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Well Rounded: Kirk Lowe serves pan-Asian fare in the dramatic Dragonfly dining room.

North Stars

Flung from the fog, our two epicures sample choice Marin restaurants

By Tracie Broom

San Francisco is a tough town to get one's toque in. If the real estate overhead doesn't cripple a restaurant, the menu still must survive the critics' haughty glare. And then there are the hundreds of competing restaurants. The city has more eateries per capita than any other in the country, so it only makes sense that many new chefs and restaurateurs start out of town. Bradley Ogden, Christopher Fernandez and Roland Passot are among the many who first practiced their skills in the less hectic (and, some would argue, more beautiful) countryside environment. And San Francisco is littered with the protégés of Alice Waters (Chez Panisse), Paul Bertoli (Oliveto) and Heidi Krahling (Insalata's).

But cutting one's culinary teeth isn't the only reason that so many chefs hail from the north. Produce is more plentiful and fresh in the countryside. Neighboring minor wineries and little-known farmers allow wine and produce selection to be more inventive and challenging. And as gorgeous as Pat Kuleto believes his restaurant design is, it can hardly compete with views of the bay and the San Francisco skyline.

The hustle and bustle of San Francisco disappears into the fog as the short trip across the Golden Gate to Marin County relaxes the potential diner like ordinarily only a martini can. And there's plenty of parking. As improbable as it may sound, the "suburbs" can make for a more "civilized" dining experience than the city. Whether cutting edge or classic, our neighbors to the North have plenty of culinary gems worth ravaging.

--Michael Stabile


Marine Ondine: Chef Seiji Wakabayashi's food is sensational, and so is the restaurant's bayside location.

Ondine
558 Bridgeway
Sausalito, 94965
415.331.1133

Cuisine: Delectable, hearty haute Asian fusion dishes. Double-plus good.
Service: They put the napkin in your lap for you; warmly formal.
Decor: Clubby, seaside modernity in deep mahogany, mauve and ochre.
Prices: Entrees are $20-$40.

Ondine, the bayside restaurant where Marilyn Monroe and Alfred Hitchcock used to hobnob over haute French cuisine, has recently traded 20 years of dusty shut-down torpor for lots of sleek, dark wood, deep mauve curtaining, and lusty, delicate Asian cuisine. The result is a warm, sophisticated SOMA supper-club feel. If the restaurant were actually in SOMA, it would be a haven of cozy cush, but seeing as it is poised on a Sausalito jetty with a 180-degree view of San Francisco Bay, it's more of a Northern California fantasy come true.

Chef Seiji "Waka" Wakabayashi is ready for his close-up. His lightly creamy coriander fettuccine pad thai with diver scallops is easily the Bay Area's greatest pasta dish, and the delicate kung pao seafood sausage with chiles, long beans and peanuts leaves you humming Britney Spears tunes like a saucy schoolgirl. Although the grilled John Dory with Manila clams and mushroom gnocchi in saffron-tomato vermouth doesn't quite hit the mark, the rack of venison in juniper-port reduction with kabocha squash puree and chanterelles is positively scrummy. It's just about as melt-in-your-mouth as venison can get outside of Restaurant Sent Sovi in Saratoga.

Something has to suck about this place, right? Well, no. Nothing is bad. The service is such that you never have to pour your own Pellegrino. The tables are large enough for even the broadest set of elbows. The wine list is long, heavily Californian and stocked with plenty of odd varietals. Waiters have an intuitive sense of wine pairings. Even the blended hot teas are subtle and delicious. If one thing is missing, it's the San Francisco youthfuls. The crowd mostly consists of attractive, healthy-looking elder Northern Californians sipping chablis and giggling to one another. This is not a bad thing; we just feel sorry for all of you San Francisco suckahs who haven't heard about Ondine yet. We've heard, by the way, that the Sunday brunch is one of the best in the area.

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Side Dishes: Looking for something different? Marin has what you want.

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Sushi Ran
107 Caledonia St.
Sausalito, 94965
415.332.3620
www.sushiran.com

Cuisine: Traditional and Californian sushi treats, huge sake list.
Service: Unreliable; sometimes great, sometimes surly.
Decor: Warm, blond wood minimalism, 10-12 tables.
Prices: Mid-range; $5 per nigiri, $10 per fancy roll.

Sushi Ran's reputation precedes it, which is indeed a mixed blessing. Sushi Ran has a loyal following of thousands, most of whom are enrolled in the restaurant's sushi lovers' club. Set off of Sausalito's main drag on a cute shopping side street, this modern, sleek and comfortable spot exemplifies Marin County life. High-quality goods and services, friendly people, a nice-looking clientele and smooth, low-profile architecture; sound familiar?

Entering the restaurant with high hopes is a bad idea. You might be paired with an incredibly chatty waiter wanting to guide you through a Zen dining experience, or you could be stuck with an unresponsive, hurried waiter who wants to get you out of there ASAP. Either way, you'll find yourself slurping delicious sake out of a square box (they have this ritual, with overpouring and hospitality and blah blah blah). And when the sushi comes, you'll be as happy as a little soybean in a pod. It's true: the rolls are inspired, and some of the small plates are truly de-luscious.

