Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Osteria Stellina - Pt. Reyes Station - Worth the Drive

Plugging this restaurant's name into the Google search engine to check their hours of operation, I was surprised by Tom Sietsema's (of the Washington Post) description of the "scenic and sometimes hair-raising (the twists! those turns!) 90-minute drive from San Francisco." 

"What??" I asked myself.  I don't know what back alley route he took, but I made the comfortable and, yes, scenic drive from Sausalito (just 10 minutes north of the City, and if you are all the way across the city, well, maybe 20 minutes to the bridge) in 38 minutes.  Just 36 miles door to door.  Tom, you should be ashamed of yourself for not knowing the insider way to this lovely little hamlet, having worked as a food critic for The Chronicle all those years.  But then again, you probably didn't have much reason to venture into Marin for a food review, and especially to Point Reyes Station, because back in your day the only reason for traversing the Golden Gate was to get to Napa or to do an occasional mountain bike ride on Mt. Tam.

Well, things have changed, or let me put it differently, they are changing s-l-o-w-l-y.  Any reason to take a leisurly drive out to Point Reyes Station, through oak studded rolling hills, still green from early fall rains, warmed by the lovely November Indian Summer sun, is a good reason. In my world the landscape doesn't get any better than this.  Every time I make this drive, I plot and fantasize about how to move out here, a single woman, living on these amazing pastures, waking daily to the wingspan of hawks circling for their breakfasts, the steam rising off Tomales Bay as the sun warms the surface and feeds the creatures within.  The term "spinster" just may be in my future, like it or not. Besides being one of my all time favorite places, this is the heartland of Marin Organic, a local organization committed to an organic Marin and dedicated to the local producers that supply the Bay Areas top restaurants with their produce, cheeses and meats.
It is really hard to not be in a good mood after taking the easy drive up 101 north to Lucas Valley Road, turning left past quiet subdivisions, and further on past the secretive Big Rock Ranch (3838) and Skywalker Ranches (5858).  You can't see either George Lucas enterprise from the road, so don't even slow down, as their private fire department/security force won't even let you past the front gate, trust me.  It's a mild wind out to Nicasio, a tiny town that has a festive restaurant and bar, Rancho Nicasio, as well as a quintessential little red school house.  Driving through this one block town and roughly north past horse pastures and pumpkin patches lands you at the corner of the Petaluma-Point Reyes Road.  Nicasio Reservoir will be on your left as you make the turn.  I got stuck behind a landscape truck that was filled to the brim with cleared pampas grass and often spit out stray reeds from the back.  Not to worry though, just a few miles down is the "bridge" in some state of local colorful paint (graffiti to some) where you will turn right, Point Reyes Station just 3 miles further.  By the time you arrive, you will have been transformed into a hungry traveller, a little over half and hour later and seemingly a world away.
I had been wanting to try this restaurant for a while now, as it opened at some point last year.  I had read a few reviews in my searching for hours (their website is which were spotty and spoke of poor service.  I always take these with a grain of salt, as my restaurant background gives me an eye for the not so obvious and I am often more forgiving than most "yelpers" and other recreational reviewers that have an unrealistic expectation if their salad is over $5 and their entree over $10.
For Monday at 1:00 pm, I was genuinely surprised that the place was over 1/2 full, with a lot of locals: farmers and merchants and people like me.   A few bed and breakfasters were there lingering over their last moments before heading back to reality. 
I sat down in the empty left half of the dining room, as the only table available to the right of the partition was in the middle of the floor and I preferred to have my back to the wall.  No one was in this section, but I could see the kitchen perfectly past the neat row of low bar stools bordering the counter for more casual dining.  I usually like the counter, but I was wearing jeans and not really in the mood to be monitoring whether or not my butt crack was showing.  A couple of tattooed hipsters were dining at the bar and as I sat down, a tall, weathered and sturdily built customer (on a first name basis with the staff) negotiated his bill, clearly on trade, for the wild arugula, the beets or the beef he most likely dropped off earlier that morning.
A couple of minutes later my server approached my table. Wait a minute, I know this guy, I thought.  A look of recognition also lit up his face, and we soon realized it had been many years, and many restaurants ago.  Mark used to date a friend of mine, and is the lead man for the band "Death Angel".  He used to pal around with Metallica back in the early 90's.  The early 90's!  Geez, I should feel old, but his unlined face and eponymous dreadlocks made me feel that we both hadn't aged a day.  Considering I had just safely entered my mid 40's a few days earlier, this was a good thing.
