings, is not doily-Victorian. It fits in with the rest of the buildings and grounds, and under the umbrella of Galiano’s and Martin’s slogan for the inn: “simple country luxury.”
It’s hard to think of any other event in Winters – or Davis, 22 miles away – matching the understated elegance of a Park Winters dinner, an experience that began, last weekend, with a staff member greeting guests in the parking lot and escorting them onto the property. Inside the barn, tablecloths are white and the noise level low, despite there being at least 50 diners in the room and the room being … a barn.
Galiano and Martin up the ante on other restaurants’ farm-to-table claims, with centerpieces composed of redbud-tree blooms and decorative planters full of live red kale and lavender. Edible flowers garnish Ostrander’s dishes. One also made it into a large ice cube in the “garden gimlet” craft cocktail made with St. Germain elderflower liqueur.
“You are going to see every season, and what’s happening in nature, on our walls and our tables,” said Galiano, who said he is in charge of “development, design, curating and gardening” at the inn.
Ostrander, 33, looked fully in his element as he visited tables last weekend. He spent much of his career working for the Paragary’s group and under its head chef, Kurt Spataro. Although Ostrander said Spataro was an important mentor, he seems to be savoring his new freedom.
At Park Winters, “It’s more like straight from my mind to the plate,” Ostrander said.
Ostrander at present uses “85 percent local ingredients,” with the goal 100 percent. Park Winters sources products from nearby quail rancher Brent Wolfe, who also supplies birds for the namesake dish of wildly popular San Francisco restaurant State Bird Provisions.
In December, Ostrander used seeds donated by Suzanne Ashworth of West Sacramento’s Del Rio Botanical to start a farm on the Park Winters property. The carrots, radishes and arugula already are coming up, at least well enough for their baby forms to make it onto the “garden crudité” course on Ostrander’s new spring menu. Incorporating crème fraîche and served on ice, the crudité tastes like a nourishing, savory dessert.
Ostrander spent part of 2012 working at Alinea, a modernist-leaning Chicago restaurant that holds three Michelin stars – the highest honor in fine dining. His dishes at Park Winters mix new and traditional techniques. A quail course served last weekend, for instance, featured an apple cooked sous vide and cipollini onion confit (in quail fat).
DiPierro once worked at Napa’s three-Michelin-star Restaurant at Meadowood. Park Winters’ new beverage director, Aaron Babcock, 24, brings more recent three-star experience, having just left his job as sommelier at Los Gatos’ Manresa.
It does not take a mind reader to see what Galiano and Martin are doing. Especially not when Galiano comes out and says it: “We aspire to be a Michelin-star restaurant.”
Such pronouncements, when uttered anywhere near Sacramento, usually inspire eye rolls, since there has been no evidence Michelin’s anonymous inspectors ever make it to the capital. But Winters is closer to Napa, which Michelin inspectors do visit, than Sacramento is, and Galiano and Martin are laying the groundwork mindfully, by building the events barn, hiring young people who are on their way up in the industry and finally, ensuring service matches setting.
Our server last weekend showed polish while letting through personality, describing ingredients with enthusiasm and a lack of stuffiness – an approach that seems like the future of fine dining after the New York Times’ take-down of what its critic perceived as haughtiness at Thomas Keller’s Per Se.
“Our fine dining is fine dining in a loving way,” Galiano said. “You hear ‘fine dining’ and you think of the server with the hand behind (his back). I have asked our servers to drop the hand.”
Park Winters’ dining events already are drawing repeat customers. Vacaville residents Anita O’Brien and Brent Terrill returned two weeks after their first visit to celebrate the birthday of pal and Carmichael resident Maggie Ferrari last weekend. Ferrari said she was skeptical when O’Brien, while inviting her to dinner, recommended a place in the boonies.
“I said, ‘I am gonna drive an hour … for that?’ ” Ferrari recalled asking. “But I said, ‘If you’re paying, I will come.’ ”
Once at Park Winters, she was “shocked” by the lovely setting and the food’s quality, Ferrari said. She and Donald Satterlee, a Sacramento resident who joined her, O’Brien and Terrill at Park Winters, have dined at Sacramento’s top restaurants. O’Brien and Terrill travel to Napa and San Francisco for dinner. All consider Park Winters a find.
As Terrill put it: “To be able to come and eat somewhere where they are really on the ground floor of knowing exactly what they want to create – you just kind of feel like you are at the beginning of a happening.”
The Inn at Park Winters
What: An inn and special-events venue that now offers dining events to the public.
Where: 27850 County Road 26, Winters
When: Dining events are Wednesday-Sunday (except when the room is booked for private events) and by reservation only.
Cost: Seven-course tasting menu is $125 plus tax and gratuity. Wine pairing is $85. Rooms start at $275 and include a breakfast prepared by the Park Winters kitchen.
Information: www.parkwinters.com, 530-669-3692