An ode to Manka’s Olema

03/07/2013

This is an ode to The Olema. It is not a review; you can read our review on page one. It is a letter to readers about an opportunity in our midst to experience food and hospitality in a way that is both new, yet seasoned by the past. A meal at this restaurant will stimulate your soul and satisfy your need, or inform you of your need, for a deeper level of nourishment.  

The creators of The Olema are familiar to us: They are the makers of Manka’s Inverness Lodge, which many of you knew as a place of magic. The kitchen, dining room and much of the lodge burned down in 2006 and while plans to rebuild stalled, the owners of the Olema Inn foreclosed.

Margaret, a force of nature, and her partner, Daniel DeLong, meanwhile had twins and continued to run the inn and cook for private events. She is the mastermind of a tireless flow of artistic endeavors, improvements and parties; he is her collaborator. It is a perfect match, judging by its products. The latest is The Olema.

Albeit a piece of history like Manka’s, it is a vastly different canvas. Where Manka’s is hidden amid old oaks and verdure, The Olema stands starkly at the crossroads of Highway One and Sir Francis Drake where it breaks before resuming along Tomales Bay. The current town of Olema is not attractive. There is no obvious natural or built element to harmonize with, no coherence in recent development.  Margaret and Daniel shrouded the inn with black-panther paint, a charcoal gray which recedes but also announces that it is modern. Murmurings around town were mostly of dismay, but I interpret the color as a play on the past. To me, the black Olema will always conjure the ghost of Manka’s, to which The Olema owes its life.

The inside blends with the outside—the natural surroundings and the air of preserved history that imbues West Marin. Upon entry you are assailed by a mass of flowering plum branches, the same that decorate the nearby hills and valleys. Turning left into what used to be a lounge and bar, there is an open room with a massive stone hearth on which a great blue heron stands watch. There are candelabras, expertly stitched (I examined them) woolen drapes separating the four rooms that make up the first-floor restaurant, and a circle of aged Windsor chairs evoking the era in which the inn was built. On one wall is a cluster of taxidermy birds, but otherwise the space would feel stark were it not for the soft, diffuse lighting. The building feels as though it was stripped down to its historical bones, and then a few singular items placed inside, as in a museum or gallery. Also notable are the interior windows, which afford interesting views into others’ intimate dinners.

Then there is the staff. Margaret has a gift for finding, or cultivating, a staff unlike that of any other restaurant. The individuals, who nearly always strike you as being too witty, educated or good-looking to be doing what they are doing, seem to have permission to be themselves. In most restaurants servers have a tacit agreement to hide their idiosyncrasies, contributing to the stiffness of dining out. Here, the freedom to be human brushes off on you at the table. Still, it’s not a casual feeling, for I’m certain the tension can run high in the kitchen. But it is this mix of alertness and humanity that I especially like.

Now to the food: original plates whose simplicity of presentation can belie the effort of preparation. The crab is brought in from Bolinas daily and served nearly in its native state, but the pork belly is “cured three days, cooked in a slow, moist environment for 13 hours, cooled and pressed, then portioned, and somewhere along the way it gets smoked,” according to Daniel. “Then you have to cook it, and then you have to eat it.” The duck is aged two and a half weeks.

Most meats come from Dave Evans, and, just as at Manka’s, other foods are sourced from local farmers, cheese and winemakers, foragers and fishermen. At our table, the bone marrow, warm duck-egg salad and spaetzle were also favorites (the latter, served in a bowl for $5, my son devoured before passing out on my lap on a recent Thursday evening).

Daniel and Margaret are geniuses in the kitchen—including striking the perfect balance of salt, every time—whose gift derives from a pure, driving love of cooking for others combined with intense focus. They say the menu is still being drafted, and promises to offer items like buckets of chicken and donuts, but if it never changed West Marin palates’ are sure to be well served with The Olema open.