To say that Holly and Dan Baker are ambitious is putting it mildly. The couple own and operate Marché aux Fleurs restaurant in Ross, are raising a toddler, and recently debuted their newest baby—AVA, a swank downtown San Anselmo dining room specializing in the best of California's bounty from land and sea. But apparently the only one biting off more than they can chew was me, when I recently ate my way through most of the menu.
From concept to decor to food and wine, AVA is so well conceived, executed and polished, it is worth putting at the top of your must-try list.
AVA, of course, stands for American Viticultural Area, which in layperson terms means a designated wine-growing region such as Sonoma's Dry Creek or Napa's Stags Leap district. Within the restaurant its translation begins with warm barn-chic design.
Mustard yellow and sage are classic wine country colors, and you'll find them here on the walls and high-back ultrasuede chairs around the dark wood tables. Corrugated-metal overhead lamps evoke the farm, while giant black-and-white photos depict familiar vineyard-esque scenes. Just in case you miss the point, a gnarled grapevine climbs the back wall. Outside, the front patio is a wonderful spot for warm-weather dining, though street traffic breaks the wine country spell.
The regionally specific theme extends to the cuisine, which might best be described as California farmers' market—especially since much of the produce is plucked fresh from Marin Farmers Market stalls. With irresistible“nibbles" such as Rosa's dry-cured sevillano olives, house-smoked almonds, and St. George cheese–stuffed Hobbs bacon–wrapped dates, starters are a virtual who's who of local producers. Even something as singular as Olive Ranch arbequina oil gets its own spotlight: a $3 shot is served with dense, chewy focaccia.
But there's a lot more to the menu than designer ingredients and PC meats and fish. Dan Baker, who acts as executive chef for both his restaurants, is quick to praise chef de cuisine Ian Banks for the impressive dishes coming out of the kitchen.
Banks, a very talented and passionate Culinary Institute of America at Greystone graduate who cooked at the Bakers' sister restaurant, makes virtually everything in house, from the focaccia to tagliatelle pasta served carbonara style to the graham crackers for the s'mores finale. He also takes the underlying winery theme to the next level with aged or fermented items, including a tasty salumi board with pickled vegetables.
Yet the food isn't so directed as to get in the way of plain old good eating. While salt-cured tuna and avocado bruschetta was unwieldy and unbalanced in one visit, and asparagus formato fell a little flat, roasted celery root soup and salad of duck proscuitto, butter lettuce, celery root and caraway vinaigrette were brilliant preludes to any main course, which is where Banks really shines.
I'd tell you to make a beeline straight for the Cedar River short ribs, except the pan-seared striped bass with smoked tomatoes and green garlic and pan-roasted brined pork loin with rhubarb, tangy jus and a huge hunk of pork belly are equally outstanding.
All come with your choice of side dish, which means you'll have to debate between fantastic herbed shoestring potatoes and onion rings or perky sautéed sugar snap peas with mint. But come dessert, there's no question the bread pudding with house-made caramel sauce is the way to go.
You might have a harder time deciding which wine to try from the list featuring small family-owned California producers. Fortunately, the staff is professional and knowledgeable enough to point you to a great choice and lead the way through a memorable meal.
AVA, 636 San Anselmo Ave., San Anselmo, 415.453.3407; avamarin.com. Entrées $16–$21; dinner Tues–Sat.