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April 2017

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Cottonwood Eatery – Worth the Drive

Cottonwood is one of those I-5 exits most people zoom on past. Unless they need to fill the tank or get a cup o' joe, the average driver sees it as a blip, another of the zillion green exit signs that freckle the roadside. Hardly anyone says, "Hey, Cottonwood! Bet that's a happening place - let's take a gander!"

Femme de Joie doesn't get down thataway much unless it's to check out the year-round Christmas shop or put gas in the car on her way to Somewhere Else. But she'd heard good things about Cottonwood Eatery, so this winter she made it a point to see if there was really something worthwhile to stop for.

The first visit was not auspicious. On a cold grey morning, M. de Joie talked Amico del Signore into trying breakfast at Cottonwood Eatery. It's not a propitious augury when you walk into a restaurant and the patrons have their parkas on. Half of the dining space seemed to be warmer than the other half; we were seated in the not-warm section. Finally a couple of customers asked that the heat be turned up, which the friendly waiter - apparently the only waiter - did cheerfully. By the time we left, the temperature was getting more comfortable.

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The waiter asked A. del Signore if he wanted hash browns or country potatoes with the homemade corned beef hash. Hash browns, please, but when the hash arrived it was served atop a large pile of country potatoes. When it was pointed out to the waiter, he said that was the way their corned beef hash was served: on top of country potatoes. After a certain amount of negotiation, the order was returned to the kitchen; when it came back, there was a noticeably smaller amount of potatoes under the hash. The corned beef was sliced ultra-thin. It looked like chopped cold cuts, but tasted of the spices normally used in boiling corned beef, so we are assuming it was made from an actual brisket or round of beef, not deli slices. The corned beef was sauteed with bell peppers; apparently the country potatoes were supposed to be the potato part of the hash as a sort of deconstruction - not a food fad we love. Eggs ordered over easy were overcooked; the hash browns were crisp on the outside but gummy inside.

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The Mediterranean omelet looked beautiful: diced tomatoes, freshly sauteed spinach, crumbled feta cheese. But though the eggs were tender, the whole thing was just parts piled on top with nothing to bind them together. Feta was cold and unmelted on the inside. The country potatoes were not done all the way through. A biscuit was underbaked and doughy inside; gravy was salty and very strongly reminiscent of a can of Campbell's cream of whatever.

After that A. del Signore was reluctant to return, so M. de Joie went alone for lunch a few weeks later.

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Soup of the day, tomato with cavatappi (macaroni in a spiral) and vegetables. This was very reliant on tomato puree and would have gained flavor with the addition of a little chicken or vegetable broth or milk, but still was satisfying and hearty.

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The house-made veggie burger on an "artisian" roll with pesto mayonnaise was outstanding. Most veggie burgers in restaurants are either the frozen pre-made Garden/ Boca brands or soft fall-apart mushes, but the Cottonwood Eatery's version, made with lentils, seemed closer to tasting like meat than most. While it won't fool a dedicated carnivore, neither will it turn them off: this was an excellent, well-thought-out combination of tastes and textures. The house-made cole slaw was fresh and crisp; there was also a large fluff of undressed mesclun on the plate that seemed to cry out for a purpose in life. Solution: eat the burger over the lettuces and let the juices fall on them as a sort of dressing.

It was by taking half the veggie burger to A. del Signore that M. de Joie convinced him to try the Cottonwood Eatery again. That, and the fact that they serve prime rib on weekends.

On a Saturday night, the Cottonwood Eatery was hopping. As dusk fell, staff went around the dining room lifting the window shades so that anyone driving by would see they were open for business. By the number of patrons continually at the door, it appeared that everyone in town knew already.

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We started with an order of sweet potato fries. The menu said they would come with chipotle aioli, but ranch dressing is what we got. No matter: it was a generous portion, crisp and savory, lightly salted and not heavy with oil.

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The daily soup was Italian meatball noodle. Similar to the soup previously served to Femme de Joie, the strong tomato taste was smoothed with the addition of cheese and plenty of meatballs. Think of the flavors of lasagna in a soup and you've pretty much got it.

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Mesclun is more expensive and wilts faster than sturdier but less flavorful lettuces, so for a small-town restaurant to have it in the kitchen shows attention to quality of ingredients. Restaurants that charge a lot more usually serve a plate of chopped iceberg and maybe Romaine - durable and cheaper - as their dinner salad. A nice touch.

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One of the evening's specials was pork porterhouse - a pork chop with the tenderloin attached, served with pineapple grilled with feta. Pork nowadays is much leaner than many cookbooks admit to; as a result it's often overcooked and dried-out. But this was lusciously juicy and flavorful, with a slightly spicy rub. The pineapple with feta was wonderful, sweet and salty with light crunch, a great accompaniment. There wasn't a lot of garlic in the mash, though they were otherwise creamy and freshly made.

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The prime rib was on the rare side of medium rare. It would have benefited from some au jus because this was not a well-marbled serving and as the meal progressed it seemed to dry out. Still, the exterior had excellent flavor from a peppery rub, and the meat was tender as is expected from this cut. It came with a creamy horseradish and also some hot horseradish called Atomic, which was entirely accurate. The baked potato seemed to have been rubbed with oil and also seasoned; it was much better than the standard starchy baked potato served just to take up space on a plate.

Both meals came with divine green beans, fresh and lightly cooked with bacon and onions, a far cry from the floppy strips of Cafeteria Land, and far, far better than the usual chopped melange of squash & company labeled "chef's selection of vegetables" on menus.

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When you walk in the front door, there's a glass pastry case with a selection of desserts made in-house. Femme de Joie normally passes up restaurant desserts but in this case a coconut cupcake called to her. It was on the sweet side - well, it's cake; it's supposed to be - but light and not cloying.

When we left the restaurant after dark, it was the only place lit up and open for business on the street. Probably 99 percent of the Cottonwood Eatery's customers are very local. It's easy to see why they're lining up: aside from that unfortunate breakfast experience (which Femme de Joie is chalking up as a temporary aberration), the food is quite good and reasonably priced. Service is unfailingly friendly and helpful. While it's more cowboy than chic, the Cottonwood Eatery is striving to be more than just a place you go when you don't feel like cooking. Worth the drive from Redding.

Cottonwood Eatery, 20828 Front Street, Cottonwood, CA 96022. 530-347-1717. Open Monday 7:30 AM - 2:00 PM; Tuesday-Thursday 7:30 AM - 8:00 PM; Friday-Saturday 7:30 AM - 8:30 PM, Sunday 7:30 AM-3:00 PM. Cards, cash; no checks. Vegetarian and vegan options. Beer and wine. On-street parking. Follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/cottonwood.eatery

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