Erna's hideaway beckons diners to the wilderness



OAKHURST, Calif. -- Erna's Elderberry House feels like a secret hideaway for privileged gourmets. Far from civilization in a magical land of alpine wilderness, granite peaks and crashing waterfalls, it is a haven of utter tranquillity and exquisite cuisine. The setting is at once pastoral and palatial. The terraced oaks and pines and mature elderberry bushes, the shaded terrace and fountain are all reminiscent of a chateau in the south of France. Erna's has the added attraction of a stunning view of the Sierra mountains.

Built of native rock, whitewashed walls, red-tile roof and polished woods, the inn has four dining rooms, three of which are named after great French chefs (Paul Bocuse, Auguste Escoffier and Fernard Point). Each has its own unique decorative accents, including ornate brass chandeliers, Austrian carpets, French ceramic tiles and tapestry chairs. The fourth room, upstairs, is a library with a private balcony, where up to a dozen guests can enjoy their own intimate meal. Each place at the Elderberry House is set with damask linen, leaded crystal and crocheted doilies on the service plates. Every table is decorated with its own bouquet of fresh flowers and pewter candle holders.

About Thanksgiving time, Erna begins decking the inn's Christmas tree with all-edible ornaments, including gingerbread men, meringue rings and candies tied to the boughs with red ribbons. Each place at the tables is marked by a little figurine made entirely of dried fruit and nuts, their heads made of prunes, their faces fashioned out of sugar icing. The pewter service plates are ringed with pine wreaths.

Holiday dinners are sumptuous affairs that frequently commence with the dramatic flourish of flaming Krambambuli -- Austria's sweet champagne punch -- then move on to such elegant dishes filet of beef Wellington with mustard persimmon sauce, or roast goose with a lush stuffing of dried fruit and chestnuts bound in crumbly sizzled-crisp cornmeal. Rainbows of vegetables circle the perimeter of the plate: creamy-orange sweet potato puree with a ginger kick; green spinach, chard and leeks; crimson hot cabbage. The climax is a traditional Viennese sacher torte -- a cake as dark as midnight, fragile but profoundly chocolatey, with a mirror-smooth chocolate glaze and a red-and-green garnish of raspberries and kiwi fruit.

Awhile ago, when we were gathering some of our favorite chefs' favorite recipes from America's nicest places to enjoy a grand holiday meal, Erna provided us with her simple and unimprovable formula for sweet potato puree. On a Thanksgiving or Christmas table, it provides just the right festive accent to a turkey dinner.

Erna's puree of sweet potatoes

Serves 6.

1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, washed

6 tablespoons softened butter

1 tablespoon light rum

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

1/4 cup cream

salt and pepper to taste

Bake potatoes in skins at 400 degrees for 50 minutes or until tender. Peel and mash with butter and rum. Stir in ginger. Turn into saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring frequently to let most of the moisture evaporate from potatoes. Stir in cream. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Erna's Elderberry House, Victoria Lane and California 41, Oakhurst, Calif. 93644; (209) 683-6800.

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