Photograph by Michael Amsler
Seaside Sanctuary: Co-owners Melinda Montanye and Jackie Martine have designed the Seaweed Cafe to be a comfortable, sophisticated, yet unpretentious West County destination.
The Seaweed Cafe offers guests the royal treatment
By Davina Baum
The New York Times' Sunday Styles section this past weekend featured an entertaining story about the business of restaurant reviews in Britain. It seems that the idea of anonymity is thrown out the kitchen window altogether. Reviewers are widely known, they take sides, and they're damn nasty. The major reviewers are celebrities and are treated as such--under duress, of course, since the restaurants are at their mercy; what they write in the national papers can make or break a business.
Though they might disagree, as a whole, American restaurants therefore have it easy in a land where reviewers remain anonymous (in any principled media outlet): Treat everyone like a queen or king, serve them your very best, and word of mouth and a review here and there will reflect that.
This, it seems, might be the unspoken philosophy of Bodega Bay's Seaweed Cafe. Tucked into a little strip between Highway 1 and the marina, between a tackle shop and a gallery (convenient if the need for pile worms or blown glass arises), the warm, small space--with its yellow walls hung with bright watercolors--seats maybe 30 people. The tables, set rather tightly with miniature pepper plants, run the length of the restaurant, facing the galley kitchen. Space is at a premium, but the staff manage to dance around each other rather gracefully.
Four of us stepped into this comforting atmosphere on a damp Saturday night and were greeted kindly. I must admit that our companions were, by chance, neighbors with the chef. But by the looks of happy patrons (and tables are close enough to peer onto their plates and chat amicably), any special treatment was shared equally.
The menu features a four-course prix fixe menu ($48) as well as tantalizing à la carte selections. The wines are entirely culled from west Sonoma County--a great selection. About five are offered by the glass, written on a chalk board. We started with a bottle of the Davis Bynum 1999 Russian River Valley Merlot ($37).
One of our companions got the prix fixe menu, while the rest of us chose from the à la carte menu. Though this caused some problems in the pacing (the four courses of the prix fixe struggling to jibe with the three courses of the à la carte diners), it was the best way to sample from across the menu.
Of the starters, the smoked sturgeon on a potato pillow ($12) was almost a meal in itself. Three meaty, pale slices of sturgeon were draped seductively over a rather ample potato cake, which was topped with generous spoonfuls of blackest-night squid-ink roe and a pale-green wasabi roe. Bites of the mellow, smoked fish with the bright, salty roe and creamy potato were swoony-good. Seaweed salad and pickled cucumbers and daikon completed the plate--a riot of sea delights.
The rabbit terrine ($8) was beautifully herbed and gamy. The garden greens ($9) were bathed lightly in a citrusy vinaigrette and served with a generous slab of Point Reyes blue cheese--though some grapes slipped and slid around the plate, eluding the fork.
Finishing off the Bynum, we moved on to the Unti 2001 Dry Creek Valley Syrah ($24). The entrées continued to impress. Roasted duck Magret ($27)--perfectly medium rare--was served with grilled radicchio, risotto-style rice, turnips, chestnuts, and rich chanterelle and morel mushrooms.
Baked butter beans with duck sausage and clams ($18.95), which our server pointed to as one of Seaweed Cafe's specialties, was served in a casserole dish, hot out of the oven, where the tomatoey broth had been given a chance to mingle with the small, meaty clams, the tangy sausage, and the creamy beans.
The only misstep of the evening was the glazed sturgeon roasted on alder wood ($23). The slightly underdone fish was meaty, moist, and delicious, but the strong flavor of the coriander seed crust overwhelmed the fish and had to be scraped off. The quinoa cake it sat on was bland and the accompanying greens too bitter.
(A brief aside to talk about the bathroom. A small tin atop the toilet holds tampons, a minor touch that may not mean much to half the population but signifies a departure from typical restaurants. The local maps on the walls in the bathroom may extend your stay there.)
The prix fixe menu started with a trio of Hog Island sweetwater oysters, dressed in red and green roe (flavored with wasabi and daikon). The sweet little bivalves luxuriated in their juices, providing bites of salty warmth. They were followed by braised beef cheeks (the menu also offers a choice of crab Voltaire or a potato tortilla and roasted tomatoes with stuffed cherry peppers), tender chunks of meat served in a casserole with turnips, chestnuts, and carrots--a perfect winter dish. The Joe and Mary Matos' St. George mini fondue arrived with four points of toast, too few to lap up the delicious, sharp, and very runny raw cow's milk cheese.
The prix fixe ended with a persimmon pudding, a seasonal, creamy delight topped with a buttermilk cream. This was the best of the desserts. The Meyer lemon tart ($7) and Victoria chocolate tart ($8) each sat atop a tough crust, both fillings suffering a gluey demise. The dessert wine list could be more extensive. The only choices are an Eric Ross 1999 port ($4.50) and the Iron Horse 1997 classic brut ($38). The West County wineries make some wonderful late harvest wines that would fill in the gaping hole there. Espresso--served in votive candleholders--and large mugs of coffee ended our meal.
Throughout, our server was charming and helpful, although the wait for our first course was a little long and silverware was not readily replaced between courses.
The Seaweed also serves breakfast and lunch daily except Tuesday and Wednesday, and brunch on weekends. Their menu for each meal is extensive. The weekday breakfast, which includes things like French toast with poached fruits and fried trout with bacon and spaghetti squash, makes one dream of endless slow mornings waiting for the fog to burn off.
The focus on local, seasonal foods is trendy and familiar, but Seaweed Cafe has no pretense whatsoever; in fact, its casual name belies the sophistication coming from the kitchen. Its intentions have nothing to do with trends and everything to do with quality and taste, and their treatment of guests allows everyone a touch of royalty.
Breakfast and lunch, 8:30am-2:30pm, Thursday-Monday; dinner, 5:30-9:30pm, Friday-Sunday. 1580 Eastshore Road, Bodega. Call for reservations. 707.875.2700.
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From the November 13-19, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.