Our usual Christmas day dining is with my son and his family but this year they decided to have their gathering on Christmas Eve. OK, then! Let's go to Manka's for their annual Christmas dinner. I called and got the last reservation for two at the Chef's Table, meaning Ann and I would be seated with six strangers. It turned out to be great fun.
Margaret Grade, Manka chef, uses local ingredients and in her fanciful way describes the dishes and describes the source and place of origin for ingredients. So, we began with Tomales Bay mussels, very sweet, in cream soup with a dollop of cream described as "a cloud of curried coastal cream". And it was, too. When our server learned that my wife was allergic to mussles, she was served a cream of mushroom soup made from locallly foraged boletes. Also good.
Next, half a small Dungeness crab, harvested from right off Chimney Rock they said, and roasted in a wood-burning oven. Considering the several dishes that would follow, the small size was just right and it was perfectly cooked, allaying my fear of overdone crab as prepared in most restaurants (including R & G Lounge, sorry). Along side the crab was a very generous side of Meyer lemon (local) Hollandaise which was groan-producingly delicious with the juicy crab. Then, and just right after rich crab and sauce, a salad of perfect ancho cress with tangerine sections and almond wood-roasted almonds. The bite and bitterness of the greens, perfectly dressed with a light vinaigrette, was a fine pallate cleanser.
However, the next menu item in fact was a pallate cleanser: a Meyer lemon ice which, when it came, was more creamy than a granite but a wonderful combination of sweet and tart. Unfortunately, there was an inordinately long wait between salad and ice when no table was being served, the only off-note of the evening. The natives got a bit restless but just when I was beginning to twitch a table-mate offered me a taste of the 1990 Prieure-Lichine he had brought and it was just the kind of palatte cleanser I like best. Real Christmas spirit was developing at our table.
In West Marin, a current hot issue is the proposed elimination of the non-native Axis deer which were imported a century ago for the sport of local hunters. They have grown in number and their avid foraging is threatening the food source for local deer and other creatures as well as leaving the Park land and onto farms. The Park Service (this is Pt. Reyes National Seashore) wants to shoot them. Many of the local two-legged creatures are upset and discussing the issue is a good way to get into a serious argument in those parts. Margaret Grade demonstrated a partial solution: the next course was a chop of wild Axis deer. The menu description gives an example of Manka's descriptive style: "A rack chop of wild axis Rudolph arching over a crush of Peter's potatoes (referring to local grower Peter Worsley, I assume) encircled with a venison sauce fashioned from osso bucco deepened with Mt. Tam merlot." Well, that about says it, I guess...I was surprised that the venison did not have a gamier taste, but it was a lovely piece of meat and the sauce had the merlot grapes as well as their juice.
A Sally Jackon sheep's milk cheese came next and was described as local, but I thought she was from the Pacific Northwest. Whatever, it was creamy and wonderful and served with mince of raisins and apple pieces (which were local). Finally, a rich and creamy wedge of soft Sharffenberger chocolate, happily not too sweet, with house-made ginger ice cream and a drizzle of carmel. I am not an avid dessert eater but this was the taste that first came to mind as I awakened this morning. And finally, we got a glass of the best eggnog I have ever tasted: very eggy, very creamy, very brandied.
We had begun with a glass of a Marin-made Stubbs chardonnay, crisp and peary and without the unctuous quality I have come to fear in chard. With dinner, a 2004 Holderedge pinot noir from Healdsburg--a new one on me; they do only 1000 cases a year--and it was a pleasantly smoky, medium bodied type of pinot that went perfectly with our meal. Manka's has maintained what they call "rustic elegance" and I think of as gracefully funky. The lighting is soft and warm, the furniture woodsy, the ambience definitely lodge-like. (Chairs a bit hard after the first two hours, however.) Service is both attentive and low-key. The fixed price for the holiday meals--they do Christmas eve, Christmas day, New Year's eve, New Year's day, and all are booked well in advance--was $125. Their regular menu is also fixed price, set menu, and is around $60. Their website has not been updated since 2004 and presents many lovely pictures and atmospheric music before you get to the food part:
Licking eggnog off our lips, we happily bid our new dining friends good-bye, drove along the bay and creek, through the redwoods and over the hill to home. It was a terrific Christmas dinner.