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[whitespace] Pine Cone Diner
Photograph by Michael Amsler

Pining Away

Pine Cone Diner offers upscale fare

By Paula Harris

YES, IT LOOKS just like an all-American down-home diner--the type of funky greasy spoon, complete with well-worn counter, red vinyl stools, and plastic booths, reminiscent of the movie Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

But though the motif is cozy-kitsch--little cafe curtains, linoleum on the floor, and a collection of mismatched plates (all featuring pine cones) on the wall painted Hollywood swimming pool blue--the food is gourmetdom.

The breakfast includes pan-fried trout fresh from Idaho with two eggs ($8.50) and honey-baked ham and cheese omelet ($8.25). Lunch features sandwiches, burgers, soups, and salads. But dinner boasts such ambitious dishes as cherry-wood-smoked pork loin with lavender gastrique--lavender-infused sherry, vinegar, and honey ($15.95), and steak au poivre ($22) with peppercorn brandy sauce.

We first visited the Pine Cone last summer and enjoyed a mug of freshly brewed aromatic coffee and a scrumptious slice of homemade apple-mango cobbler at the old counter, and we're eager to return for an evening meal.

By night, the place still resembles an unpretentious diner, but there are tea lights glimmering on each of the seven tables. It's only 6 p.m. but the place is already jammed. The diner doesn't accept reservations, so we are stuck at the little yellow half-moon table attached to the far wall. Not the best spot--it's cramped and my chair is constantly bumped by an open door directly behind it. A request to change to a booth, once it becomes free, is denied by our server. Indeed, a closer look at the menu reveals the rule: "Please, where you sit is where you eat."

Waiting diners are sent with a glass of wine to browse at the bookstore next door. However, service at the Pine Cone tends to err on the abrasive side for such a homey, big-hearted environment. Where's Alice when you need her?

Our set-faced server recommends crispy Panko prawns ($9.95) to start. Three lightly breaded butterflied prawns are jumbo, but strong-smelling amid a pile of daikon and carrot and a lake of creamy green wasabi sauce. This sinus-clearing sauce is way too strong and obliterates any other flavor, and the menu promises coconut, leeche (do they mean lichee?), and sweet red chili--none of which are detectable--on the plate.

Another starter, billed as "fresh mushroom lasagne," with smoked tomato coulis, layered portobello mushrooms, organic seasonal vegetables, and highly popular local Cowgirl Creamery cheese ($10.25) is both pleasant and disappointing. Yes, there are layers of grilled veggies interspersed with very mild cheese, but no pasta! We feel cheated since lasagne is an internationally known description for a dish of baked flat noodles. Why no explanation?

The vegetarian in the group fears he'll get more of the same in his "seasonal organic vegetable platter" ($12.95), so he hurriedly switches his entrée order to the penne pasta ($12.50). Good move. This is the most satisfying dish of the evening. The brown butter sauce clings to the ribbed penne pasta, which is perfectly al dente, and there are soft chunks of roasted butternut squash, coarsely chopped hazelnuts, caramelized red onion, and braised seasonal greens in the dish. The menu also promises dates, but we cannot detect them. The effect is sweet yet savory and texturally very pleasing.

The tried-and-true garlic chicken ($13.50) is another dish we find to be well executed but lacking. A couple of chicken pieces are roasted golden and cooked to juicy (but not at all pink) perfection. Yet we cannot taste any garlic flavor, and wish for it. Likewise the mashed potato (it has more like a whipped consistency) again has us wondering--where's the garlic? The dish is served with snapping fresh green string beans and a light pan gravy.

There's a very small wine list with some good-value selections. A bottle of 1998 Yalumba cabernet sauvignon from Australia ($27) is juicy and soft with a fruity rum raisin flavor that accompanies our entrées with ease.

The desserts are a monster hit. A down-home apple pie ($5.25) with juicy brownish apples and a soft crust is served with Clover brand vanilla ice cream and sprinkled with powdered cinnamon. A childhood dream. The flourless chocolate cake ($5.95) is even better, with the most mouth-friendly texture you can imagine. It's soft and moist, yet toothsome and chewy, and manages to be light yet sinfully fudgy. The cake is served to even more advantage with thick caramel sauce and whipped cream. Yum.

It's worth a trip to the tiny whistlestop town of Pt. Reyes Station to experience the whimsical Pine Cone, even for just a slice of pie. But be warned, the diner accepts no credit cards.


Pine Cone Diner
Address: 60 Fourth St., Pt. Reyes Station; 415/663-1536
Hours: Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays, 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Food: Gourmet diner fare
Service: Abrupt
Ambiance: Funky greasy spoon meets upscale bistro
Price: Moderate to expensive
Wine list: Small selection
Overall: 2 stars (out of 4)

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From the February 15-21, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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