Coincidence? Serendipity? Call it what you will, while we were planning our road trip to southern Oregon to meet Kid 1 and family, the April Smithsonian magazine arrived with its lead story: “The Basque Revolution.”
The author, Jonathan Gold, wrote: “If you want American Basque food in its purest form, follow I-80 through northern Nevada.”
Interstate 80 was our preferred route to meet the family in Ashland, Oregon, and Winnemucca, Nevada was a perfect overnight stop. Gold recommended “the splendid Martin Hotel” in Winnemucca, so the die was cast.
We got to Winnemucca in the late afternoon, having enjoyed a beautiful drive across the emptiness of northern Nevada “basin and range” country (how many places do you see a sign on the Interstate warning you: “Next Service 58 Miles”). It was early enough that we decided to check out the Martin Hotel by daylight. Susan went in, talked for several minutes while I stayed outside to enjoy the late afternoon light. She came back excited about our prospects for the evening, and with a recommendation for a locally owned hotel, Scott’s Shady Grove, for our stay. Our hotel proved clean and simple, and attractively priced. The Martin Hotel is hotel in name only these days, though it served as lodging for itinerant Basque sheepherders in earlier times.
From the Smithsonian article I was aware that this was going to be a different experience from the one we had at Arzak, outside of San Sebastien, Spain several years ago, or ElBulli, now closed, that TIO correspondent Lisa Barlow wrote about in Telluride Inside… and Out last year. American Basque dining is still about taste, but it is also about quantity. Wisely, Susan and I shared a dinner and still we left the table barely able to move.
I should describe the decor. You don’t go to The Martin Hotel for the decor, and don’t expect romantic lighting over spotless white linen. The Martin Hotel features family style dining so you can see the friend or stranger sitting next to you and have a conversation. Instead of white linen, the table is covered with red vinyl, linoleum on the floor; no matter: the food and the warmth of conversation are why you’re here.
Before you order, a carafe of pleasantly nondescript wine appears, followed by a large bowl of minestrone, spicy and delicious. Susan and I chose the lamb shank for our main course, but that is only part of the deal: soon came a good (and large) green salad with a vinaigrette dressing, along with a dish of beans to go on top, a tradition. The lamb shank was served in a wonderful garlic sauce, accompanied by not one, but three side dishes. The carrots were glazed with tarragon and cinnamon, the redskin potatoes were mashed, skin-on, with lots of garlic, and hominy with chorizo filled out the list. I don’t ordinarily think of hominy when I think of fine dining, but with the spice of the chorizo, oh yeah! And with Susan only doing a polite tasting of the garlic mashed potatoes, it fell to me to finish off the dish. As I said, it was a good thing we only ordered one dinner.
Between bites, I talked to Buddy, ex-Navy Seal, retired truck driver, banged up a bit from a motorcycle accident, a regular. Talking with your fellow diners is apparently also part of the deal. I guess dining “family style” automatically makes one part of the family.
To sum up, the food and the company were great. Northern Nevada is a unique area I would love to explore, and dining at The Martin Hotel, and others on the Basque Route in Ely and Elko is definitely on my list.