Sacred stones and satisfying steak

Henri ventures to Vina for some local history and good victuals

HE STABBED IT WITH HIS STEELY KNIFE Robert Kitchen, head chef at Lassen Steak House, prepares another Atkins-approved prime rib cut.

HE STABBED IT WITH HIS STEELY KNIFE Robert Kitchen, head chef at Lassen Steak House, prepares another Atkins-approved prime rib cut.

Photo By Tom Angel

The Vina experience: The Lassen Steak House, located about 20 miles north of Chico on Highway 99 at the Vina turnoff, is open for dinner Wed., Thur. and Sun. 5-9 p.m. and Fri. and Sat. 5-10 p.m. For reservations, phone 839-2838. Laurie Dana plays live music every Friday evening. The monastery at Vina is open to the public for retreats and for special occasions, including Christmas mass. For information, phone 839-2434, or write Abbey of New Clairvaux, The Guest Master, Box 80, Vina, CA 96092. For more info on the Charter House, visit

Dear L.,

Remember the Christmas we spent tucked away in that little snowy cabin in Vermont? How we listened over and over to that tape you’d made for me? “Saucy Sounds,” you called it. “Songs for Cooking, Eating and Loving.” Very clever. I remember sitting by the fire playing backgammon and listening to Edith Piaf singing “La Vie en Rose” as the smells of bouillabaisse wafted in from the kitchen, eating by candlelight to Dinah Shore’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and then afterward doing the dishes—you and me, side by side—as Louis and Ella sang “Cheek to Cheek.”

So imagine my surprise last Friday evening when I walked into the Lassen Steak House here in Northern California and was greeted by another of our old favorites, a divinely bluesy version of “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” I’d driven north from Chico to the little town of Vina, where Trappist monks are rebuilding, with the original stones, the Charter House of an 800-year-old Cistercian-Gothic abbey originally built near Madrid, Spain. Purchased and brought to the United States by William Randolph Hearst, the “sacred stones” were sold to the city of San Francisco during the Depression and sat deteriorating in Golden Gate Park until just a few years ago, when the monks had them trucked north to their monastery in Vina.

As I drove through the orchards looking for the highway back to Chico, I came across a rustic-looking little roadhouse with a parking lot full of huge, absolutely filthy pickup trucks. Salvation, I thought. Ranchers and farmers out to eat on a Friday night. I probably wouldn’t find coq au vin or daurade Provençale, but this was definitely a good sign of large portions and friendly service. Little did I realize I’d find that and a lovely chanteuse playing electric piano. Wonderful songs, too. “You Were Always on My Mind,” “Time After Time,” Stormy Monday” and several others—even little bits of Mozart.

Though no bistro, the Lassen Steak House is cozy enough inside—split-level and semi-partitioned, with dark-wood walls, a cocktail bar, a big stone fireplace and about 18 tables. Locals say it’s been here “forever,” although the current owners have had it only four years.

Appetizers ($5.50-$7.95) include shrimp cocktail, calamari rings, deep-fried mushrooms and popcorn shrimp. I ordered the calamari, which was excellent—very lightly breaded and not at all oily—and a bottle of Laurier chardonnay. Also très bien.

Entrées range from about $16 (fish and chips, pasta primavera) to $42 (lobster tail), with steaks running $22 for an eight-ounce petite sirloin to $30 for the 10-ounce filet mignon. You can also get pork chops served with homemade apple sauce ($17.95), breaded prawns or sautéed scampi ($21.95), mock abalone (pounded chicken breast served with capers—$16.95) and artichoke fettuccini (with tomatoes, basil, olives, feta cheese, garlic, and olive oil—$16.95).

All dinners include a small antipasto plate (broccoli, cauliflower, pepperoncinis), soup, a green salad and baked potato, rice or steak fries.

Friday night is not only live-music night, but it’s also prime-rib night, with three cuts ranging from $21.95-$27.95. I had the medium cut. To die for! About the best prime rib I’ve ever had, in fact. And huge—I could barely take more than a few bites. Thank God for Styrofoam boxes.

As I got up to leave, I cast a last look over at the lovely songstress, who was just finishing up “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Or not out, I thought, smiling to myself as I headed back to Chico. I miss you, L.

Au revoir,