MARIN TALES: Coffee, Beer, Italian Feasting

Equator Coffee's first cafe in Mill Valley

Equator Coffee’s first cafe in Mill Valley

Join me at three Marin stops in coffee, beer and food, including one newcomer as of this week, another that opened in 2010 – now coming into its own, and one classic that remains great for a decade.

EQUATOR COFFEE at PROOF LAB SURF SHOP, 244 Shoreline Hwy, Mill Valley, 415-209-3733

Strada espresso machine

La Marzocco Strada espresso machine

Equator has long been a favorite Bay Area coffee, with 18 years roasting some of NorCal’s finest beans. I awaited their long-rumored cafe that never opened in San Francisco. Their first cafe arrives, opening June 21st in Mill Valley at Proof Lab Surf Shop. I attended a preview with female owners,        Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell (Brooke is also the master roaster), who founded Equator in 1995, roasting in a garage for years, then opening their roasting facility in 2003 in San Rafael.

Long having respect for their ethically-sourced, robust coffee, I gained even more after meeting Helen and Brooke. In a male dominated field, it’s inspiring to see humble-yet-savvy business women with such taste for quality, concern for their world, and a pioneering spirit.

Equator is among the first and the only California-based Certified B Corporations, heavy on environmental sustainability and social responsibility, from bio-friendly farming techniques to health and 401k insurance for all their employees. Growing their own plot (200 seeds) of ultra rare (and expensive) Geisha coffee, sometimes referred to as “God in a cup”, they utilize profits towards meaningful contributions like micro-credit loans, and are a coffee of choice for none other than Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.

Gardens with 100% native California plants

Gardens with 100% native California plants

The light-filled, airy cafe is lined with surfboards. Front and back patios are surrounded by greenery from SF’s Flora Grubb Gardens, in a space designed by Boor Bridges Architecture. Making a statement in Equator’s signature red, the building stands out on a busy Mill Valley road across the street from chains like Starbucks and Subway. Proof Lab is a unique community center of classes and activities for youth alongside shops in an alternative retail model. There’s a surf shop, indoor skate ramp, a garden of 100% native California plants, biodiesel fill-up station, music and art labs, a natural backdrop to the Equator cafe.

Artful salad at Mill Valley Beerworks

Artful salad at Mill Valley Beerworks

Equator is serving high end single-origin coffees and espresso drinks made on a La Marzocco Strada espresso machine. Mochas are made with SF’s TCHO chocolate (notable for its “no slavery” mission and scientific approach to flavor profiles in chocolate). Baked goods are delivered fresh daily from nearby Beth’s Community Kitchen (my favorite bakery in the area), and gluten-free, vegan baked goods from Flour Craft Bakery in San Anselmo.

Here’s hoping this might signify more Equator cafes in the future, including one in SF.

Mill Valley Beerworks brewing in-house

Mill Valley Beerworks brewing in-house

MILL VALLEY BEERWORKS173 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley, 415-888-8218


Boysenberry, pistachio, brown sugar scone

Opened in 2010, Mill Valley Beerworks was one of the only places in Marin one could find a draft beer list reminiscent of the range and quality one can find in the city. As it’s now three years old, the restaurant and small brewery has evolved into the place for beer in Marin. Even if there are better local beers, the beer selection on draft alone is worth a detour for beer geeks, ever rotating with beers from Italy and Belgium to Canada and around the US. The bottle selection takes it even further, while house beers are interesting and varied. Local beers are plentiful, too – one might see something like San Francisco’s Almanac Farmers Reserve No. 3, a sour ale brewed with strawberries and nectarines, on draft.

Open faced salmon sandwich

Open faced salmon sandwich

In a narrow, cozy space of dark woods, pressed tin and communal tables (nevermind the somewhat uncomfortable wood stools), food is also of high caliber. Baked goods arrive on a wood slab (or are available for takeout with coffee up front). A warm boysenberry, pistachio, brown sugar scone ($4) is sheer comfort lathered with apricot jam happily contrasted by salted butter. At lunch/brunch (Friday-Sunday only), an open faced cured salmon sandwich ($13) topped with avocado and pickled red onion drizzled in house Thousand Island dressing, boasts pristine, silky salmon. Feel better about downing beer with artful salads like one of lemon cucumbers and roasted beets accented by pickled carrots, creme fraiche and cilantro sprigs ($13).

Beerworks has come into its own, feeling like an oasis for adults in the midst of family-friendly Mill Valley.


Veal bolognese spinach lasagne at Poggio

POGGIO, Casa Madrona, 777 Bridgeway, Sausalito, 415-332-7771

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Sformatino (savory leek custard)

Opened in 2003, Poggio has been an oasis in touristy-yet-dreamy Sausalito. The coastal town that feels like a (rich) Mediterranean village has more mediocre (or worse) restaurants than it does great ones. But Poggio has remained great in its decade of existence, accomplishing that rarity: retaining chefs for years, in the case of Peter McNee who served authentic Northern Italian dishes here for 7 years.


Dayboat scallops

Poggio has always felt like an escape to Italy in Sausalito. I have memories of sun-splashed weekends lunching open air on fresh sardines and crisp Alto Adige white wines, contrasted by fog laden evenings wrapped in the warmth of Tony’s Negroni (Tony being the restaurant’s longtime barkeep; a Negroni being Italy’s greatest cocktail, and long a ubiquitous San Francisco favorite) and that sigh-worthy house bread baked in rosemary.

House cured prosciutto

House cured prosciutto

Visiting after new Executive Chef Benjamin Balestri came on board earlier this year confirmed quality remains, thankfully still under the guidance of Proprietor Larry Mindel. Young chef Balestri is a Monterey, CA, native who has cooked in Italy and New York City, and was schooled at the CCA (California Culinary Academy), where I used to work.

One warm Spring night, sformatino, a traditional, savory Italian custard – and a starter I feel compelled to order every time I see it on a menu – was a fluffy mound of leek custard paired with English pea puree, mint and ricotta salata ($10). Capesante dayboat scallops ($14) are salty, smooth and golden lined up over sunchoke puree and miners lettuce, punctuated by pancetta and almonds. Though a tad too heavy on the creamy lemon anchovy dressing, gem lettuces ($10) are lush in dressing, garlic and Parmigiano.

Whole roasted fish, fileted tableside

Whole roasted fish, filleted tableside

As it has been historically, strengths at Poggio remain house cured prosciutto – in March I savored meat cured for 24 months (during McNee’s run), delicately shaved and on a platter with pear, almond, arugula and Parmigiano ($14) – and sometimes blissful pastas, like spinach lasagna ($18), lush with bechamel sauce, Parmesan cheese, and veal bolognese, oozing comfort. Feeling transported back to coastal Italy happens when sharing a whole fish, like a roasted sogliola (petrale sole – $29) filleted tableside and served with a side of lemon-soaked artichoke, sunchoke and almond.

Here’s to another 10 years, Poggio.