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Marin County Brewpub Guide

Willow Street
812 Fourth St., San Rafael
Restaurant: 415/453-4200
Brewery: 415/457-9167

Hours: Daily, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; weekends until 11 p.m.
Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Parking: Limited parking in rear

Beer
WHEN WILLOW ST. PIZZA--an upscale Northern California chain originating in San Jose--took over the former site of the struggling Pacific Tap & Grill brewpub, the brewery part of the operation was thankfully retained. Now the food is as good as the beer, and the beer--still handmade by Pacific Brewing's craftsmanlike brewers--is something special indeed.

Across the board, these are rich, zesty creations, full of complicated toasty flavors that are just dry enough and bitter enough to separate them from the sweeter frou-frou concoctions put out by many boutique breweries. I tried a sampler, displaying their four featured flavors in 4-oz. shots ($1 each). On the light end is Riley's Wheat, a clear, refreshing brew that goes down easy and has a surprisingly hefty finish. The Brewberry Ale, far less desserty than many fruit-based beers, has a lively kick and a robust balance of flavors. The Pacific Gold, creamy and smooth, and the Boot Jack Amber, biting and spicy, are both excellent, and the Black Point Porter is dark and rich, full of tangy, malty flavor.

Seasonal: The fall offering is a Nut Brown Ale, a heady, meaty, creamy invention that instantly made me think of rustic Elizabethans on holiday from the fields. A holiday brew is on its way.

Brewmaster: Jeff Held.

Take-out/Keg Availability: Bottling should begin next year. In the meantime, you can take Pacific Brewing's delights home in half-gallon "growlers" for $10.95, with refills priced at $7.95; 5-gallon kegs are available as well for $40.

Food
FROM THE MOMENT the appetizers arrived, I knew we were in the hands of folks who were having fun in the kitchen. Each dish is a playful reinvention of some time-honored classic, with inspired, sometimes whimsical twists on the expected. The flat bread ($4.50), a puffy round of bread covered in melted Parmesan and brie, was marvelously tangy and laden with just the right amount of garlic and thyme. The Southwest rock shrimp cakes ($5.95) were another delight, lightly pan-fried wonders packed with fresh Gulf rock shrimp, red peppers, and sweet corn: spicy and delicious. The menu features numerous pasta dishes. I liked the rosemary chicken fusilli ($8.95), a light tasty dish of corkscrew noodles and tender chicken nuggets, mixed with olives, green onions, tomatoes, and garlic.

The main event was Willow Street's enormous rotisserie chicken pizza wrap ($9.50), a rich brown pocket overflowing with morsels of delicious chicken, roasted garlic cream, mozzarella cheese, peas, red peppers, onions, and fresh broccoli. Served with rosemary gravy, it was a mouth-watering homage to the four food groups. A long list of wood-fired pizzas presented a chooser's challenge. We ended up selecting an artichoke and pesto pizza ($9.50), a flavorful herb-seasoned medley of artichokes, tomatoes, red onions, and roasted garlic on a perfectly baked, just slightly crunchy crust.

Service
A BIT TENTATIVE, but generally eager to please. Since the brewery and the restaurant are operated by different folks, the restaurant crew is not always able to answer questions about the beer.

Ambiance
THE MAIN DINING AREA is a spacious and airy room, with decor that is a combination of gleaming high-tech--the polished tanks of the brewing operation, behind glass, run nearly the full length of the dining room--and B-movie Hollywood. Check out the collection of little-known 1950s movie posters and the nifty display of antique toy trucks on view above the bar. Sliding glass doors open up in front for warm evenings, and a large, tree-lined, light-filled patio in the back is a relaxing place to sip beer and eat well.

Din: Casual but upscale, the overall atmosphere is elegant and classy, with weekend nights becoming slightly rowdier as live bands entertain.

Restrooms: Nothing fancy, but impeccably clean.

Non-drinkers: There is no pressure here to sip suds; a generous list of the usual substitutes, and a decent selection of wines, give plenty of alternatives.

Fizz
THE FOOD (especially the flat bread and pizza wrap), all of the beers, the pleasant patio.

Flat
SERVERS still not fully knowledgable about the brewery operation.
--D.T.

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From the Oct. 16-22, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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