Dining at Little River Inn, Mendocino CA

Pine Nut Crusted Salmon , Dining at Little River Inn, Mendocino CA

I’m what you might call an itinerant gourmand so it’s probably no surprise that I often plan my trips around restaurants, bars, bakeries, markets, and of course wineries. If I can find all these things – plus natural beauty – in one destination it’s safe to assume that I’ll return again and again. Mendocino is one such place. Victorian architecture unexpectedly teetering on cliffs high above the ocean’s edge. It’s a town that looks more like an antique print of a New England fishing village than a famously mellow California artists’ community. It’s one of the most dramatic settings imaginable where the whole point of the place is to do pretty much nothing.

Well, almost nothing. Because dining at Little River Inn is one of the reasons to check out this remote spot on California’s “lost” coast.

The first time I stopped in to dine at Little River Inn we sat at the bar to sample their award winning crab cakes. We slurped freshly shucked oysters as we waited, and I was as happy as a clam (I mean oyster). I can think of almost no better place to enjoy oysters than sitting on a bar stool in Ole’s Whale Watch Bar looking through the large window behind the bartender to see the ocean. There’s a steady stream of California gray whales that migrate south from Alaska to Baja from November through February and return north from February through April. The rest of the year– summer and fall– you can see humpbacks, blue whales, and sometimes even sperm whales. That is if you can keep your eyes off the oysters. The place is the perfect marriage of food (wine) and circumstance in my opinion. So whenever I travel to this part of California it’s easy for me to say – “save me a seat at the bar at Little River Inn” – I’m bound to stop by for oysters and crab cakes real soon.

Just not too soon. Because on this trip I want to concentrate on the fine dining at Little River Inn. It’s another of those unexpected experiences that makes a trip to Mendocino worth the drive. After all, if you find yourself at Little River Inn you may have something romantic planned and fine dining is just the thing to set the mood.

Eating in Mendocino- Little River Inn

Dining at Little River Inn, Mendocino CAFine Dining at Little River Inn

As you enter the dining room you may be struck by how just a few steps from the bar to the dining room can change your experience completely. The main dining room is adjacent to Ole’s Whale Watch Bar and they share more than just a wall. They share the same menu! The bar is a gathering spot where visitors can sip pinot noir with local vinophiles in flannel shirts or chat up artists bouncing babies on their knees. It’s a place filled with what I call “a little of this and a lot of that.” There’s a TV (and sports of course). Cell phones don’t even work here (at least mine didn’t). There’s an amiable bartender named Sue willing to talk mushrooms, and as I said, it’s a great place for oysters and crab cakes. In other words, it’s a casual spot.

Yet make those few steps from the bar to the dining room and you’ll notice the change in cabin pressure. The dining room is just as warm and unpretentious as the bar, but it has an air that makes the room worthy of a special event or romantic evening. The room’s golden wood tones are set off by simply adorned moss green walls that quietly blend into the grays of an overcast Mendocino morning. The windows open onto a minimalist’s focused view of terraced gardens. It’s a peaceful place. Maybe it’s the white tablecloths, but I found myself slowly savoring the experience of the room, as opposed to chatting with my mouth full as I ordered another beer. I love dining in Mendocino both ways, and I love that Little River Inn gives me both options.

Wherever you’re seated the menu features traditional meat and seafood dishes like Steak Diane and Sole Almondine, proof of five-star chef Marc Dym’s interest in classically prepared food, as well as a local wine list. I chose Chef Dym’s Pine Nut-Crusted Salmon because it exemplifies why the dining at Little River Inn is considered a must-see attraction along the Mendocino Coast. This elegant entree earns a flavor boost from its sweet basil coulis and savory pine nut crust. One bite and you’ll see that its Mediterranean influence is strong, but it’s made with local king salmon which is pure Mendocino. It’s a simple preparation. Simple enough to be made at home, so I asked the chef for the recipe which he graciously provided. He also agreed to make this dish for a video (see below). GREG

Little River Inn Little River InnLittle River Inn Pine Nut-Crusted Salmon from Little River Inn

I received compensation to bring information about dining at Little River Inn to this website. Some of the images in this post appear courtesy of Little River Inn.

Pine Nut-Crusted Salmon with Spinach Puree and Basil Coulis 

Print This Recipe Total time Yield Source Chef Marc Dym, Little River InnPublished

There are many good recipes for polenta and you may use your favorite. I have a recipe that I like to use. It can be found here: http://​www​.sippitysup​.com/​r​e​c​i​p​e​/​p​o​l​e​n​t​a​-​c​a​k​es/

Pine Nut-Crusted Salmon


  • 1 bunch fresh basil (leaves only, roughly chopped)
  • 1 cup canola oil (plus more for cooking salmon)
  • salt and white pepper (as needed for seasoning)
  • 2 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 (6 oz) bag baby spinach leaves
  • 2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • Lawry’s seasoned salt (to taste)
  • 1 cup pine nuts
  • 6 boneless, skinless salmon filets
  • 6 warm Parmesan polenta cakes (see note)


To make the basil coulis: Place chopped basil in a food processor. Drizzle in canola oil in a slow, steady stream. Puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste and reserve.

To make the spinach puree: Place the butter into a medium saucepan set over medium heat. As it begins to melt, start swirling the pan frequently and watching the butter carefully. You will notice the butter will crackle, pop and get foamy as the milk solids begin to brown. Once that starts, remove skillet from heat. Smell the butter; it should have a nutty aroma, and be caramel in color. Set aside.

Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to boil. Add the spinach and blanch spinach till just wilted; about 1 minute. Drain well, squeezing the spinach to remove as much water as possible. Puree in food processor adding browned butter and sesame oil as the machine runs. Season to taste with seasoned salt. 

Place spinach into a small saucepan and set aside until just before serving.

To make the salmon: Pulse pine nuts in food processor until ground to the texture of coarse sand. Season with salt and pepper. Spread a thin layer of the chopped nuts over one side of each salmon fillet. Press the nuts onto the surface with your hands so that they stick. Refrigerate until needed.

When ready to serve, preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Meanwhile, heat a large cast iron pan over medium-low heat. Once the pan is hot, add small amount of canola oil to slick the surface. Cook salmon (nut-crusted side down) over medium high heat 2–3 minutes until nuts are light brown. Place the filets in a single layer with some space between them, do not crowd the pan; work in batches or use multiple pans if necessary. Once nicely browned, flip the fish and finish cooking in the heated oven 3–4 minutes for medium-rare (or to taste).
To serve: Gently heat the spinach puree on the stove. You may need to add a half teaspoon of water depending how far in advance you made the puree. Place a 2 tablespoon mound of warm spinach puree in the middle of plate. Lay a warm polenta cake and a cooked salmon filet over the spinach. Drizzle with basil coulis. Repeat with remaining spinach, polenta and fish. Serve immediately.