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Monday
Apr072014

Inverness Interlude

No, not near Loch Lomond in the norther wilds of Scotland, but in the conifer covered hills of the Marin coast adjacent to the loch-like finger of Tomales Bay, which cleaves the mainland from the Point Reyes peninsula and forms the eastern boundary of the Point Reyes National Seashore, an outdoor lovers paradise with spectacular and dramatic vistas. Miles of hiking trails in the hills and around winding lagoons, pristine beaches, sand dunes and marshlands provide many activities for the nature and outdoor lover.

A pleasant hour's drive from Glen Ellen, through formerly chicken-and-egg capital of the world Petaluma and then winding through the verdant spring green pastoral countryside of rural western Marin brought us to the charming town of Pt Reyes station, it's short main street strung with Toby's Feed Barn, Bovine Bakery, Cowgirl Creamery, several good restaurants, and interesting small shops and galleries. Rounding the bottom of, and winding northwest along the western edge of Tomales Bay takes us to Inverness town itself, and several miles further into the heart of  of the Point Reyes National Seashore and the arrowhead of land that is Tomales Point in which sits this perched, private quiet refuge with stunning views. The tall vertical stripes of windows in the cabin walls of our weekend rental in this outdoor wonderland--VisionView Retreat--look south through gnarled branches of Bishop pines to the nubbled green hillside of Mount Vision looming 1336 feet above the lapping Pacific waves of Drake's Estuary.

There is much to do in the area for the outdoor enthusiast and foodie alike. Two days affords us time for hikes on a couple of the many trails in the area: out to Abbot's Lagoon, along Limantour Spit or out Chimney Rock Trail on Drakes Bay, and out into the Elk Preserve at the very northern tip of the Point--and ample time for a couple of excellent meals at top notch eateries. West Marin is locavore foodie heaven, with several artisan cheese makers, wood-fired breads from bakeries like Brickmaiden (where Chad Robertson got his start), growers of fine oyster, sustainable fishermen, foragers of wild mushrooms and field greens, and organic farmers and ranchers galore.

For years we, like many, made the trek to the rustic wood lodge tucked into the hillside above Inverness that was Manka's Restaurant. Here chefs and life partners Margaret Gradé and Daniel DeLong plied their trade of crafting innovative and creative fare based on very local products. Sadly, the lodge burned in a fire two days before Christmas in 2006, and Marin zoning being what it is, was never to be rebuilt. Last year in 2013, the pair took over the defunct Olema Inn a few miles to the south and re-cast it as Sir and Star--so named for its  location at the intersection of Sir Francis Drake Blvd and Star Route 1.

Early advocates of farm-direct contacts for the very best ingredients, they are still at it with hyper-local food sourcing, creativity & imagination and whimsy all applied to the dishes that emerge from the kitchen. When reserving, we weren't  aware that Saturday is Chef's Menu only--a prix fixe of seven courses at a very reasonable $75, but that certainly turned out in our favor. We'd taken the first sip of a half-bottle of Billecart-Salmon Rose champagne when salty, ethereal gougerres paired with the tiniest white, greens-topped radishes ever seen arrived as an ameuse. Twin soups, swirled into a yin and yang pattern, contrasted unctuous, velvety garlic cream against magenta beet purée.....interestingly, they worked wonderfully taken bite by bite, but when both combined in one bite didn't quite gel. One of S&S's signature dishes is local roast crab -- a front-quarter of a very small Bodega Bay dungeness roasted with butter and herbs, served with a Meyer lemon hollandaise....very messy and fantastic.

French champagne is the only exception to a wine list of Marin-made or Marin-grown wines, and glasses of Sean Thackerry's Rhone-style Pleiaddies accompanied the next courses. Foraged miner's lettuce and wild cress salad with shaved spring asparagus create a refreshing interlude before the richness of the meat course. Creativity and innovation come in the ingredient sourcing and pairing, dedication to quality in the execution; whimsy comes in the naming: "Rack chop and Ragout of lamb, last seen roaming the range of Roger Ranch, now amidst a cake of Mr. Little's potatoes".

A slice of soft-ripened goat cheese from Andante Dairy paired with rosemary olive oil brioche toast, saba and Rosa's Roasted Almonds followed; then a tiny slice of chewy tart of the same almonds topped with whipped whorls of Strauss cream to complete the tasting. Sir and Star is definitely a rising star!

Sunday morning after coffee and an hour with the Times we took that hike through the coastal scrub of coyote brush, bright orange poppies, just-emerging butter-yellow bush lupine, and tiny purple wild Douglas irises toward the sapphire blue of Bishop's Lagoon, edged by some of the few remaining coastal shifting dunes at (expand?) the edge of the Pacific. Buzzards swing lazy arcs above, perhaps looking for carrion along with the lone coyote that lopes across the trail--looking slightly wounded. A rabbit hops into the brush, and the black-shouldered kite gliding across the lagoon edge may just find him.

 The sea breeze and hike sharpening our hunger, we headed north on Highway 1 for a pastoral drive through the town of Marshall to the small enclave of Nick's Cove, and the eponymous restaurant that attracted discerning diners for several years after restaurateur Pat Kuleto renovated it in 2007, at a huge cost. Kuleto couldn't make a financial go of it, and sold in 2011, with subsequent reviews being spotty. But we had celebrated a milestone birthday with friends wonderfully some years ago, and wanted to give it another try. Restored to its thirties beachside roadhouse character, Nick's was known to serve up some great seafood: crab cakes, crab Louis, local halibut, and oysters many ways, including raw, baked with mornay sauce and crispy fried. We shared the zesty house grilled romaine salad and deviled duck eggs topped with shreds of duck confit, both of which were excellent there followed a variety of those oysters--the only disappointment were the fried Drakes Bay oysters, which had been treated heavy handedly. But blue sky, bright sun, the fantastic view of Tomales Bay and generally good seafood made for a nice Sunday lunch, and a wistful reminder of that great birthday weekend.

Back through Pt. Reyes Station, we nosed around a few of the shops and galleries, several of which sell pretty nice quality things: Zuma and Vita Collage for clothes, jewelry, accessories and objets; Black Mountain and Susan Shaw for handwoven textiles; Flower Power for home and garden decor. If you need gourmet foodstuffs Toby's Feed Barn is the place.

As the afternoon shadows grew longer in the sky, we drove west out toward the ocean and then turned up toward Mt Vision, winding our way to the top for sweeping views eastward to Tomales Bay, and the vista westward, if hazy, to Drake's Estero and Land's End. The orange orb of the sun sank slowly into the Pacific, ending both the day and our short but delightful Inverness interlude.

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