The following is part one of a two-part conversation with the CRA Fresno chapter Lifetime Achievement Award winner Erna Kubin-Clanin. A full list of Best of the Valley award recipients can be found at the bottom of this story.
Chef, Restaurateur and Hotelier Erna Kubin-Clanin's philosophy on life is summed up in the words of Oscar Wilde which hang above the kitchen door of her restaurant: "I have the simplest of tastes; I want only the best." This philosophy combined with her wide range of artistic and culinary talents have produced The Estate by the Elderberries – Erna's Elderberry House Restaurant, Château du Sureau, Villa Sureau and Spa du Sureau.
Born in Vienna, Austria, Erna attended the Academy of Fine Arts majoring in Theatre Design. Pursuing her artistic talents in England she subsidized her education by working as a tea girl at the world-renown Claridge Hotel. In 1962, at the age of 20, she received an art scholarship to the New York Academy of Art in Manhattan and immigrated to the United States. She completed her studies the following year at UCLA.
In 1969, Erna began to pursue her career in the restaurant industry when she opened Scorpio's in Westwood, Los Angeles. After eight years of hard work and success, Erna relocated to the Sierras and acquired the lease for the Redwood Inn located adjacent to the Wawona Hotel in Yosemite National Park and introduced visitors to prix fix, five-course dining and a unique blend of European and nouvelle cuisines. In 1983, when her lease with Redwood Inn could not be renewed, Erna purchased a property in Oakhurst, and built her own restaurant. Erna’s Elderberry House Restaurant was born.
Patrons often asked Erna, “How did you decide on the name Erna’s Elderberry House?” The property the restaurant sits on was blanketed with beautiful elderberry bushes when Erna purchased it in 1984, so she felt it was fitting. It was highly unusual to launch a restaurant in such a rural location – particularly one serving in a classical setting the kind of fine, fresh food that patrons expect from more sophisticated places such as San Francisco, New York, Paris or Vienna. It was a true diamond in the rough in California’s Gold Country. Guests arrived through wrought-iron gates and were graciously shown into a home that sparkled with fine crystal and crisp linens. Freshly cut flowers and warm sunlight streaming through high cathedral windows bathed the restaurant and its patrons in the gentle glow of Old World charm. A visit to Erna’s Elderberry House was akin to the feel of the French countryside.
In the spring of 1987, Craig Claiborne visited Elderberry House. Renowned as one of the best food critics of his time, the New York Times writer was an unexpected surprise. Erna recalls the day as if it were yesterday, “After his first dinner, he asked to speak with me. He said, “I just had the most extraordinary dinner and would like to talk more to you. My name is Craig Claiborne.” I almost jumped out of my skin! I remember every word we exchanged. He stayed for three days at a local inn (Château du Sureau was not yet open). He cooked with me and helped make a recipe to share with his readers. He was one of three or four critics that if they wrote about you, you made it. Craig Claiborne was the most respected critic. His story came out in the May issue of the New York Times. The very next day I received calls from all over the world about making reservations at Elderberry House. Germany, London, New York; he put Elderberry House and Oakhurst on the map.”
“Foodies” traveled from all over the world to visit Erna’s Restaurant and took with them memorable dining experiences. However, there were virtually no hotels to stay at in the area, only some small tourist-type motels down the road, or the Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite Valley, an hour and a half away.
Erna saw the need for a hotel to accompany her now world famous restaurant and set about building the Château du Sureau. It took six years of prospective lenders and backers, and plans with builder, Gary Browns.
Erna and Gary worked side by side, without the hiring of an architect, drawing and redrawing and redesigning – first for 30 room, then six rooms, and finally settled on 10. The process was painstakingly slow and often created sleepless nights, but in April of 1990 ground was broken on Château du Sureau and opened proudly to greet its first guests on May 10, 1991.
Guests raved about the Château and the restaurant, but wanted more. In 1999, the 2000 square foot Villa Sureau opened to guests that wanted a more exclusive experience, with an around the clock butler, two grand bedrooms with marble baths and a whirlpool tub, steam shower, luxurious towels and fine cosmetics. Two tall glass doors open to a large sunny terrace framed with French iron rails – circa 1840 – a perfect place for breakfast al Fresno.
Erna felt her masterpiece was nearly complete, but was missing one element to complete her idea of total relaxation, a spa. She realized the need for spa services at her Estate and a new project ‘hit’ the drawing board. In November 2005, Spa du Sureau opened to provide guest with a full body and mind pampering experience.
Best Breakfast: BJ's Kountry Kitchen
Best Fast Food/Drive Thru: In-N-Out Burger
Best Fast Casual Restaurant: Chipotle Mexican Grill
Best Mexican Restaurant: Plaza Ventana Mexican Restaurant
Best Family Dining: The Old Spaghetti Factory
Best Fine Dining: Ruth's Chris Steak House
Best Pizza: Me-n-Ed's Pizzeria
Best Sushi: Wassabi
Best Winery: Engelmann Cellars
Best Sports Bar: Dog House Grill
Best Hotel/Casino Dining: Table Mountain Casino
Best Italian Restaurant: FIVE Restaurant
Best Newcomer: Jack's Urban Eats
Best Kept Secret: The Vineyard Restaurant & Bar
Friendliest Service: FIVE Restaurant
Best Watering Hole: The Elbow Room
Most Romantic Restaurant: Cracked Pepper Bistro
Best Steak: Ruth's Chris Steak House
Best Banquet: Fort Washington Golf & Country Club
Best Catering: Pardini's Catering & Banquets
Best Hamburger: In-N-Out Burger
Best Sandwich: Sam's Italian Deli & Market
Best Country Club Dining: Copper River Country Club
Best Indian Restaurant: Elephant Lounge Indian Bistro
Best Bakery: La Boulangerie
Best Seafood: Pismo's Coastal Grill
Best Mediterranean Restaurant: George's Bar & Grill
Best Barbeque Restaurant: Dog House Grill
Beverage Purveyoy/Supplier of the Year: Coca-Cola Refreshments
Purveyor/Supplier of the Year: JD Food
Restaurateur of the Year: Vatche Moukhtarian, Cracked Pepper Bistro