Kitchen at 868 Grant

This spring, Old Town Novato’s already quaint main street finally showed signs of a renaissance—coming to life with a handful of chic home stores and fashion boutiques. Ironically, what brought me back to the area is the very thing that first led me to it—and is likely to bring me here again. Its best-known dining room, Kitchen at 868 Grant, was a worthy choice when it opened in early 2005, but after changing chefs and settling in, this American restaurant with global influences has firmly established itself as the small town’s unpretentiously top-flight dinner destination.

As the name suggests, the kitchen is visible from all angles of the 44-seat dining room. Framed by a back-wall dining counter and cute curtains, it offers glimpses of the cooks in action without detracting from the cozy and richly appointed seating area. Faux-finished bronze walls, a deep red ceiling, frame-to-frame mirrors lining one wall and rural-theme color photographs along the other create a warm, intimate environment.

Originally chef Christopher Douglas oversaw Kitchen’s rustic American menu. But the fare has taken a decidedly more sophisticated turn since Jason Hoffman stepped up from sous chef to executive chef more than a year ago. A third-generation San Franciscan, Hoffman honed his skills in some of the city’s stalwart restaurants under such revered chefs as Bruce Hill at the Waterfront, Jody Denton at Azie and Roland Passot of La Folie. He also made a stop at San Anselmo’s Insalata’s before landing in Novato.

If the menu is American, it is a San Franciscan’s version of America, where an everyday meal is founded on organic local ingredients, internationally influenced, with familiar foodie bells and whistles.

You’ll find truffle oil drizzled atop an elegant cauliflower soup, truffled ponzu surrounding a standard ahi tuna tarare capped with a tangle of seaweed salad, and American sturgeon caviar gracing a toast disc in the “quartet of aqua gems” appetizer.
Ironically, dishes with less obsequious ingredients are the most exciting. Crunchy and flavorful fried artichoke salad—crisped heart slices with grilled radicchio, parsley, dry jack cheese and Meyer lemon vinaigrette—was truly inspired, and the only curiosity in the seared pancetta-wrapped day boat scallops atop coconut risotto with Thai curry and wild mushroom ragout were a few rogue chewy fried mushrooms.

Many restaurant menus aim to avoid main-dish “palate fatigue” by focusing on rock star appetizers. But at Kitchen the entrées are so good it’s worth going easy on starters to wholeheartedly indulge in gorgeous garlic-sautéed Florida hopper prawns with chorizo, sweet peas, couscous and parsley sauce or pancetta-wrapped venison loin with toasted brussels sprouts, a thick slab of potatoes gratin, foie gras butter and rich and silky red wine demiglace.

For dessert, simple presentations of ginger cake with hard sauce or apple-berry crisp with vanilla ice cream adequately satisfy the after-dinner sweet tooth.

As in all good restaurants it’s the little things that make the difference. Here those details include a great small wine list featuring outstanding by-the-glass and bottle options, enthusiastic floor managers invested enough in the place to have their own in-house business cards, and incentives like the three-course $15 dinner special served from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., half-price wine bottles on Tuesdays, and bargain fixed-price menus other nights of the week. An added bonus is the required detour to Novato’s commercial sweet spot, which means you’ll get a rare taste of small-town charm with your meal.

Kitchen, 868 Grant Ave., Novato, 415.892.6100; Entrées $18–$28 dinner, $11–$16 lunch; lunch Thur and Friday, dinner Tues–Sun.