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AAA Restaurant Review

Murphys, Calif.: Sierra Escape

By: Jason Turbow

Once a draw for gold-seeking fortune hunters, a Sierra foothills town has turned the treasure of its past into a food and wine windfall.

Before it acquired its current name, Murphys, Calif., was known in the mid-1800s as Murphys New Diggings, to distinguish it from the old diggings started by brothers John and Daniel Murphy in nearby Vallecito. Gold was the goal, and the possibilities were sufficient to lure prospectors from around the world.

These days, the town sparkles with new riches in the golden hues of crisp white wines and ruby reds. A decade ago, the four elm-lined blocks of downtown had two tasting rooms. Today the count is up to 20, with seven more just minutes away by car. It’s an oenophile’s delight, especially if you enjoy rhône varietals or Spanish and Italian favorites, such as grenache and pinot grigio.

A shade under three hours east of San Francisco, Murphys also benefits from its proximity to wondrous scenery. At Calaveras Big Trees State Park, miles of hiking trails wind through groves of giant sequoias. Natural caves dot the area and several offer tours, including Moaning Cavern, where adventurous visitors can bypass the stairs and rappel in.

Still, the local flavors are the biggest draw—and not just in the winemakers’ cellars. Marisolio Tasting Bar showcases 30 audacious olive oils, including black truffle and blood orange. At the Spice Tin, you can peruse 175 spices and herbs, from adobo to zhug. One Leaf Trading Company complements a vast array of whole-leaf teas with a cornucopia of brewing supplies.“There’s a great new culture here,” says Karen Henderson, whose cupcake shop, Lila & Sage, opened in 2011. “A little bit of city life has moved to the country, but people are still very approachable.”

Alchemy Market and Cafe pays homage to local wines while also shining a spotlight on beer. Its
selection of 12 on-tap choices plus 120 varieties in bottles and cans would be difficult to find in a booming metropolis, let alone a town of 2,200. Chef-owner Jason Wright’s sit-down menu ranges from seared, fennel-crusted tuna served rare and cool over a Greek salad to “ultimate meatloaf” wrapped in bacon under a smoky barbecue demi-glace.

Three blocks away, a vegetarian bistro called Mineral serves a signature burger that’s meatless and phenomenal, as well as inventive entrées such as stuffed shiitake mushrooms with safflower-pineapple broth, white cheddar grits, and golden oregano. Chef-owner Steve Rinauro puts a fresh spin on mining the area’s treasure, finding ingredients in the restaurant’s own 10-bed garden—and the local wilds. “We pull from the forest and the side of the road,” he says. “I find what’s edible around here and bring it to my kitchen.”

That’s profitable prospecting beyond anything those old miners imagined.

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