Suburbs, nature, charming main streets… family-heavy Marin has always had a few culinary gems. But a spare few of them though sandwiched between one of the great food cities of the world and the gustatory pleasures of Napa and Sonoma.
Bakeries like Beth’s Community Kitchen in Mill Valley are reminiscent of San Francisco bakeries (what is now standard Bay Area), while San Rafael’s Ponsford’s Place is a bread and pastry lover’s destination. Just open since June 2013, M.H. Bread & Butter in San Anselmo is the latest and greatest in Marin bakeries, doing classics like quiche and almond croissants right, alongside cookies, traditional French cakes and breads.
New openings and new chefs continue to pop up, some – like those below – worth crossing the bridge for.
SUSHI RAN, 107 Caledonia St, Sausalito, 415-332-3620
Amid relative newcomers like Pizzeria Rossetti and Barrel House Tavern, the longtime great Sausalito restaurant, Sushi Ran, recently promoted executive sushi chef Taka Toshi to master chef alongside Executive Chef Scott Whitman. Mitsunori “Nori” Kusakabe, sushi chef since 2004, left in December to open a kaiseki restaurant, Kusakabe, in SF’s Financial District in the former Machka space.
While I am thrilled to see Kusakabe come to the city, I’m delighted to say, having recently returned to Sushi Ran – one of my all-time top sushi restaurants – that it’s still shining with Chefs Whitman and Toshi, under the same ownership of Yoshi Tome.
Ten piece sashimi platters ($32.50) or six piece sushi ($19.50) are sustainable “when possible” and pristine. Rolls/maki are not an afterthought, whether an elevated creamy scallop roll ($10.50) or the crisp of a spicy soft shell crawfish maki ($13.50), enhanced by cucumber, Japanese 7-spice, spicy crab and crawfish legs dramatically kicking out of the top.
Non-sushi items are just as much a highlight as raw fish. A cup of corn coconut soup ($4/8), lush with red crab, chive and truffle, goes down like silk. In fine winter form, Fuyu persimmons ($9) are a sweet contrast over crisp kale, marcona almonds, shaved radish, and creamy hunks of Point Reyes Toma cheese.
Grilled squid ($13) is a bit of revelation, served in a form I haven’t not seen before. A fat tentacle is cut in segments, standing tall like a tower, topped with a grilled sliver of lemon, surrounded by mounds of smoked citrus sabayon (an egg yolk sauce) dusted with pepper powder. This dish stands out, but surprisingly, so do vegetables (generally $7). A vegetable tasting ($12) is the best way to try three of them at once: spiced roasted cauliflower, kale tossed with dates and puffed rice, and kimchee brussels sprouts. Each is spanking fresh, alive with flavor. This is the way to eat your veggies.
Sushi Ran’s sake book is extensive and impressive with helpful tasting notes and categorizations. Try unusual beauties like the uniquely funky Amabuki Sunflower by Amabuki Shuzo made with sunflower yeast. Or there’s a dry, clean, almost spring mountain water-esque junmai sake, Man’s Mountain by Oto Koyama. To finish, I love the umami richness of Kiminoi “Emperor’s Well” yamahai junmai ginjo sake
F3, 39 Caledonia St. Sausalito, 415-887-9047
Even if the food at Le Garage Bistro never blew me away, the open air patio and water views always felt quintessential Sausalito. From the same owners as Le Garage and L’Appart Resto, Fast Food Francais, aka F3, may be the most realized of the three in terms of the food. It may be “just” a burger restaurant but with additional dishes showcasing French cooking technique, Vespa delivery to locals, friendly service, and solid wine list in a casual space that formerly housed Plate Shop, it’s fast become a town favorite that comforts without sacrificing quality.
The burger list ($9-14) is certainly a draw, particularly with the likes of the Flinstone, a juicy, bacon aioli and shallot confit-smothered burger, decadently partnered with bone marrow. It’s ideal smeared across the bun. Crispy, shredded duck confit makes up the Quack burger, perky with black pepper chèvre cheese and red onion marmalade.
The Herbivore actually keeps up with those two on its own terms: a flavor-rich patty of French lentils and jasmine rice, subtly spiced with ras el hanout (North African spice mix), marked by yogurt, apple compote and frisée.
All beef used is organic grass fed, lamb is natural in the lamb burger, and a mountain of Brussels sprout chips ($6) dipped in buttermilk are as gratifying as the better versions of fried Brussels leaves elsewhere over the years.
Cocktails are soft and catered towards a suburban crowd with toned-down or thankfully subtle fruit flavors. There’s a range of local and French wines to choose from and a few French-ified starters and small plates like a lush chicken liver mousse ($10) over rustic bread, happily given contrast from sweet golden raisins, pickled red onions and cornichons.
Celebrating it’s one year anniversary this Valentine’s Day, this could be the place to last in a space that has seen a lot of turnover.
LUNA BLU, 35 Main St., Tiburon, 415-789-5844
Open barely a month, Luna Blu is not so much about the food as about that stellar Tiburon view over boats and docks, across the Bay to San Francisco. Thankfully, the food isn’t cause for suffering as some unnamed Tiburon restaurants can be. It’s straightforward Italian with “red sauce” dishes like Eggplant Parmigiana ($16) given a “healthy” touch from a smattering of crisp, green peas, or ravioli ($18) filled with pear, decadent in Asiago cheese and walnut cream sauce.
Though I long for more authentic Sicilian dishes from Taormina-born chef Renzo Azzarello, the warm welcome exuded by Chef Azzarello and his wife, Crystal (from Oxford, England), makes an impression. The two of them came to and fell in love with Tiburon on their honeymoon. They’re back, putting down roots with their own restaurant set to stellar, only-in-the-Bay-Area views.