The Maven

Can life get any better than a sunny day at a tiny restaurant in an obscure  Northern Italian town? Perhaps. I could be cooking. Or browsing the local markets. Or talking history, culture and the price of tea in China with the locals.

Join me as I explore what the world has to offer where food meets culture.


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    « Spirited websites for the tipsy amongst us | Main | Brat Hans Chicken Patties: Smoke, Mirrors and Deception »

    Foodie Weekend: Now I need a palate reset.

    I’ve been nibbling on plain green salads, scrambled egg whites, and lots of soda water with lemon, the last few days. After the last week of ‘damn the torpedos, and don’t look at the prices’ fine dining experiences, both my tummy and taste buds need a bit of TLC. But, oh, it was grand.

    Last week, we started off toward Truckee, California, with reservations at Chef Jacob Burton’s well-regarded Stella. In the tradition of ‘best laid plans of mice and gluttons’, our plans were upset by a mudslide on I-80 that closed the westbound lanes of traffic. Sadly, I called Stella to offer our regrets. According to them, were the second group that evening to be waylaid by a sudden Sierra downpour.

    We played ‘blank look contest’ for a couple moments before friend, Frank’s, face lit up. Fourth St. Bistro. A quick call, and yes, they had a table for four. Whew. Tragedy narrowly averted.

    Thursday nights are Burger Nights, featuring the delectable Niman Ranch beef. And my better half, Ron, didn’t disappoint. After nearly 35 years together, yes, he ordered the burger. The element of surprise - at least in the food aisle of our marriage - is over. I went for the Niman Ranch lambchops, while Doris got the scallops, and Frankie Boy ordered the pork loin. We decided that a cheese plate and some pork belly would make a toothsome starter. And, it certainly was. 

    Some may say that bacon is the highest calling of pig meat. I disagree. It’s gotta be braised pork belly. And, I have to say that the Deconstructed Pork and Beans at Adele’s appetizer is one of those truly succulent, swoon inducing pig meat dishes that I can tuck into, with a side salad, and perfectly satiated. I’ve also had it at Moody’s Bistro, in Truckee, as part of their winter menu, and it was very toothsome, to say the least. The pork belly at Fourth St. Bistro runs a close second. The beautifully browned, lightly smoky portion was, perhaps, too much for one diner (even me) as their main protein, but for those in our party (who’d never tried it) to have a couple of nice juicy bites, it worked well.

    I thought that ordering the cheese plate as a starter was weird, but blame France for that. It should come later in the meal - ideally, just before dessert, or even as the dessert. But our party thought differently. However, it was nicely done, offering a well chosen - if limited - selection. Again, I have to remind myself that cheese plates are, perhaps, a new-ish concept in most American restaurants. Time and experience will help chefs find their way in this regard.

    Okay, people who dine with me: You have to give me a chance to get photographs. That’s the rule.

    Fortunately, my hubby ‘gets it’.

    I was able to pull my self away from my own meal long enough to take a couple nibbles. That’s what good American beef is supposed to taste like. Sweet. Juicy. Long on complex meaty flavor. I suppose the potatoes were good, since Ron inhaled them.

    Doris let me have a taste of her diver scallops and they were really lovely - impeccably fresh, plump and cooked perfectly, nestled in a bed of risotto.

    Fourth St. Bistro delivers a tasty product on a consistent basis, and that’s a nice thing for Reno, Nevada. Fourth St. Bistro was in the vanguard in offering locally sourced menu items. Is it still standout? Well … probably not anymore. I have a feeling that a bit of fresh thinking might be in order. And, some better attention to visuals - like plating of food. My lamb chops were really yummy, but notice that you don’t see a photograph here. I have one, but I’m not sharing.

    One part of the visual element might be the lighting in the dining room - it’s mostly supplied by the front window, which affords a view - but overall it seems dim and unfocused, and affords a shadowy view of one’s meal. I think this could be an opportunity for them. However, for a nice dinner with friends, or a date night, you’re going to get your money’s worth and have a very pleasant experience at Fourth St. Bistro.

    The next evening found us in Mill Valley, California, having dinner with our daughter and son-in-law, and our nephew-the-big-time-chef who was in the area on business. Really. He was. It was a serious buying trip with the photos to prove it - in the lettuce fields of California. There are a lot of places to go, but last minute ideas tend to mean you’ll be aced out of some of the choice spots - in this case, the fall-back was a winner. Piazza D’Angelo is one of our favorite Italian restaurants in the area, and one that I’ve written about before.

    The photo above is my Branzino with seasonal vegetables and yes, those are edible flowers. Branzino, also known as Barramundi, is one of those fish that I would love to love. If I could find a place that could prepare it. Problem solved - Piazza D’Angelo did a smackdown job. This was not just beautiful to look at, but absolutely delicious. The vegetables were the best possible supporting players - each hitting the right notes as strong ensemble players. The fish, roasted, was perfect - all tender inside a crispy skin.