Although the braised spare ribs with edamame risotto was as good a combination of savory and farm-fresh as you can get, the hamachi-stuffed tempura shiitake was, when we had it, heavy, overcooked and unbalanced. Win some, lose some. The 49er roll is the picture of fresh, with a marinated salmon exterior that's laden with lemon slices. The dragon roll, however, is the princess pea that will keep you awake at night. Topped with slabs of unagi, avocado and unagi sauce, it's a taste sensation. Desserts are pretty good, actually; the Bananas Foster is right lovely. Verdict: Head sushi chef Haruo Komatsu is in top form, while new executive chef Scott Whitman (Smith Ranch, Bix, Tra Vigne, etc.) is still ironing out the kinks in his menu.

Our most recent visit to Sushi Ran left us feeling icy, with surly service and a sense that we should hurry up and order before closing, even though we had been assured via phone that our 9:30pm Valentine's Day reservation would be fine since the restaurant accepts reservations until 10:30pm. Little did we know that last call for food orders is 11pm. Everyone knows that a good romantic dinner lasts at least 2 1/2 hours, especially when you're meandering through the nigiri list. Whatever. Lesson learned. Next we'll hang out at the sushi bar and do shots with the chefs. Maybe that's how you're supposed to make yourself at home at Sushi Ran.


Enter the Dragonfly: Diners eat beneath murals of the restaurant's namesake.


Dragonfly
The Village at Corte Madera
1546 Redwood Highway
Corte Madera, 94925
415.927.8889

Cuisine: Traditional pan-Asian cuisine.
Service: Friendly, hip, informal.
Decor: Attractive Marin chic, cozy booths, live jazz.
Prices: Entrees $9-$20.

Chef Kirk Lowe doesn't care for stingy palates; he throws handfuls of natural garnishes into his highly authentic (yet Californianized) Asian cuisine. Diners chomp into husks of lemongrass and slabs of ginger; they race for water after trying to eat whole chiles. Lowe just laughs and sends out more spicy, delicious combinations like wok-fired clams with lop cheong sausage, sliced chiles and black bean sauce. Amid the Thursday-to-Saturday hum of live jazz and a packed house, you'll find this mallside gem of a restaurant stocked with Marin denizens sharing platefuls of spicy noodles, savory seafood and rich meats. A giant, tastefully muted multicolored mural of dragonflies oversees a roomful of comfy booths and large fourtops where GM Alan Cohen coordinates his staff of highly knowledgeable servers.

Since we're talking about Marin here, it's not so weird that George Chen's new restaurant (Shanghai 1930, Xanadu, LongLife, Betelnut) is located in a mall. There are malls everywhere up there; this one, the Village at Corte Madera, is pretty fine for an afternoon of shopping, and already has a good rep for food due to the successful California Cafe that sits roughly one block from Dragonfly. Of course, parking is a dream; there's just so much of it!

You must stop yourself at one smoky, deliciously char shiu-glazed spare rib to leave room for the Singapore chile crabcakes, both creamy and crabby enough on the inside to take a hardened East Coaster back to the crab cakes at Oliver's Lodge in Murrell's Inlet, S.C. A lighter take on hot and sour soup with prawns and lemongrass serves as a sheer, spicy palate cleanser for the main event.

Lowe's paprika-sprinkled pad thai comes complete with both fresh and dried shrimp (just like the real stuff), making a great counterpart to the kung pao prawns since both dishes rely on peanuts for depth. Better than anything on the table is the tea-smoked duck. Thick, juicy slabs of medium rare, smoky duck sit at the ready for dunking in a sweet, tangy pineapple tamarind glaze. Round it off with a meringue-middled Valrhona chocolate truffle cake (crystalline joy), some ridiculously inexpensive Sauternes, a little sorbet and a cup of Asian-pear-flavored sake (suh-WEET!).


Left Bank Cafe
507 Magnolia Ave. (at Ward)
Larkspur, 94939
415.927.3331

Cuisine: Casual, alfresco French.
Service: Friendly, if a bit unreliable.
Decor: Airy neighborhood chalet.
Price: Entrees $9-$20.

Although star chef Roland Passot doesn't actually man the kitchen at this Larkspur landmark of francophile R&R, his chef de cuisine and able minions continue to turn out a robust menu of delicious, hearty French dishes, from steamed mussels to steak frites. Throw in a heaping portion of Northern California goodness like salmon au poivre with celery root puree and lemon risotto with prawns, and you've got yourself a great afternoon of drinking and eating by the fire while watching the healthy folks of Larkspur jog by on Magnolia.

Although the Left Bank is great for dinner, with its large tables, warm fire and welcoming bar, the true treat is to be had during the mid-afternoon, when you can have the place to yourself. Serving lunch until 5pm, this is one of the best spots in Marin for a little afternoon cocktailing. Considering that the service can range from fantastic to crappy, it's probably not the place for an important affair, but when you want to cold-chill with some dripping-hot soupe l'oignon, a thick, juicy burger or a huge bowl of mussels, the Left Bank is perfect. We love the cocktails, especially the one with vodka, blond Lillet and Campari. If we hadn't gotten so lit on delicious red burgundy and coffee with creme de cacao, we might remember the name of it.


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From the March 6, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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