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August 23-29, 2006

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First Bite


By David Sason

Adjacent to such esteemed eateries as A&W and McDonald's on San Rafael's Merrydale Road sits Avance, a tapas bar and restaurant that serves a less-processed offering of petite entrées. The site has always housed interesting culinary excursions, like the Middle Eastern-themed Casbah a few years back, and Avance hasn't halted the tradition.

Arriving at about 6:30 on a Saturday evening, we took our table underneath a large, greenhouselike skylight, which was perfect for watching the sunset. With the cool climate, we felt almost like we were eating at the outdoor patio. Avance emits a warm, cozy vibe, with burgundy walls enclosing the perfectly sized restaurant, just large enough to feature two dining rooms with a bar in between.

From the moment we were greeted by the manager at the door, the service was pleasant but subdued, and an ideal fit with the comfort of small-plate cuisine. Everything in the place encouraged us to just relax and enjoy our food. And we did. After nibbling on delicate bread with an invigorating olive oil and vinegar dipping sauce, we ordered our communal tapas. The lightly breaded portobello mushroom ($8.50) was superb, crispy on the outside without sacrificing its juicy interior. A flamenco band started setting up behind us and soon added perfect background music to our dining (at an agreeable volume for the most part, but at times it was difficult to engage in tapas-bar banter).

Next was the gambas al ajillo ($10), a steaming plate of flambé prawns with a garlic-spiced tomato sofito sauce that hit its stride as a makeshift dip for the leftover bread. The tasty mussels ($10.50) had a flawlessly chewy texture and the added bonus of Spanish chorizo sausage bits stuffed inside.

These eclectic, mingling tastes were well complemented by our Santa Lucia, the just-as-refreshing Spanish counterpart to Pellegrino. Somehow, the bubbles of the mineral water, along with the vintage ad posters, successfully transported me to a far-off Latin land.

Even after a plate of succulent chimichurri ($19.50)--an Argentinean-style thinly cut flank steak with perfectly garlic-rich olive oil sauce and wonderfully warm soft potatoes--I didn't feel sluggish. I was content, but not about to burst. I sat back for a few minutes, sipped my glass of La Granja 2000 ($10), a heavy but fruity red from Zamora, Spain, with just enough bite to hold your attention, and enjoyed the tunes. Before too long I was swaying in my seat, eyes half-closed, comparing the female singer to Astrud Gilberto.

After the short performance detour, we finished with the chocolate mousse cake ($6.50), a decent dish to cap off the night's varied culinary festivities. Although the service at Avance (and at all tapas bars by definition) is prompt enough for the quick bite in which we saw many partake, this little eatery proved an inviting oasis for those wanting to take it slow.

Avance, 200 Merrydale Road, San Rafael. Lunch, Tuesday-Friday; dinner daily. 415.472.7101.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.