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August 30-September 5, 2006

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First Bite


By Carey Sweet

Here's how to place an order at L'Assiette, chef Amey Shaw's new organic takeout restaurant in downtown Windsor: (1) show up hungry and bring along at least three guests as famished as you are; (2) crowd around the refrigerated food case right inside the front door, and start pointing at anything and everything that looks good; and (3) talk over each other, jostling if need be to ensure the clerk hears your request, as she furiously scribbles on her little note pad.

And here's how to eat your L'Assiette loot: Lug it all home. Spread out your sea of little white cardboard boxes on a big table, hand out the forks and have at it. It's like a culinary Christmas, unwrapping each other's surprise choices.

Because free-for-all dining is the best way to take advantage of Shaw's precious French-California-Mediterranean dishes, sold in pieces and by the pound. Yes, it's possible to plan a sensible meal (appetizer, entrée and dessert), but it's much more fun to graze on lots of little bits of this, many small bites of that.

Foodies familiar with Shaw will remember her from her previous Alta Plaza Café in San Francisco. In her new small-town home, things are more casual, with just a few bistro tables for patrons not prepared for the to-go concept. Recipes, though, are still meticulously crafted from the best local seasonal ingredients; ask, and Shaw will proudly treat you to a tour of her daily treasure baskets brimming with gems like heirloom eggplant, golden raisins and summer berries.

Our foursome swarmed in one afternoon about half an hour before L'Assiette's closing time. Some 15 minutes later, we staggered out with a sampler's feast. At home, camped around the kitchen table, we nibbled on ethereal salads of Casablanca lentils with house-made preserved lemon, garbanzos, flat leaf parsley and coriander ($11 pound); chunky baked eggplant and Gypsy pepper ratatouille ($11 pound); and brightly tart couscous with red onion, kalamata, feta, sundried tomatoes and cucumber ($12 pound).

We snapped up tastes of Rocky chicken breast stuffed with tangy lemon spinach and zingy tomato sauce ($13.50 pound), fat chunks of Atkins Ranch lamb with garlicky pesto and saffron-doused shrimp skewers with Catalan romesco sauce ($17 pound). A highlight was Shaw's signature keen cakes ($3 each), plump, crisp-edged patties of toasted quinoa, minced mushrooms, white wine, mozzarella, Cheddar and marjoram. The panino ($7) was tiny but tasty, griddling nicely salty French Comté cheese with roasted poblanos and lots of almond-sage relish (love the tiny pickles alongside).

Finally, we finished with wonderfully nutty almond torte goosed with puckery rhubarb purée ($4), smoky chocolate pot de crème ($3) and a pile of fresh-from-the-oven pecan sandies ($1.35).

The only ant in our picnic was a thoroughly dull broiled chorizo-sage stuffed tomato ($3). It was a lone leftover, destined to be thrown out if we did not take it home, and insisted upon us by Shaw. Not that we blame her. A smart businesswoman, she recognizes out-of-control, order-happy customers when she sees us. In hindsight, we're lucky that we got out of there without ordering the kitchen sink.

L'Assiette, 426 Emily Rose Circle, Windsor. Open for lunch and dinner, Monday-Friday, 11am to 6:30pm; Saturday, noon to 5pm; and Sunday, noon to 4pm. 707.836.9055.

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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.