I am usually pretty quick in deciding what to eat (usually) and this time was no different.  I didn't need much help navigating the not too big menu, and Mark suggested a couple of his favorites:  GBD Grilled Cheese Sandwiches (I'll have to get back to you on what the GBD  means) and the Saffron Stew with Tomales Cove clams, mussels, Lunny's hot links, shrimp and potatoes.  Had I not been dining solo, I would have definitely had the soup as a mid course, but unfortunately, the curse of having friends that work during the day (ho hum) and my skinny pocket book, limited my foraging to two things:  The Star Route beet salad with Marin Route Farm wild arugula, ricotta salata and aged balsamic ($9); and, pizza with Roasted tomatoes, fontina, basil, and crushed chiles ($15) with added Italian Sausage for $2.  Yes, these may seem like somewhat middle of the road selections, but I actually like to try the basic stuff my first time at a place so I can get a snapshot of what they're about. 
It was a few days post birthday, and I thought, what the hell, so ordered a glass of 2007 Margerum Pinot Gris ($8) from the Colombia River Valley (WA), a crisp wine with a slight hint of pear and medium body, served Italian style in a rocks glass.  I have to say, I do prefer regular stemmed wine glasses, but I also appreciate design particulars of places, and the italian style glasses gave the place the casual feel they are going for. 
A few minutes later my salad arrived.  I declined the bread offering considering I was having pizza, but I'm sure it would have been great, as it is from Brickmaiden Bread Company, a local bakery sporting a huge, wood-fired, brick oven.  Next time, next time.  The beets were thinly sliced and arranged on the bottom of the plate with a pile of lightly balsamic dressed arugula neatly on top.  Shavings of Ricotta Salata garnished it, the sheepy dry Ricotta cousin enough to carry me through each last bite of the delicously fresh salad.  I love Ricotta Salata on salad, enough said.
As I waited for my pizza to arrive I admired the surroundings, hardwood tables, silver plated, mostly matching flatware, linen napkins, leather chairs.  Like going to a friend's warm house for Sunday supper.  A little while later my pizza arrived, about a 10 incher, not that huge and if I was being a glutton, I could have wolfed the whole thing down.  The first thing that popped into my mind when I viewed this plump looking disc studded with roma tomatoes, basil and sausage was the Pizzeria Uno from my childhood.  No, not the one that was on Lombard Street for years, but the one from my southern California town, El Toro, a place where the crust was made with olive oil and a hint of sugar, where the crunchy doughyness gave way to oodles of cheese.  Of course, I was only 17 at the time, and the experience was heightened by appetite enhancing recreationals and the several pitchers of beer that we somehow got away with being served (well, there was one person with us who was 21 - that pedophile!  ha). 
Flash forward to the present and my premonition wasn't that far off.  The puffy crust was olive oil infused, maybe just the smallest amount of sugar (to help those yeast) but the perfect amount of salt.  The pizza was amply dressed with the fontina and tomatoes.  The sausage was mild and fresh, as if they ground it that morning.  The chiles, what chiles?  They must have forgotten them, as I didn't get even a hint of any chiles anywhere near this pizza.  Unlike the current trend in neopolitan pizza with their uber-thin crusts and minimal toppings, this pizza was a definite knife and fork affair.  The crust was so flavorful, I may be easily converted back.  Not that it was a thick crust, Chicago style pizza, as this was not.  Let's just say the leftovers were just as good and the crust held up to being refrigerated without that crackery, cardboardy texture that often requires a zap in the microwave (no zap needed).  The owner cruised by my table and noticed I was out of wine.  I ordered a delicious glass of 2006 Unti Dry Creek Valley Grenache  ($10) (I love those guys), and my meal was complete.  Service was a little bit slow, but as I mentioned before, I take it all in stride, as I wasn't in any hurry, and other staff helped out when Mark was bouncing off the walls in another direction - he is a musician after all. 

With guests still walking through the door at 2:15 pm on Monday afternoon, its hard not to notice that Osteria Stellina has found its niche. The dinner menu boasts an oyster pizza, slow cooked octopus, Marin Sun Farms goat, and seared Bodega black cod - a who's who list of the local bounty bordering these parts.  I'm putting it at the top of my list of things to look forward to.  And don't mind me if I borrow the overused, yet to-the-point phrase from our Governator: "I'll be back".

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