If Marin County is a state of mind, would it be catty to describe that state of mind as schizophrenic? Despite a compact geography, Marin shows the world a surprising number of faces; there’s Mount Tam, Muir Woods, Black Sands Beach with its sporty naked people, the writhing population centers in the southeast (my least favorite quarter), and my most favorite the rolling, wooded, gently farmed county to the west.
West Marin is an enchanted realm, a genteel Arcadian dream. The city is just 20 miles distant, but one does not feel it. For those of us who’ve had occasion to live in one of the metropolises of the East, whose sprawl can take several hours to escape, this swift vanishing of urbis is an abiding miracle. Humanity’s self-absorbed throbbing subsides, and there is peace across a landscape luminously painted by Thaddeus Welch more than a century ago. The two-lane roads, uncluttered with traffic, wend through tidy little villages and country junctions often punctuated by sharp church steeples, past neatly kept fields, pastures, and orchards. And at the end of one of those roads lies the Olema Inn, an oasis of civilization and civility.
The Olema Inn has been a fine restaurant for nearly a decade, but its deeply atmospheric building is far older, with roots extending back well into the 19th century. When you step onto the Victorian veranda, you have a momentary vision of Mark Twain standing there, gazing out, maybe waiting for a stagecoach or looking for a spittoon and then you see the "Marin Organic" sign and, for better or worse, you’re right back in the early 21st century.
Inside, the building has been buffed to a soft shine. The lobby, with its inviting bar, has the look of an Edwardian salon plump, comfy chairs amid lots of rich wood while the dining rooms beyond are a gracious blend of mullioned, multi-light windows, antique pine floors, fresh white walls, and garden views. While Twain lingers on the porch, twirling his moustache, you have been seated in an Edith Wharton novel, where the linens are always well-starched.
The "Marin Organic" sign tells us that the restaurant is a serious food destination: the kitchen participates in the west county’s responsible-agriculture culture while committing itself to do right by the high-quality ingredients thereby produced. The ethic seems almost indistinguishable to me from that of Chez Panisse, and the results are comparably impressive.
Since western Marin is a locus of oystering Tomales Bay is the home of Hog Island oyster farm, as well as an unknown number of great white sharks the Olema Inn’s menu offers this bivalve in a variety of guises. You can get eight sizable oysters on the half-shell for $18; they can be cooked or raw (or some of each), with a wide choice of toppings, including tomato and basil, bacon and fennel, and a classic mignonette made with sauvignon blanc. Excellent and memorable, every one and I would not describe myself as an oyster-lover.
Soup probably doesn’t get enough credit as a vehicle for chefly expression, but at the Olema Inn, it isn’t for lack of effort or ingenuity. A bowl of wild nettle soup ($10) could easily have been mistaken for green paint ready to be splashed on a military rig, except for the large fried oyster, flecked with breading, in the middle. Only slightly less intense a green was a chilled soup of puréed asparagus ($10), poured around a set of large shelled prawns and dotted with slivers of kumquat.
Sand dabs, a local maritime treasure, are known to be bony, and it might be that their reputation suffers because of this, but they make a fabulous fish and chips ($14). We couldn’t find a single splinter of bone, and the tubular strips of flesh were juicy within their golden crust a hint that the fish had not been frozen. The chips were limper than what one would consider ideal, but they had been fried in duck fat, which more than made up in flavor what had not been achieved in crispness.
The flavor of duck also pleasantly pervaded a steak hash ($18): cubes of potato and beef, dottings of fresh fava beans, and coarse flaps of onion and fennel root adrift in a ducky broth into which a poached duck egg slowly leaked its yolk. The steak had been billed as the star ingredient, but the dish would have been fine without any meat at all or maybe just some duck confit? Hash is a well-known recycling center for leftovers, but leftover duck confit often finds its way into salads, not hashes. And sometimes there isn’t any leftover confit at all.
Although bread pudding is another locus for leftovers, Olema Inn’s vanilla version ($9) didn’t seem at all fatigued more like a fresh morning bun, envelopingly soft and warm. Our server was particularly enthusiastic about the chamomile crème brûlée ($9). It did turn out to be almost obscenely creamy a true custard beneath its cap of caramelized sugar, though I strained to detect any hint of chamomile in the flavor. The sour love-bite of lemon, on the other hand, was plainly discernable in the profiteroles ($9); they were filled with lemon-cookie ice cream and were assembled from fresh, house-made pastry, to judge by their exquisite tenderness. Wharton no doubt would have approved. As for Twain: he had vanished into the unseasonable mist, and the veranda was clear when we left. *
Lunch: Sat.Sun., noon4 p.m. Dinner: daily, 59 p.m.
Sir Francis Drake Blvd. at Highway 1, Olema
Beer and wine