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Zan Thompson

There's Room at the Inn-- Enough for a Small Escape

February 05, 1989|ZAN THOMPSON

The first night, there was a chocolate-chip cookie the size of a Frisbee wrapped in clear plastic and tied with a sky-blue bow on my pillow. The next night, there was a nest of pastel Jordan almonds tied with a pink bow. I associate Jordan almonds with my grandmother and silver tea caddies. And every night, there was a fire in the fireplace casting a flickering light on the peach-colored walls.

If you can work it, this is the time of the year to take a small escape. The Christmas bills come in every mail like a flight of ravens, tugging at your conscience, crying at your bank balance.

My young friend Kevin Finch called and asked me to come to the Sonoma Mission Inn for a quiet few days in the wine country. He is manager of a restaurant and store at the inn and a delight of a person whom I have known since he was a gangly kid. He has grown into a handsome man with the same blue eyes, alive with intelligence and the knowledge that the world is a wonderful place to be.

Kevin came to San Francisco to pick me up. I was glad to see him because I had just been through a stimulating hour circling San Francisco Airport.

First, the pilot said, "We are unable to land at San Francisco Airport because of the fog. We have tried once. We have 20 minutes' worth of fuel left so we will try one more time and then go to San Jose."

I thought that that was intelligence he might have kept to himself. I have never had an airline captain confide the amount of fuel he has. Maybe it's part of the new truth in advertising rules, but he overshot. The woman behind me had never flown before and announced in tones like those of a distraught macaw that she never would again.

We landed on the third pass after having been in the air 45 minutes. I don't know about the 20-minute limit. Maybe the pilot coasted the last half hour.

Kevin looked like money from home when I saw him leaning against the pillar, grinning.

On the drive to the Sonoma Mission Inn, we caught up and he told me he loved being there. He's the manager of the Big Three, a restaurant, delicatessen and a treasure trove of a store, full of local jams and jellies, Italian plates shaped like fat fish and 250 things you can live without but covet wildly.

The Sonoma Mission Inn was built in the mid-1800s and has been through a number of ownerships by volatile people, the most stable of whom were the original tribe of Indians who discovered the hot springs that still gurgle away underground and provide the sparkling water served at the inn.

The inn was rebuilt in California mission architecture in 1927, with arched walkways and towered buildings around a grassy courtyard. In 1980, a spa was built, with every health and beauty accouterment known to the seekers after inner peace and outer svelteness. Massages, facials, aerobics, exercise machines, water massages, herbal wraps, everything for the fitness pilgrim of both sexes.

One evening, Kevin and I had dinner with Peter and Susan Henry. Peter is director of the inn and Susan is his pretty wife.

The food in the grille where we ate is created by chef Richard Saunders and it's wondrous to behold. Richard is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and studied in Switzerland. He spent eight years in Switzerland working at prestigious restaurants and ended with a flourish by becoming the first American chef to be chosen to head the kitchen at the U.S. Embassy in Bern for three years.

His family is Romanian and he went to law school until the money ran out. He said a friend gave him the best advice he ever had: "You need a roof over your head and a few bucks in your pocket. Be a waiter."

He worked at Broussard's in the French quarter of New Orleans and his philosophy of fine meals came from that job. He told me: "If you don't have much money but if you can buy your food, fish and meat wholesale, and a good bottle of wine retail, you can get a good meal."

He loves Sonoma and so does his wife, Yvonne, who is Swiss. "She gives me an evenness. There's a professionalism and a work ethic here that reminds her of Switzerland.

"There is sincerity and dedication to the job whether it's a mushroom grower, a wine maker, or a fisherman in Bodega Bay. They care about fineness. The chicken and duck growers have the same attitude toward their work.

"Our veal is not raised in boxes and the beef we serve is without hormones. Everything is natural."

He served a delicious dinner ending with an unbelievably good coffee ice cream, made without cream. It's one of his gourmet spa recipes.

There was also a Swiss cappuccino torte and a creme brulee for which no caloric counts were mentioned. They were satiny, delicious and should be forbidden.

At the Big Three at the inn, which Kevin manages, I had Italian sausage, sweet, spicy and tasting of Tuscany, served with polenta.

When Kevin and I were driving to San Francisco the day I left, we were talking about clearing out books and how hard it is. He said: "Last time I tried, I threw away three. I picked up a paperback of 'The Iliad' and, Zan, you know you can't throw that away."

Just when you think there is scant hope for the world, you find again that young people like Kevin know the best of the good old stuff and are still reaching for the rainbow and having the good sense to hang on to paperbacks of "The Iliad."

I came home to the same bills and a computer that had been made immobile by a visit from the telephone repairman for whom I waited all one day last week. I did not kill anyone because I had a backlog of fresh air, wonderful food, people I would want as friends anywhere, anytime, good conversation, a facial, a massage and Jordan almonds on my pillow by firelight.

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