Everything old is new again
by Antoimnette May
I kind of like being a guinea pig. The surprise quotient is always high and is at least half the time rewarding. The City Hotel in Columbia during its stint as the Culinary Academy’s test lab was a case in point.
My husband, Charles, and I loved the enthusiasm of the student chefs and wait staff. We were delighted too by their daring. The students were good with the basics, but many of their more far out offerings were really fantastic. Consider lobster cheese cake.
When the association with the academy ended, the bistro not only lost its edge, it tumbled. One night four of us dined at the City Hotel on dried out beef, stale bread and . . . I’ve forgotten the rest. Yuk!
We weren’t eager to return, but when Charles and Kathie Luke— foodies from way back—enthused about the “new” City Hotel, we listened. According to Kathie, Forever Resorts Inc is out, Briggs Hospitality LLC in.
The fun part is that Jeff Briggs, the restaurant’s new co- owner and executive chef, worked at the City Hotel in the early 1980s when he was himself attending the Columbia College culinary program.
There have been some ups and downs with the new ownership, the restaurant was closed for a time, but Jeff and his wife, Jackie, now have the situation well in hand.
Columbia is always fun to visit. Acquired as a park in l945, the Gold Rush town is a time-trip into the 1850s with a stagecoach, gold panning and townspeople in period
The City Hotel, a building that dates from the town’s founding, enhances that ambience with wonderful old paintings accented by elaborate gilt frames, handsome dark wood tables and high back chairs. Frontier elegance at its best.
You could say, everything old is new again but Jeff and Jackie are adding to that with fresh and original touches of their own. They bring with them experience at John Q’s in Sacramento, the Nut Tree Restaurant in Vacaville and Café Rio in Aptos.
When Charles and I rendezvoused with the Lukes at the City Hotel on a recent Saturday night the only reservation we could get was for 5:45. Prettttty early! But we soon settled in with drinks from the adjoining What Cheer Saloon (they fix an excellent martini for $4. A rare treat.) It was relaxing to just sit back and enjoy the décor.
Once we were seated, Charles and Kathie Luke shared an organic “Little Gem” salad ($8) which consisted of butter leaf lettuce and chanterelle mushrooms the City Hotel’s French dressing. They were well satisfied.
“My” Charles chose French onion soup ($7) made with port wine and gruyere cheese. I had sipping rights and thought it delicious but then so was my Belgium Endive salad ($9) made from watercress, apple wood bacon, hazelnuts, pears and pecans. Really, that was one fantastic salad.
I was allowed a taste of Charles Luke’s entrée, grilled vegetable Napoleon ($20) and thought Napoleon himself would have been delighted. Charles Luke certainly was. The entree consisted
of portabella mushroom grilled and layered with goat cheese, onions fresh vegetables layered with truffle oil and balsamic reduction. Truly a tour de force.
Kathie had had the City Hotel’s braised organic chicken ($23) before and couldn’t wait to try it again. She said it was even better the second time around. Think: apple wood bacon, mixed olives, mushrooms, fresh thyme, shallots, red wine and chicken jus.
My own pick was the pan roasted duck breast sautéed with red wine, demi-glace, vanilla bean, and organic apricot butter. ($29) Since duck is a favourite dish of mine, I’ve enjoyed it many times, in many places. The City Hotel’s ranks among the best.
But Charles Herndon really shot the moon with his selection, lobster whiskey ($36) It was, as they say, “to die for,” a confection of lobster, Kentucky bourbon, cream and butter.
I’d say that the City Hotel definitely has its edge back, but you can go there with equanimity. The guineas pig days are long gone.
VITALS: 22768 Main St., Columbia. Phone: 532-1479. Lunch: Wednesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.. Dinner: Wednesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 8. Reservations encouraged. Credit cards accepted.
Lobster Whiskey is a featured attraction at the City Hotel in Columbia.
Jeff Briggs is the new owner chef at the City Hotel in Columbia.
Jackie Briggs, co-owner of Columbia’s “new” City Hotel. Serves Charles Luke.