Hanging out in Rockford: California—Part One

Hanging out in Rockford: California—Part One

By Mike Leifheit, Columnist

About a half dozen years ago, I decided I needed another restaurant. I was living with a young woman named Tracy Redding. She was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Beloit College (also my alma mater, as well as that of my son). We decided to build a place somewhere at a distance from Rockford. We looked at locations in Belvidere and Oregon and finally settled on the one that is now the Irish Rose in downtown Rockton.

I wanted to build a restaurant that used natural fuels. We had been burning wood at the Irish Rose in the River District for about six years, and I wanted to take that a step further. Through a friend of mine, Mike Reilly, who had a fledgling Internet business (in the building owned by John Sykaluk across the street from the arts building next to the Faust Landmark), we searched for a wood oven builder on the Internet. The first item that came up on our search was Oven Crafters in Petaluma, Calif. This turned out to be Alan Scott, the man I eventually hired to build our oven in Rockton.

We needed to see the oven and how it worked, so we used that as an excuse to visit California. I hadn’t been to California since my adopted father, Robert Leifheit, passed away. I had lived for a few years in Sacramento while working for the Royal Crown Cola Company. I loved California then, and I still do. I remember a friend of mine whom I taught with at Roosevelt Middle School, Lynn Soper, writing me and telling me she had fallen in love with a whole state. Shortly after her letter, I went to San Francisco on my motorcycle with my friend Ron Mackey. I spent the next couple of years figuring out how to move there.

Tracy and I flew into San Francisco International and rented a car. We drove north through the city and across the Golden Gate Bridge, then up Highway 101 to Petaluma. We were not able to contact Alan to let him know that we were arriving, but we were in California, so what the heck. We bad difficulty finding the road on which he was located. Turned out that he was actually much closer to Marshal, Calif., on the coast. We drove out the winding Petaluma-Marshal road toward the coast in pitch black and driving rain. Finally, we found Alan’s house. We had to walk up a long pathway in the rain and dark to get to the house. A young hippyish-looking woman answered the door. Alan was not there, but he would soon return. She let us in and made us feel at home.

Later that evening Alan returned, and he treated us to a vegetarian dinner that featured several of his homemade breads. We retired early so that we could get up at 6 a.m. to be part of the bread-making process. I got up early to look around and left the house on my own. I was in the most beautiful, verdant valley I had ever seen. I wandered about, discovering an organic creamery and a wonderful house that had a number of peacocks running about. The topography reminded me of coastal Ireland. I later discovered that this was the former location of the now famous (or infamous) Synanon.

We made bread with Alan. The recipe was simple. Wheat, water and salt. The leavening was accomplished with a sourdough starter that Alan had created by infusing natural wheat with water. He maintained that these microorganisms had been associated with the wheat for eons and were much healthier than the fast-rising yeast used to make commercial bread. He ground wheat to make the flour. I have never had bread that good anywhere else. We cut a deal with Alan to build our oven in Rockton and then set out to explore California.

I asked Alan for a list of several restaurants that used his ovens. One of these was the Hawthorne Lane Restaurant in San Francisco (named Restaurant of the Decade in 1995 by the San Francisco Chronicle). On our way down Highway One to the city, we ate at another restaurant that was to be the inspiration for our Rockton location, walnut wainscoting and rough white plaster. I can no longer remember the name of this restaurant; perhaps on another visit I will go there again. When we got to the Hawthorne Lane, they gave us a tour of the kitchen, and I was able to talk to the chef about Alan’s oven. They had the highest respect for Alan.

The following day, on an impulse, we set out to visit Dave Homewood in Sonoma, Calif. Dave is a Rockford native who has a winery in the Sonoma Valley; he is going to be honored at a reception at the Irish Rose in Rockton on May 7 and at the Irish Rose River District on May 8. Tickets ($10 per person) can be obtained with a credit card by calling 624-6163, Rockton or 964-0480, River District. I will tell you all about our visit with him next week.

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his Web site: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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