Wednesday night I dined at AVA, the new San Anselmo restaurant which Dan and Holly Baker of Marche aux Fleurs (in Ross) had just softly opened the week before. As a long-time fan of that place, I had been very curious about what they would do with this new venue. The name AVA is the initials, as in American Viticultural Area, not the name Ava, as in Gardner. So instead of a picture of her on the wall there was a photomural of California cows. Disappointing, but OK.
The space was once a soup and sandwich place called Creekside Cafe, then Alfy's which morphed into Fork two blocks away, and most recently Mama Teresa's. It has not been exactly a bad-luck spot but certainly has not sustained a restaurant for any period. Now, after redecorating, it is an attractive and welcoming place for the first time. The AVA name is to indicate that ingredients, as much as possible, will be sourced from within 100 miles of Marin.
The menu (relatively brief but well-planned, I thought) reflects this California approach without the French influence of Marche aux Fleurs. It begins with what are called Nibbles, small dishes like cheese plates or olives or roasted peppers, from $3 to $6 dollars. We were there more to chew than nibble, however, and did not try these. The apps, at $8 or $9, had a soup and three salads. The seven choices of main courses ($14-$19) come with a side chosen from another list of seven, each of with can be ordered separately at $6.
Our group each had the soup, heirloom tomato and butter bean with tempura-like romano beans on the side and thought it to be a highlight: very tomatoey with some of the beans pureed as a fine alternative to cream for thickening. The frying of the romanos was really well-done and not a cooking technique I remember from Dan's cuisine at Marche. Also impressively fried was my main of fried chicken leg: very thin and crispy batter with meat that slipped from the bone but was still quite juicy. I chose the side of baby turnips, brussels sprouts and Hobbs bacon. Good. My friend ordered and enjoyed a Marin Sun Farms hanger steak, flavored with thyme, and a hen-of-the-woods mushroom side dish which was prepared with fried marjoram leaves. These tasty herbs were also in a side we shared, a mixed fry of shoestring potato and onion rings. I prefer thicker sticks of fried potato than this thread-thin style, but again the frying was perfectly done.
My wife chose one of the most interesting mains which was a vegetarian combination of any three of the sides at $14. After she had cleaned her plate, she let us know that the gratin of sweet and yukon potoatoes with Carmondy cheese had been so terrific that she had waited to let us know until she finished so we would not want to take large tastes of it. And ordinarily, she is such a generous person...
Short dessert list included a warm chocolate cake, chocolate and pecan tart and affogato. The wine list is short but I thought well-chosen, all California wineries located from Santa Barbara to Mendocino. I did mumble grumpily, however, about the Riedel stemless wine glasses. I want a stem, dammit.
Servings are not large, but we were all quite satisfied. If one ordered some "nibbles", an app, a main and an extra side, however, it could get end up being more expensive that a meal at Marche aux Fleurs which still holds a warmer place in my heart and palate than AVA. I think our group all felt satisfied with dinner, had enjoyed warm and efficient service, and will return but might not make AVA the place we think of first for local dining. It will be interesting to see how the menu offerings progress here and whether or not there is any effect on Marche aux Fleurs with the attention of the chef-owners split between the two places. I hope not.