Olema Inn

The custom of the country
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paulr@sfbg.com

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.

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