Fattoush, Seared Ahi Tuna, "French Dip" (French almond macaroons filled with bittersweet chocolate mousse and served with a side of warm mocha caramel sauce)
Occupation: Corporate Finance
Location: San Anselmo
Favorite Restaurant: Insalata's Restaurant
Reviewed Insalata's: Saturday, October 15, 2005
Insalata's is located in downtown San Anselmo, and it is one of the few higher-end restaurants in this town. The cuisine is Mediterranean, but there are a number of other dishes that would more likely qualify as “American” with middle-eastern flourishes. Of course, their fattoush is incredible.
The wine list is superb with very good selections across the various types (with a wide range of prices, too). The servers are all very knowledgeable and have never steered me wrong when I ask for their recommendations.
The restaurant is a lively place, especially on a Saturday night, as it was when my wife and I went to dinner. Can be a bit noisy and difficult to have a quiet conversation. However, the atmosphere is fun and the food never fails to amaze and satisfy. The decor can be a bit dark in the evening, but this is probably done to offset the multitude of voices in a relatively small space. Portions are typical for this sort of restaurant (i.e. it’s not the place to go if you are starving and looking for bulk). They’re not inadequate, but I almost always finish a meal wishing I had a bit more.
In terms of my meal, for an appetizer I ordered one of the specials: Hungarian Cauliflower Soup. For the entree, I went for the Porcini Crusted Grilled Tenderloin of Beef with Fingerling Potatoes, Roasted King Trumpet Mushrooms, Arugula, and Picholine Olive Salsa Verde. For wine, I selected a 2000 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir by the glass, and a 2002 Fife Zinfandel from Mendocino with my entree. For dessert, I ordered the Mutsu Apple Tart Tatin with Tahitian Vanilla Gelato.
The Hungarian soup (labeled as such because of the use of paprika) was fantastic. Rich and creamy with a wonderful balance between the paprika and the cauliflower. Neither overpowered the other; it was sublime. The beef tenderloin was also superb; I savored each and every bite. The Pinot was a disappointment, hence my change to the Zinfandel, which was a much better match with the beef. The tart tatin with the vanilla gelato was a perfect cap to a fantastic dinner.
I really enjoy Insalata's and have eaten there many times. I like knowing that when I ‘m going to a higher-end (read: more expensive) restaurant, I can pretty much be assured that anything I order off the menu will be delicious. The atmosphere is such that there is an energy or a buzz (at least on a Saturday night), without the sense that one is at an “in" place. Frankly, there are many repeat customers who enjoy the food and who keep returning. I would recommend Insalata's (and have done so) to anyone looking for a great meal in a warm and lively environment, and I will continue to return as often as possible.
Occupation: Public Relations
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Limón
Reviewed Insalata's: Saturday, October 15, 2005
It was a dark road, but we saw the sign from afar. Insalata's kind of reminded me of the restaurants we would go to in the suburbs in Chicago. But after we parked and walked toward the front doors, we were greeted by a gorgeous trellis of ivy growing from the columns and walls of the restaurants. I was almost taken aback, because you don’t really see that at restaurants in The City.
Upon being seated (which we promptly were), bread was delivered to our table. One was a sourdough, and the other some sort of wheat bread with walnuts. Our server was very friendly and helpful. We started with the fattoush salad, to share. They brought it out already separated onto two plates, so we wouldn’t have to cross the table sharing the plate. Love it when restaurants do that! The salad was very good. It was crisp and tossed with just the right amount of dressing, which was a light and refreshing lemon-mint vinaigrette.
There were several things on the menu that really sounded good. It was hard for me to narrow my choices down! But I was in the mood for chicken, which is rare, but for some reason the braised chicken sounded really good to me. I asked the server for her thoughts and when she claimed that it was her favorite dish on the menu, I knew that it should be a pretty good choice. My husband ordered the seared ahi tuna.
