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Tuesday, March 23, 2004

The Olema Inn, where Mâche rhymes with Squash!

On the way back from our hike in Point Reyes Sunday, Thomas, Dave, Allison and I stopped at the Olema Inn for dinner.

It was, in fact, Thomas, the least foodie among the four of us, who recommended the place. He had been there before, with a suspiciously unidentified friend, and loved the place. The rest of us were a bit skeptical, so we decided to take a look at the menu before we went in. The menu, posted outside the front door of the hotel, proclaimed a philosophy that started with Chez Panisse, and was now, arguably, common among the better restaurants in many cities around the world. They were committed to using local sources and support sustainable farming practices. Each item on the menu had a pedigree, Willy Farm spinach, Epic mâche, etc.

We were first a tad reluctant to go into the somewhat fancy dining room in our funky (and I'm sure funky-smelling) hiking clothes, but then we reminded ourselves that we were in West Marin, where Casual Is The Way of Life. So, we pardoned our under-dressed selves and went for it. Luckily, the tables were far enough from each other that no one complained about our, shall we say, oduer.

The nicely appointed yet understated dining room opens to an endearing patio overlooking a small garden. Inexplicably, there was no heat-lamp on the patio. The cold Northern California coastal air made it impossible to sit outdoor without a heating source, so the outside tables were unoccupied after sun down, giving the place an unfortunate forlorn air.

We were seated at a table by the window overlooking to aforementioned abandoned patio. Trying hard to not notice the ghostly patio, I concentrated instead on the menu.

The first item on the menu was a salad of Epic Mâche & grilled Braburn apple. Helpfully, the menu noted in a parenthesis next to the word “Mâche” that it rhymed with “squash”. I couldn't help but giggling uncontrollably, garnering a few quizzical looks from my dining companions.

Thomas, who is far more francophonic, if not as anglophonic, as I am, thought a bit before suggesting that perhaps neither one of us pronounced the word “squash” correctly. After all, we both speak English as a second language, actually in his case it's third. Perhaps it indeed was pronounced s-kwaa-sh, which, then, would rhyme with “mâche” as suggested by the ever-so-helpful menu.

Dave and Allison, both of whom native English speakers, assured us that we did not mangle the word squash, as it was indeed pronounced s-kwo-sh.

Now that I was assured it was the menu that was wrong, I motioned to the waitress to inquire and give them a chance to explain themselves. But perhaps I was doing so a tad bit too gleefully (hence the “intemperate pedantry” in the tag line of my blog), so Dave stopped me before I could get her attention. Well, actually, the whole table stopped me. Darn. My friends were no fun.

Dave said I could tell her only after I could make myself helpful by coming up with an alternative word for them to use, one that actually rhymed with Mâche. Unfortunately, the only word I could come up with at the time was “fart”. The table voted to stop me from giving them the suggestion. What did I tell you about my friends? They were absolutely no fun.

Well, after all the talk about Mâche and fart, none of us actually ordered the salad, so I couldn't tell them if the taste rhymed with the sound as well. Instead we opted for a Dungeness crab salad, a spinach and roasted butternut squash salad, and an organic greens in blood orange vinaigrette.

I had the Dungeness crab salad, which was absolutely fabulous. The crab meat was pristinely fresh, atop a perfect foil of crunchy shave fennels, bitter frisee, and sweet caramelized onions in a light and refreshing meyer lemon, rosemary and rice wine vinaigrette. Dave went with the tasty, if relatively benign, salad of organic lettuces, blood orange vinaigrette, with toasted pistachios, citrus segments, pomegranates, and herbed Cowgirl Creamery fromage blanc. Thomas and Allison shared a salad of Willy Farms Bloomsdale spinach, roasted butternut squash and spiced cranberries in roasted apple vinaigrette. I liked it in spite of my general distaste of cranberries.

For main course, Thomas and I split a Nieman Ranch filet mignon with a reduction sauce of mushroom, caramelized onions and wheat berries. The steak was ordered medium rare, but arrived far more medium than rare. It was, however, well seasoned and accompanied by a pleasant reduction sauce. The plate could stand to have a little less wheat berries in it though. I found the slightly doughy taste of the wheat berries neutralized the otherwise balanced sauce. Allison had the Bellweather Farms ricotta gnocchi, pine nuts, sage brown butter, and spiced squash. I didn't get a taste, but she seemed perfectly happy with it.

Dave, on the other hand, was less happy with his order of pan roasted Sonoma duck breast, duck confit, cabbage and crispy potato galette. The bite that he gave me of a piece of duck breast with ample skin and a little bit of the fruity sauce was nice enough. The skin crispy, the meat well seasoned, if a bit overdone. But I could definitely see why Dave wasn't so happy with the dish. To me, the whole thing seemed much too complicated. The dish came with a crispy potato galette, which was very crispy, almost just this side of burnt, at the bottom, then layer with the cabbage and the confit, then topped with the sliced pan roasted duck breast. The whole concoction was swimming in a fruity sauce that contained an over-abundance of juniper berries, which Dave deemed a serious obstruction to his enjoyment of the dish.

We drank a nice and spicy California Zin with the meal.

For dessert, the four of us shared a bread pudding with currants and hard sauce, and an apple crisp with vanilla icecream. The bread pudding was good, and the crisp passable. Nothing to write home about though.

The mint tea test was failed miserably, even with my explicit request for some fresh mint leaves in a pot of hot water. The waitress inexplicably insisted that there was not a spare sprig of mint in the kitchen with which to make my fresh mint tea, and gave me, instead, a rather inoffensive pot of mint tea made from a tea bag.

The napkin test was passed, while the water test failed, even more miserably so than the tea test, when our waitress came by the table to pick up our credit cards, with a jug of water in hand, but did not fill the awaiting empty glasses!

In the end, I think we were quite happy with the meal, even with the highs and lows. The highs were wonderful enough to forgive the slightly rough edges in some of the dishes. The service, in spite of the tea and the water problems, was warm and efficient. The bill came to about $200 for the table, a reasonable price tag for the meal with this quality of ingredients.

The Olema Inn
10,000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd.
Olema, CA 94950
415 663-9559

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