Eating En Route to Wine Country

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SPS’ app-sized shrimp of my dreams; photo by Deirdre Bourdet.

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Can you pick your favorite out of this punch lineup? Photo by Deirdre Bourdet.

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Photo by Deirdre Bourdet.

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Vin Antico’s spaghettini with pork; photo by Deirdre Bourdet

By 707 correspondent, Deirdre Bourdet.

Marin County isn’t technically in the 707, but its location makes it the logical stopping off ground for folks coming from the city up north (or vice versa)—particularly when 101 is backed up and hunger and/or road rage strikes. I recently had the excellent fortune of being invited to check out two of Marin’s cutting edge eateries, and honestly can’t wait to return to either one.

~THE SOUTHERN PACIFIC SMOKEHOUSE~ opened in Novato in May, courtesy of Rick Riess (former CEO of the PlumpJack Group) and Nashville recording artist/barbecue aficionado Philip Claypool. Think Southern-style comfort cooking meets Pacific coast ingredients and live music in a high style atmosphere. This place is seriously SWANK—the restaurant describes the décor as “industrial machine age meets Roadhouse fun,” rather incongruously perched at the edge Novato’s Vintage Oaks shopping center … but the location right off 101 makes for easy driving and even easier parking.

Notwithstanding the stylin’ décor and sophisticated bar menu, the food is built to please, prices are attainable, and service couldn’t be sweeter. Nifty handheld controllers let servers send drink orders while they’re still standing at the table, and sometimes the drinks arrive from the bar before the server has even left. Some of the highlights of my visit were the (seemingly) filler-free crab and shrimp cakes with cayenne-lemon emulsion, and the sick spice-rubbed shrimp and grits in a pan sauce made with Worcester-glazed shallots and crème fraîche. Man. I still dream about that dish. Fortunately the restaurant will be selling the spice blend, as well as the house sauce for you to take home once their retail operation gets going.

And then there is the artisanal cocktail menu by Alex Bachman—a good 15 minutes’ read. Manhattan drinkers, take note: there is an entire submenu dedicated to you. Barman Bachman clearly has a taste for bourbon, so the restaurant also has its own label of Evan Williams, and is working on scoring a couple of barrels of whisky from Even Kulsveen next. There’s also a really interesting selection of old-school adult punches by the glass and pitcher, made on the not-so-sweet side so they actually work with food. I particularly dug the Garrick Club Punch (Bombay London Dry gin, Luxardo Maraschino, lemon, club soda) with the crab cakes. Non-drinkers can also enjoy some sophisticated flavors thanks to the nonalcoholic cocktail menu also offered.

The restaurant has an adjoining live music venue—“the Smokehouse”—with performers Wednesday through Sunday nights. 100% of the cover charges for shows ($5-$20) goes to the talent and production expenses, so quit yer griping that it’s not free. Now that the outdoor patio is open for business too, this place is a no-brainer for a pit stop mid-way between Napa and SF. 224 Vintage Way (in the Vintage Oaks shopping center), Novato, 415-899-9600.

For those wanting a stop closer to the city, ~VIN ANTICO~ in San Rafael has some surprisingly delicious things going on these days thanks to chef Ed Vigil. The tiny little storefront is right downtown on Fourth Street, just steps from the edge of the San Rafael farmers’ market. The place is adorable, the kind of neighborhood joint everyone wishes was in their ‘hood. The wine list has an eclectic selection from all over the world, with plenty of interesting items from more unusual areas—all of which are food-friendly, because that’s the main attraction after all.

I was invited to check out the Sunday night “Spaghettata” that Vin Antico launched this summer, a special $25 prix-fixe offering inspired by the Italian tradition of impromptu spaghetti dinners. Unlike a classic spaghettata, however, Vin Antico’s version is a multi-course miracle of fresh, hand-rolled pastas of all sizes and shapes, sauced with whatever seasonal produce finds its way to the local farmers’ markets.

When I was there, the menu kicked off with a modern grilled octopus dish with Star Route Farms pickled radishes and rouille, then jumped into the first of the three pasta courses. Delectable corzetti (coins) with a meaty medley of fresh morels, fava beans, and purée of ramps were followed by toothsome spaghettini with braised pork and an earthy caper, wheatberry, and artichoke compote … and then the irresistible Bellwether Farms ricotta gnocchi with English peas, beach mushrooms, and pine nuts in brown butter arrived, requiring a quick transition to the second stomach because there was no option of leaving anything on the plate. Incredibly, the $25 deal also included dessert, which on my night was white chocolate mousse with a saffron, apricot, and plum compote.

It’s hard to fathom a better value for this kind of labor-intensive, seasonally driven cooking. This is a run-don’t-walk kind of deal, perfectly situated to cheer up the sad Sunday night drive home from wine country. 881 Fourth St. at Lootens, San Rafael, 415-454-4492.