When our dishes arrived, we were so surprised by how generous the portions were. My dish had two chicken thighs atop a bed of delicious creamy polenta. It was accompanied by lots of mixed mushrooms and root vegetables. I pierced the chicken with my fork, and a huge chuck immediately fell right off the bone, showing how tender the meat really was. My first bite was heavenly -- with a little bit of polenta and mushrooms. The chicken was so soft and the flavor was exquisite. All I could say was “MMMMMMM…” This is one of the best chicken-on-the-bone dishes I’ve ever had.
My husband’s tuna arrived perfectly seared. The presentation was nice and appetizing: the two 3-ounce pieces of fish were cut on a diagonal and placed on top of a bed of haricot verts and roasted peppers with crispy potatoes (almost like really thick-cut, 1-inch, square potato chips) in a preserved lemon vinaigrette. Both of us couldn’t stop saying, “This is SOOOO good” about our food.
Although we were very full, the dessert menu was so interesting. Usually at most places, we will only like one or two items, but here there were several that sounded good to us. We are big fans of macaroons and when we saw the “French Dip” we knew we had to get it. It was basically bittersweet chocolate mousse sandwiched between two coconut-almond macaroons. It came with a warm mocha-caramel dipping sauce, which made it even richer but not too rich. Very velvety and a nice ending to a meal with lots of fall flavors.
Overall, I would definitely come back to Insalata’s and recommend it to friends (esp. to ones who live in North Bay). If it was in The City, I would probably come here pretty often. It’s got really great food, and the prices are very reasonable. They also have a good take-out menu that seems to be a popular choice for locals.
Occupation: Film Festival Director
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Viks Chaat Corner
Reviewed Insalata's: Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Insalata's is the kind of place we've almost come to take for granted in the Bay Area: a beautiful room with a dramatic open kitchen turning out high-quality, innovative preparations of Cal-Mediterranean food. Whether it's Zax or Zuni or Lalime's or Insalata's, we sometimes forget that any one of these places would probably be a regional destination restaurant in most cities in the U.S. Here, we can fuss over whether we really want to drive to San Anselmo or Solano Avenue to get the experience. In the case of Insalata's, Marin County's entry into this niche, it definitely holds its own in the quality of the environment and overall dining pleasure, even if it is not an utterly unique food experience.
The most immediately pleasurable thing about the place is the ambience of the dining room. Despite the suburban location, the high-ceilinged room, large plate glass windows, and oversized, unmounted still lifes of bright fruits give Insalata's a polished urban feeling. Handsome light wood chairs, dark wood tables, and dark contemporary iron railings add a sophistication, as do the pretty, angular, parchment-like lanterns hanging over the large centrally-located bar area. The menu has an interesting, if small, selection of appetizers, pastas, and main courses; all of them taking their primary inspiration from Mediterranean -- especially Moroccan -- ingredients and flavors. The soup special on our visit was a creamy cauliflower spiked with red pepper. The consistency was lovely, even if the cauliflower flavor could have been more pronounced. A contemporary version of the standby insalata mista found thin shreds of prosciutto and sweetly pickled red onions dancing with extremely delicate greens; the dressing was rather spare. Main courses included a beautifully seared, medium rare, ahi tuna with a flavorful crust bursting with toasted cumin and served alongside tender grilled fennel and haricots verts. The very meaty and generous duck breast was served a little too flabby-rare, and the skin had a slightly refrigerated flavor underneath a very nice pomegranate glaze, but the plate was redeemed by a crunchy-creamy quinoa cake studded with whole corn kernels, and a sparkling sauté of spinach and tart tomato chutney. All the ingredients were floating in a little too much of the flavorful duck jus, but frankly it was too good to complain about... Dessert was a winner: a dense budino (fallen soufflé) of dark chocolate sitting beneath a spectacularly intense scoop of vanilla gelato permeated with Tahitian vanilla. Crunchy bits of praline made every bite a delight.
The beverage list boasted an unusually large selection of interesting wines by the glass and beers on tap, and the service was attentive and helpful. I would certainly recommend Insalata's to anyone interested in dining in Marin County, but because of the embarrassment of riches in our restaurant-blessed region, I am not sure I would send someone across a bridge just to dine here. OK, I'm spoiled.