Maybe it was a one-off problem. Perhaps it was the time of day.

California pitmasters prefer tri-tip to brisket in part because the latter requires a serious commitment of time and tending. And tri-tip is relatively forgiving, too. It withstands small mistakes and still turns out rich and tender – except on a recent Saturday afternoon at Prunedale’s 101 Wine Press.

Even with metal utensils, slicing through even at the thinnest point proved a struggle. A pleasant haze of sweet smoke permeated the meat – the flavor was spot on – but it had been overcooked.

The lapse was more noticeable because the chicken, as well as an order of chicken and jalapeño sausage, were marvels of the barbecue craft. Despite the addition of chili, the sausage carried an herbal, grassy note sparked now and again by heat. A light, sweet touch of smoke gave it a welcome campfire aura.

“We try to go for a lighter smoky flavor,” explains Clancy Ryan, one of the pitmasters at the restaurant, which opened in February.

They rely on an open pit – Santa Maria style – and finish in a smoker, using several different woods, though leaning toward almond and fruit. So the half chicken receives just a sheen of smoke, enough to bring out some of the natural sweetness in the meat. The portion is ample and the meat so tender it becomes difficult to pick off a large piece.

Which is why the tri-tip seemed an unfortunate miscue.

Ryan points out that occasionally cuts stand for too long on the holding table when the staff get their timing wrong. This causes the beef to firm up.

“We have to pay attention more,” he says. “It will come with practice.”

That’s a refreshing (and promising) sense of humility that suggests the meat will only get better.

And they handle the wood very well. The genteel nature of fruitwood and almond mitigated the frustration of overdone beef. Smoke drifted throughout each slice, without overcoming the tri-tip’s rich yet rustic savor. And the dry rub developed into a swarthy bark with nips of earthy spice that also remained in the background.

The sides include a cool dish that deftly pits bacon against broccoli and slivers of almond and a chili-laced bowl of beans also bucked by red meat. Perhaps the only item without something from the smoker is the pasta salad.

It’s a celebration of meat and flame.

There is an effort here to be as local as possible. It’s evident in the wine list and the sausage, sourced from Roy’s Swiss Sausage Factory in Greenfield. And the setting is handsome – sleek metal and hewn wood.

“It’s a nice atmosphere – welcoming yet refined,” Ryan observes. Already the place is drawing regulars.

“We’re trying to figure out what people like,” he adds. “So far it’s been working.”

So it’s hard to knock them for a mistake or two. It does happen, and the rest is remarkable enough to draw you back again.

101 WINE PRESS 8049 San Miguel Canyon Road, Prunedale. 11:30am-9pm Tue-Sun; bar open to 10pm Thu-Sat. 272-3025.

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