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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Cal Fed: Owner and chef Heidi Insalata Krahling presides over her long-standing Cal-Med restaurant.

Marin Med

Cal-Mediterranean flights of fancy at Insalata's

By Sara Bir

On a Saturday night visit to Insalata's, the place was packed. Chef and owner Heidi Insalata Krahling's Mediterranean-via-San Anselmo mecca--featuring Mediterranean rim influences, distilled onto a palate uniquely Californian in its approach--has been drawing in crowds for seven years. We were there to find out why.

Arriving early, we were obliged to wait outside for a bit, which wasn't a problem. It was a splendid evening, and the front of the restaurant affords a wonderful view of Mt. Tam. Insalata's is on a very nice stretch of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, and though lovely flowers grow all around the restaurant's broad facade, from the outside the building communicates all of the boxy charm of a gigantic cement block.

We had an 8:15pm reservation, and the hostess emerged a few times with a worried look on her face to let us know that earlier diners were in a lingering mood but that our table would be ready as soon as possible. Our stomachs were rumbling, but we enjoyed watching parties exit and emerge, all of them much better dressed than we were. Despite our scruffier exteriors, our hostess went out of her way to keep us abreast of the seating situation, which was comforting.

So when we finally set foot inside the restaurant, the evening's service was in full swing; the clatter of dishes and the clinking of flatware and glassware rebounded off the walls. Insalata's is as boxy on the inside as it appears from the outside. The ceilings are high and the dining floor--formed by warm parchment-mustard painted walls--is huge, with patio dining off to one side. In the back of the restaurant stands a bank of refrigerated glass-front cases for Insalata's take-out operation, but it being later on a Saturday, this area was practically vacant.

None of the rest of the room was, though. Insalata's can be a hectic place. The tables are close together, and the bar is in the exact center of the dining room, so you can see the waitstaff dashing about with drinks and darting in between tables.

But we were pleased to be seated at last, and soon the cocktail menu had tempted us. I had a nice glass of Soave (1999 Capitel Foscarino, $8.75 glass), whose easygoing, crisp clarity segued perfectly into our Mediterranean platter.

The starters are sort of divided in two. There's a usual section--salads, a soup, roasted clams--and then there's "Tapas, Mezze, and Piccoli," with six grazeworthy dips and nibbles to order in small plate form. The Mediterranean platter ($11.95) changes daily but offers a good sampling of mezzes, so we went with that. It came with an assortment of tongue-twister dips--hummus, eggplant muhammara (eggplant, red peppers, walnuts, and pine nuts), and taramasalata (fish roe, olive oil, potatoes, and bread crumbs). The latter may not sound very appealing on paper, but the taramasalata was captivatingly silky in texture and alluringly fishy from the roe. The eggplant muhammara was also splendid, but I wish there'd been more than just one tiny dish.

Besides soft, warm pitas for dipping, there was a small mound of an unexceptional orzo salad and two long, thin, deep-fried savory pastries called arnipita. Cigar-shaped and stuffed with lamb, mint, and feta, these were almost like Mediterranean egg rolls. My one big caveat with the platter was that, for $11.95, there was not much of it.

Our resident meat eater got a very manly braised lamb shank ($19.95) with a roasted pepperonata (red peppers and tomatoes) and fregola (a Sardinian pasta similar to Israeli couscous, but toothier). The meat fell off the bone and soaked up some saucy, red-wine-laced juices.

Mr. Bir du Jour got the grilled ahi tuna ($21.95), a summery presentation with wax beans, haricot verts, fingerling potatoes, and a sweet-sour relish of onion, roasted red pepper, and preserved lemons. He ordered the ahi medium-rare, and it was all I could do to bite my tongue and let him get the tuna as he liked--destroyed!

The bites I had were on the dry and bland side, owing partially to his preference for overcooked tuna and partially to the too-small amount of relish. The ras al hanout (a Moroccan spice blend) listed on the menu would have benefited from a more generous hand to spike the whole dish, but its cumin-laced presence was delicate and subtle.

My honey-balsamic glazed duck breast ($19.95) kept me happy for a good hour. With two quinoa corn cakes and sautéed spinach, it was a well-rounded plate. Huge enough to be garden burgers, the quinoa cakes had a grainy crunch that benefited from the sweetness of the corn. Best of all was the almost neon-bright apricot-ginger chutney, a shiny-sticky mess whose sugar content highlighted but did not overshadow the juicy duck breast.

The wine list at Insalata's was too fun not to play around with. Sure, there are California Merlots and Zinfandels and Chardonnays--but there are also Italian Nebbiolos and Sangioveses and the wonderful Chateau Musar Cabernet Sauvigon from Lebanon.

The 1999 Quinta do Crasto, a Portuguese Temprillano ($6.50 glass) was acidic enough to cut through the duck breast, with just a smidgen of earthiness and spice to give it body. The carnivore got the McDowell Syrah ($5.75 glass) at the waitress' suggestion (the waitstaff at Insalata's seem to be very trustworthy in this area).

The very typical dessert menu didn't carry on the Cal-Mediterranean theme too much, but we enjoyed our caramel semifreddo ($6.50), with its little amaretti crumbs and caramel sauce outdoing the semifreddo itself.

There's no doubt that Insalata's is a fun restaurant, with its inspired yet subtle Mediterranean twists on the same tired California cuisine. But there seems to be some kind of spark missing in the setting; it's comfortable yet refined, but lacks spunk. Luckily, as a result, the food stands out even more--which, after all, is the way it's supposed to be.


Insalata's. 120 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., San Anselmo. Open daily for lunch and dinner; takeout available Monday-Saturday. 415.457.7700. www.insalatas.com.

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From the August 14-20, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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