Local Goodness with a View
In an area known for great beauty in all directions, West Marin is an exceptionally beautiful destination of the Bay Area. Go over the Golden Gate Bridge, due west and in only about 50 - 60 minutes you’re on the coast. Furthermore, the drive getting there is a feast for the eyes, with the proverbial rolling hills sprinkled with cows, horses and goats. Thanks to the Marin Land Trust, most of the area is protected and unspoiled, with little or no development allowed and only the stingiest amount of land allotted for farming. Intermixed, there are small town centers like Pt. Reyes, home of the local favorite Cowgirl Creamery, the towns of Olema, Bodega Bay - known for the film location of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and Inverness. The town of Inverness is especially tiny, with only about 3 structures that make up the center. It consists of a post office, a general store/deli, and Saltwater restaurant and oyster depot.
Saltwater is literally across the street from the bay, so when they say fresh oysters, they mean it. It effortlessly combines contemporary minimalism with rustic charm, aesthetically speaking, and while the menu (and prices) winks at high end city fare, the atmosphere is neighborhood-y and comfortable, welcoming both locals and visitors. Chef Jeremy Whitcomb boasts that Saltwater is “rooted in its respect for sustainably managed farmlands, shellfish producing water bottoms and folks that are engaged in the thoughtful gathering of food. It welcomes local foragers, farmers, visitors and neighbors to partake in festive celebrations that honor the efforts of those who grow and gather our food.”
As for the end result, Saltwater maybe has too minimal a menu and presentation. The sea bass entree I ordered was absolutely good, but too small a portion for the price and in need of embellishment of a starch (maybe a puree), in addition to the plentiful and perfectly prepared vegetables. Unless you plan to load up on oysters as appetizers, don’t come with a big appetite or expecting many options. The service was kind, but tepid and distant, with more attention given, understandably, to locals and regulars. Overall, the chef served up perfectly prepared elements that worked individually, but didn’t come together to necessarily entice or wow. Saltwater’s dishes are solidly good, but not doing anything new or exceptional. That having been said, the menu appears to rotate regularly and often, which can affect the dining offerings and experience from week to week. What is a constant is the view out the large and many windows. For many that could be worth the price of admission.
Worth the Wait
After living in NYC I always proclaimed that standing in line for a museum exhibit or opening night of a movie was one thing, but I would never stand in line for a restaurant or club. And in my 12 year tenure in the Big Apple, I held true to those words. But the buzz was too strong and my craving too consuming to dismiss an opportunity to eat at Mensho Tokyo in San Francisco because of “my rule.” As luck would have it - maybe because it was my birthday, or maybe because we arrived to the line early on a Friday night the city experienced a major power outage - we were second in line and seated promptly upon the restaurant’s opening.
It’s in a somewhat rustic or sketchy part of Japantown that has the distinct ear marks of transition, with hipsters slowly bringing in funky and popular cafes and bars, like Swig, which is just down the street from Mensho. Just prior to reveling in the delight of hearing our names called for early seating especially in light of the long line of people behind us clearly seething with envy, we hear a collective loud sound from inside. Is it arguing? Is it the unwelcome tones of an intrusive private cell phone conversation? No, it’s chanting. The manager or chef is firing up the troops like a football coach prepping the team with affirmations of winning. There’s a collective chuckle from the line of soon-to-be patrons. This makes us all feel special. They clearly take customer service seriously.
Walking into the noodle bar, you can’t help but be impressed with how well appointed the definitely diminutive space is. It’s modern, clean, simple and seemingly new, with white walls and red accent banners. There are four long high top communal light stained wood tables making up the entire main space, and one short bar snuggled up to the kitchen, with a birds eye view of frenetic action among the chefs. Although this is a small space and a minimal menu, it is clear that the owners care about the small things, with a keen eye for details. No hooks under the table for purses (women love having hooks!), no problem. Instead, there are small wicker baskets on the poured concrete floors under the tables. And something I’ve never seen before, but now want in every restaurant I go to: individual cut outs in the front of the tables, like a desk. Here you can safely tuck away glasses or your phone instead of laying them on top of the table next to you.
The host and wait staff are exceptionally attentive and efficient, surprisingly so for an affordable noodle bar. I’m not complaining. I appreciate good service and presentation at any level, I just don’t necessarily expect it. Onto the main attraction: the dishes. Guests have choices between pork, chicken and vegan soups, with creamy or clear broths. Included in each are a bevy of vegetables, garnishes, and of course, noodles cooked to perfection (no gluten free options). These noodles are firm, yet soft at the same time. The bowls are all the same size - big. They are brimming with delectable elements and contrasting and complimentary flavors. I feel as if I could make a meal out of any of the individual elements that make up the dish. After just one or two bites/slurps, I was secretly dreaming of my next excursion to Mensho, with a goal to experience every offering on the menu. This is a complete, satisfying, robust meal in a bowl. One of the best I’ve ever had at any price.
My only complaint, if you can call it that, is “to-go” containers are non-existent at Mensho. This means there is no carry out available and no doggy bags. The chef is a purist and doesn’t believe the noodles travel well. It is best experienced in person in real time. That translates to - you need to come with a BIG APPETITE. Even at that, you could end up like me, only getting through half the serving. All in all, I walked out impressed and satisfied, plotting my next visit ... even if I don’t make it to the front of the line.