Bethany Clough

A new face, new lower prices at top restaurant Erna’s Elderberry House

There’s something poetic about a daughter coming home, particularly when she’s joining the family business with the only four-star-rated restaurant in our Valley.

That daughter is Renée-Nicole Kubin, daughter of Erna Kubin-Clanin, the founder of the Erna’s Elderberry House restaurant and its chateau and spa in Oakhurst.

The younger Kubin is now the general manager of the property. She’s bringing changes that make the restaurant more affordable and could bring in new diners.

This is no typical passing of the baton to the younger generation, though. Erna, 75, isn’t going anywhere, for one. And the younger Kubin, in her 40s, comes armed with experience at several five-star restaurants and hotels. She was the first female sommelier to work at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, a top-rated restaurant that consistently landed on a list of the world’s top 50 restaurants.

The business her mother founded, Erna’s Elderberry restaurant and spa, has a four-star rating from Forbes. And earlier this month, the Elderberry House won AAA of Northern California’s five-diamond award for the 21st year in a row. The Chateau du Sureau hotel won the same rating for the fourth year in a row.

The typical $112, five-course dinner at Erna’s is a meal that lends itself to anniversaries and birthdays, but is still out of reach for some.

“For so long we’ve been considered special occasion and nothing beyond that,” says Kubin. “We have so much more to offer.”

So the restaurant is changing to offer more affordable options. The traditional set-price five-course dinner isn’t going anywhere, but customers can now order a four-course dinner for $92 or three-course for $75.

They can also order individual items off the evening’s fixed menu, like dessert, or a glass of wine and a salad to be eaten on the terrace. Items on the a la carte menu start at $6 and go through the $20 range.

The Sunday brunch is still available for $68, but Kubin felt that was a price that would scare some customers away.

“I felt that was prohibitive. What if you just wanted to have an egg dish and read the paper?” Kubin asks.

Customers can now order just a $12 walnut blintz, for example, made with tart cherries, walnuts and served with bacon and a red wine compote.

The restaurant has long had a more affordable locals night on Tuesdays, a three-course meal for $52, and that will continue.

Despite the changes, Kubin and her mother say the soul of Erna’s – its quality food and service – isn’t going away. And the elder Kubin will still greet guests and spend each day on the property.

Another change: Erna’s has hired bartender Shane Marrone to work in its rock-lined cellar bar. His title is now mixologist and some locals will remember him as the friendly bartender who introduces himself with handshakes to newcomers at the upstairs bar at Crab Cakes restaurant in Oakhurst.

The cellar bar still offers wine and cocktails, appetizers and desserts, though more food options may be in the works.

“It’s going to breathe some life into it,” the younger Kubin says. “It already has because he has such a following.”

Growing up at Erna’s

The younger Kubin knows Erna’s well because she was in high school when her mother started it. Before that, Kubin-Clanin ran the Redwood Inn dining room in Yosemite.

When they lost the lease, Kubin-Clanin decided to open Erna’s in 1984 – deliberately deciding that this restaurant would be below the snowline. The hotel and spa would come later.

The younger Kubin was often away at boarding school and then college, but would work at the restaurant on holidays and summers.

While she would grow up to work in the restaurant industry, her sister didn’t, instead using the three languages she speaks to help international students at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Renée-Nicole Kubin was in her early 20s when Trotter, one of the best known chefs in the country, hired her to work at his namesake restaurant in Chicago.

At the time, not many restaurants or hotels had full-time sommeliers or other positions overseeing their wine and spirits, though they are more common now, Kubin says.

She also worked at several other locations, including San Francisco’s Gary Danko restaurant.

Charles Sitzes is a foodie who knows Kubin from when she worked at Charlie Trotter’s.

“We visited the various restaurants that she worked at, in part because we liked her, in part because she worked at interesting places,” he says.

He recalled Kubin once determining that a wine had gone bad just from the look on his face as he tasted it. She immediately rushed him a new bottle.

Her mother says customers at Erna’s who remembered Kubin from her high school and college days working at the restaurant would ask where she was working now and often go see her, eating at Gary Danko, for example.

While her daughter was building her career, Erna’s grew and grew. Kubin-Clanin also married Rene Clanin, a doctor who closed his practice to spend his days working with his wife.

At the time, Renée, as she was called back then, began going by Renée-Nicole to eliminate confusion because the two had the same name.

Kubin-Clanin was so involved in the business that she remembers her husband saying, “If I want to be with you, I have to work with you.”

So he did. Their daughter describes her mother as a dreamer who makes art and romance part of her job. He is the practical part of the relationship, bringing engineering, accounting, plumbing and other skills to the business.

“We built the chateau together,” Kubin-Clanin says. “I had all the dreams and he made it all happen.”

Kubin-Clanin was always hoping her daughter would come back to work at Erna’s but understood that she wanted to build a career elsewhere first.

“It’s very hard when they’re young. They need the excitement of the city. They need the experience. They need to fly out of the nest,” she says. “She now is at the age where country life is soothing.”

Her daughter is bringing a broader knowledge of rules, regulations and training to the business, Kubin-Clanin says.

Both mother and daughter agree that Erna’s won’t change that much. It will still be a classy, four-star restaurant, just a little better, “like Erna’s 2.0,” the younger one says.

Kubin hopes her new role there will give her mother a little more time to spend with family and to travel.

“I try and get her to go home to dinner with my dad,” she says. “That’s my goal.”

Bethany Clough: 559-441-6431, @BethanyClough