Porcini looks to open Thursday after preparations that took longer than expected

A pot of mashed potatoes steamed on the stove, a tray of meatballs sat on the kitchen counter next to a vat of beef stock, but Charlie Fore was still hard at work.

Scores of wine glasses and water goblets gleamed behind the concrete bar. Prints of vintage paintings and original artwork mingled with postcards and ads depicting Crescent City's early days. Nearly two months after giving Del Norters a sneak peak, Fore and his partner Bobby Jernegan are almost ready to begin regular dinner service at Porcini restaurant in Crescent City Harbor.

"I'm still in the building block zone," said Fore, the restaurant's head chef. "I'm making the components that will make our dishes amazing."

Porcini, housed in the former Bistro Gardens building, is scheduled to open its doors at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. The restaurant will only serve dinner Thursday through Sunday during its first month, Jernegan said, introducing lunch service in May.

Named after a mushroom found throughout Del Norte's woods, Porcini's dishes will be inspired by classic Italian or French bistro fare, but will feature local meats, cheeses, wine, beer and seasonal produce, Jernegan said. Comfort food - fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and meatballs - will be served alongside high-end dishes like elk Wellington.

The cheese will likely come from Rumiano Cheese, the veggies from Ocean Air Farms, and the Wellington will feature a homemade mustard sauce made with beer from Mad River Brewery in Humboldt County.

"We constantly want to grow and experiment," Fore said. "We'll always have a new fresh dining experience."

A two-year journey

Transforming the building was a journey that started two years ago. It had sat empty for eight to nine months before Jernegan and Fore took over, said Harbor Commissioner Ron Phillips. Termites had eaten up the front of the building and the harbor district had to replace the deck, which wasn't properly installed.

Phillips estimated that the district spent about $65,000 to remodel the restaurant. The building had originally been a bait shop, he said.

"We've been wanting them to open up for a long time," Phillips said. "It'll draw a lot of customers down to the harbor and that's always good."

When the duo took possession of the building, Fore said they discovered that it had been 10 years since its original inspection. Because they were opening a new business, they had to bring it back up to code, he said.

Jernegan said the termite damage was so extensive that the building's south wall had to be torn down. The building also sustained mildew damage from sitting empty for so long, he said.

"There was significant wear and tear that neither of us had anticipated when we made the deal to sign the lease," Jernegan said in March. "We've been working since January or February 2012."

Getting acquainted

Jernegan, who moved to California from Chicago in 2009, was working with Fore at a San Francisco restaurant. At the time, Jernegan said, Fore had been looking into opening a bar in the city, but had found a space available in Del Norte County and asked if Jernegan wanted to be a partner.

Jernegan said Healdsburg was the farthest north in California he had gone until 2012. He and his wife still keep an apartment in San Francisco, but he spends 75 percent of his time in Del Norte.

"I've come to understand the area a lot better," he said.

Fore and Jernegan have participated in a number of community events, including a Meatless Monday cook-off for Wild River Food Days in October 2012. Porcini also provided catering for the ground-breaking of the harbor reconstruction project in July 2012.

Fore gave a speech to the Crescent City Rotary Club on sustainability and eating local. He has taught a cooking class at Sunset High School and is offering an internship at the restaurant through the Del Norte County Unified School District's Transition Partnership Program.

"We're trying to set up a cooking school and a job training program to teach (students) how to take on responsibility," Fore said. "We'll do training classes for fire safety, food safety, resume writing."

Late-night Del Norte

Two years after taking possession, Porcini opened for a test run on Valentines Day, serving five-course dinners. The building's kitchen had received its commercial certification the day before, and Fore and his employees were cranking out lamb and fish dinners for 50 people.

"We were incredibly excited to see so many," Fore said. "It was a true celebration of what we're trying to do here."

Once they've opened, Jernegan and Fore have big dreams for Porcini. They can see the restaurant becoming a venue for those who like to stay out late, by Del Norte standards, with the kitchen serving food until at least 9:30 p.m. and the bar staying open later.

Fore and Jernegan hope to see Porcini becoming a venue for live music on the porch and events at the harbor.

"We already have confirmation for a few bands that are interested," Jernegan said.

"It'll be a picnic on the porch--ini," Fore joked.

For more information on Porcini, the restaurant's website, www.porcini-cc.com, will be active starting next week.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.