The rain was pouring down in sheets, the streets smeared and shiny as licorice along Larkspur's main drag. You'd think that, on this chilly, wet Monday night, everyone would be at home pulling a pizza from the freezer and flipping through the Netflix stack, but up and down Magnolia Street, there's not a parking place to be found. By eight o'clock, nearly every table at Picco is full and happy.
Welcome to Marin Mondays, chef-owner Bruce Hill's popular eat-local brainstorm. The concept is simple: each Monday, the restaurant offers a homey, five-course prix fixe menu showcasing local producers, for $30-$33 a person. (The restaurant's extensive regular menu is also available, and the Marin menu items can be sampled à la carte.) Think Ad Hoc with a locavore twist, and so far, it's brought out big crowds every week, on a night that's typically a slow one in the restaurant biz.
This might be a tricky proposition in, say, Fargo, or Cleveland, but with the Pacific Ocean on one side, San Francisco Bay on the other, and the rich, rolling green fields, woods, and pastures of rural West Marin (plus oyster-friendly Tomales Bay) in between, Marin County is pretty much a year-round bounty of bliss for local-conscious eaters and producers alike. Fishermen, dairy ranchers, farmers, vintners, and foragers all work the land (and water) here, raising sheep, cows, goats, and chickens on grass, farming oysters in the bays, making cheese, distilling liqueurs, catching squid, growing greens, picking mushrooms, baking bread in wood-fired ovens, and more.
So, sourcing: not a problem. And the menu's once-a-week status gives Picco's cooks the chance to be micro-seasonal in their creativity as they come up with new recipes based on whatever cool stuff is available each week. As long as there's enough of it to feed one night's worth of customers, they can use it-- a great boon to the foragers and farmers with just a few acres of continually cycling crops. And the menu isn't strictly local-limited; there's coconut milk in the curry, candied ginger on the ice cream, sriracha hot sauce on the fish cakes. But flavorings aside, the bulk of the ingredients come from nearby, because even in the depths of winter, abundance reigns.
And the menu is open to interpretation each week, instead of being locked down in the pristine, unadorned Cal-Med style, all sea salt and olive oil, that has become the de facto way of cooking local here. On the night we went, the inspiration was Thailand, with a side of Jersey & Buffalo. Or at least that's how we interpreted the appearance of sliders, chicken wings, and soft-serve ice cream between the squid salad and beef curry. To sip, there are two local libations, a Stubbs Estate organic chardonnay and a Shaken, Not Stirred cocktail made with house-infused elderflower liqueur and Square One cucumber vodka, made in Novato.
Last Monday, in honor of Beer Week, there was beer from Marin Brew Company in every dish, from Hog Island manila clams steamed in Albion ale to a fritto misto battered with IPA, cheddar soup with pilsner and rye croutons, and a stout cake with Straus Dairy caramel ice cream.
But back to Thailand in Marin. We started with a light and lovely squid salad, tender and tangy and tangled with cubes of crunchy Asian pear and fresh herbs, alongside a puff of succulent miners' lettuce, that wonderful winter weed named for adding much-needed vitamins to many a Forty-Niner's salt pork-and-sourdough diet.
Next up, a gloriously (but not excessively) greasy fish "slider," White Castle meets Thai fish cake. Unlike the fish cakes in Thai restaurants, which are often bounceably rubbery, these were more like crab cakes, made with rock cod from Bolinas, gentle and just a little springy, lavished with crunchy County Line cabbage and Star Route Farm carrot slaw, dripping with sriracha-spiked mayo and paired with super-crunchy, extra-salty chiplets made from sunchoke curls.
Superbowl-sublime chicken wings from Coastal Hill Farms followed, lacquered sticky-meaty mouthfuls, messy and wonderful. A thick puddle of seasoned Straus yogurt sauce and a mound of shredded celery root with baby watercress replaced the ranch dressing and celery sticks of sports-bar tradition. Dressing up lowbrow favorites doesn't always work (I'm still shaking my head over the dainty arugula-and-mandarin-orange salad served with the lobster roll at nearby Yankee Pier when they first opened—when, as every New Englander knows, a true lobster roll needs nothing but a bag of chips) but in this case, it's great.
By this time, we're pretty happily fed. The main dish, a Mussaman beef and potato curry, looks a little skimpy lurking at the bottom of its big white bowls, but it's deceptive. Rich and coconut-sauced, dotted with translucent, almost fetal baby radishes, the Marin Sun braised short ribs fork tender and lush, it turns out to be all we need.
All we're expecting for dessert is a bitty swirl of Picco's famous Straus Dairy soft-serve, what might fill a Chinese-restaurant teacup. Instead, we get a massive swirl towering above a cereal bowl, heavily crunched with candied ginger and pecan praline. Lovely, palate-cleansing, and crazily big.
Then again, being graced with too much ice cream made from the milk of happy local cows? Way, way down on my list of Bad Things.