    The service at Piazza D’Angelo is always top-notch. Our server on this evening was an attractive young woman with a charming Italian accent, who seemed to capture our mood right away. She recommended the special pizza as a starter, and it was scrumptious. I don’t remember there being any left on the platter.

    Yes, there were edible flowers on the pizza, too. Normally, I see this in restaurants and consider it either an annoying conceit, or a gimmick designed to divert my attention from sub-par food. Not in this case. The Chive blossoms really added to the whole - which included some savory anchovies. The crust didn’t have too much char, but just enough. It was thin crust in the best tradition.

    We inhaled this Caprese style salad with house made Burrata cheese - which seems to be the rage in so many Italian places these days. The only reason this didn’t get a 5 star rating? The less than ripe sliced tomatoes. But, on the whole we snagged every last bite, bathed in a basil infused olive oil and a drizzle of chili oil. In fact, there was a bite left when the waitress tried to retrieve the nearly empty plate, but Robert was quicker than she was.

    As always, we ended the meal, as is only correct, with a creamy espresso. Piazza D’Angelo uses the very best espresso beans from Graffeo in the city.

    Just when you think that you’ll never want to eat again (Ha!), the next day dawns in Marin County. The fog layer kept trying to spill over Mt. Tam, and we left the house about lunch time, each thinking that “yes, should probably be taking a jacket”. That’s the way it is in the Bay Area. Are you too hot in the summertime, then go to the Bay Area to get cooled off. Too cold in the wintertime? Go to the Bay Area to warm up.

    I asked my son-in-law, Michael, where we were headed, and he gave me that Cheshire Cat grin. 


    Oh! Oh! Oh! I’ve been wanting to go there!” sez I.

    Yeah. He knew. We’ve been talking about going to Farmshop, at Larkspur Landing, across from the Ferry Terminal, for the longest time, and actually, the plan for Friday night was for dinner there. Reservations are needed …. two weeks in advance. Yikes! But today was a perfect opportunity for dining outdoors on the sunny patio.

    Like so many of the ‘serious’ restaurants these days, the menu at Farmstore has the following reminder:

    Cellphones, tweeting and emailing have proved harmful to other diners appetites. Please refrain.

    I love that. It’s not a bad thing to occasionally, and gently, remind people that we are there for a) the food, and b) to enjoy each other’s company. I have a dear friend who thinks nothing of actually calling somebody across the country at the table and then having a conversation - just to ask a simple question that could have been looked up later. If it were anybody else, I’d get up and leave her to her conversation.

    That said, I sometimes feel a little exposed taking photographs of food. I try to be quick about it and stay out of everybody’s way. But such is the responsibility of a food blogger. I mean, would this post be half as good without the pictures?

    It’s even more difficult to restrain oneself at Farmstore. Every damn thing on that menu looked good. No, not good … great. And once we got our food, we soon found that everybody’s else’s food was outstanding, too. I can see this is going to require many future trips to Farmstore.

    While we were waiting for our meals, Michael kept nudging me to go inside and take photographs of the swell exhibition kitchen to send to the young professional chef of the family. And it was advice well taken. It’s a very well-oil choreography that goes on in this stunning kitchen. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.


    The premise is truly ‘farm to fork’. This isn’t a gimmick. We’re talkin’ the real deal. The origin of each item is known and communicated through the menu and the servers, so that I really felt like I was back in France - where the provenance of wine and food is so highly valued. Here, the French concept of ‘terroir’ - as a sense of place and the unique characteristics of place - comes through clearly, speaking in terms of soil types, weather or climate and topography. The interaction of terroir and climate is broken down into macroclimates, mesoclimates, and microclimates. Up until recently, terroir has been generally used when talking about French wines. Increasingly, however, the term has been expanded - as in France with the AOC (Appellation de Controlle system) - to food products such as cheese, olive and other oils, tea and coffee, and more.

    I welcome this when it’s used authentically - as it is here at Farmshop. The farmlands of California, and particularly of the Bay Area, truly are a hodge-podge of very distinctly different micro-climates. And, for foodies who can slow down long enough to enjoy the tasty ride, the perceived differences, as they are expressed on the plate and on the palate, can also be quite distinct.

    A perfect example? The Harissa and Honey Carrots, with Medjool Dates.

    This isn’t a terribly difficult dish to replicate at home, with heirloom carrots out of Whole Foods. Your home version, or mine actually, will be very good. But it won’t taste the same. I could have made an entire meal off of just these alone.

    There are many other great dishes that we tried and loved (and photographed), but these carrots rather sum up the Farmstore experience. If you really want to figure out what this whole locally-sourced, farm to fork thing is all about, and taste it at its ultimate expression, make a special effort to get to the Farmshop.

    You won’t be disappointed.

    BTW - If you are able to visit Farmshop, take a cooler and ice. You’ll want to buy some amazing meat over at Belcampo Meat at the Marin Country Market. And, give yourself time to wander around. It’s worth an afternoon.


    Farmshop Marin on Urbanspoon

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