I love the concept of dining out on valentine's day, but not the reality of hard to book tables, big crowds, special menus etc. Obvious solution: create one's own evening for romance on another day....
So,last night hubby and I headed out to Lark Creek Inn for an early celebration. I last ate there at least five years ago, but chose it for two reasons: reason number one: I fondly remember good meals there, but hubby was singularly unimpressed on his one visit (also years ago), so we were curious whose memories where more accurate, and had had it on the 'we should try it together' list for awhile. The second reason I chose it has to do with the occaison: call me antisocial, but I really dislike upscale restaurants where dining a deaux means a good chance of being seated along a wall banquette crowded in with other couples with hubby's back to the room (since I refuse to take the seat facing the wall :-)), and then having to spend the evening pretending not to listen to the conversations of those too close neighbors. My memory of Lark Creek was that all tables are well spaced, with none of those crammed together two-spots.
I made the reservation on Open Table, requesting a private, roomy table where we both could view the room. They did call me Friday to reconfirm the reservation.
Traffic out of the city was light, and so we arrived about 15 minutes early for our 7:45 reservation. The place was packed! The hostess explained that the "Dungeneous Festival" meant they were unusually crowded, but that she would try and seat us as close to our reserved time as possible.
Our wait gave us time to review a copy of the menu that someone had left on the bar. Sure enough, all of February is Dungeneous Festival, meaning that most apps featured the crab, and the highlight of the mains was either a half or whole steamed crab, with various side dish choices. ($16 for a half crab; $30 for a whole).
At this point, I started to worry that hubby was right about the place. Frankly, if I had known that was the emphasis, I would have gone elsewhere, and I was a little annoyed that it wasn't mentioned either on the website, or by the person I spoke to when I reconfirmed. (perhaps they assumed I knew, since judging by the orders we saw coming out once we were seated, most folks were there for the crab.) Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Dungeneous, but I happen to think I make a pretty mean crab myself (I love the recipe in the Chez Pannise Cafe cookbook), so it is one of those things I would rather enjoy at home for half or a quarter of the cost. Moreover, apart from crab, the menu was rather limited, with just one pork choice, one fish, scallops, rack of lamb, and no tasting menu mentioned.
It was so crowded in the bar that getting the bartender's attention was nearly impossible, which didnt help my worsening mood. Fortunately, we were seated at 7:50, close to our reserved time. My mood lightened considerably as we were led to our table: my request was honored exactly! Yes, they gave us a banquette, but it was a four spot built into a recess along the far wall of the main dining room, meaning hubby and I could sit catty-corner to each other and both enjoy the view. It was private and yet gave a view of the action all at the same time. It was cozy, yet roomy. Suddenly I was a much happier camper...
We both started with a bowl of the cauliflower soup with a dungeneous reduction and pieces of crab swirled in. It was simple but very good: rich, nice contrast of flavors.
The wine list includes a large selection by the glass, and a large but all-american selection (which I consider a minus). Given the price ranges on the dinner menu, I thought the price range of most of the wines was reasonable , with a number of choices of both whites and reds under $40 and a surprisingly large number under $30. However, the mark-up on the wines by the glass seemed relatively higher,and not as good a choice. They were offering a $28 flight of three or four whites to compliment the crab menu.
We ordered a bottle of Seven Hills Syrah, 2001 from Washington State. When our server started to open it, she immediately made a face and told us that she thought it was corked and that she would bring another bottle. She did offer us a smell, so that we could compare the not good bottle with the good one she replaced it with; we were impressed that she took the initiative so that we didn't have to do so.
There was a bit more of a wait for mains than I would like, and the reason for the wait and big crowds become clearer: a very large party (20 persons) had taken over the center of the room. Again, I was glad we could watch from a relativly private perch.
I had ordered the grilled pork chop on a base of corn 'grits' with swiss chard in a madiera (I think) and apple reduction sauce. It came somewhat pinker than the medium rare I requested, but fortunately I am not squeemish about rare pork. The meat was very good, well-seasoned. Chard was too salty; a pity since I normally love chard. The corn 'grits' were simply wonderful! Like eating mini bits of the best homemade tortillas ever! not sure how they were made, but they were fabulous. yumm...
hubby ordered the rack of lamb. At $36 it was the most expensive main on the menu, so I was disappointed to see only three fairly small chops. Again, it came to the table more rare than the ordered medium rare. Some type of wine reduction, fairly simple, and served on a bed of brussell sprouts. I didn't get to taste the lamb, but hubby pronounced it delicious and said it definitely was better than the last dish he remembers eating there. The brussell sprouts were just the most tender leaves, and he did let me have a tiny bite of those; they were excellent. With the exception of that chard, I would say that while the meats here are good, the sides are really where the kitchen shines.
Hubby is dieting, and skipped dessert, but I ordered the molten chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream. (what would a Valentine's Day celebration be without chocolate?). The cake itself tasted a little gritty (perhaps the amount of chocolate is responsible?) but the molten part was excellent. The ice cream was delicious, made in house according to our server. It was a rather small scoop, and given that gritty feel to the cake, I longed for more. I mentioned this to the server, and she very nicely offered to bring another scoop...I would have taken her up on it, but it was proving too tempting for hubby...
so we settled for an expresso for him and loose leaf mint tea, properly served, for me.
total bill with tax, tip and $38 bottle of wine: $166.
Overall assessment: not the best value for that price range, but one of the nicer settings I've been in lately, very good service, and good food, so I probably won't wait five years before I go back again next time, especially for a special occaison dinner. The type of place that can grow on you, if you don't mind paying Marin County prices.