The Olema’s cuisine cuts to the bone

David Briggs
Proprietress of Manka’s Inverness Lodge, Margaret Grade (left), acquired the Olema Inn last year. The refurbished 1876 watering hole opened in February, and its menu announced the new owners’ commitment to “cooking delicious food from farms and fields within reach, at prices within reach, for the sake of celebration.” Dinner items include whole crab, bone marrow, oyster shots, pork belly and a vegetarian bouillabaisse. Chef Daniel DeLong says the kitchen will be focused on “best practices. If something is great to grill, we’re going to grill it.” The Olema, located in downtown Olema, opens at 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday.
03/07/2013

After a crisis that nearly destroyed their business, the West Marin culinary legends who put Manka’s on the map are finally cooking again in a refurbished Olema inn at the intersection of Highway One and Sir Francis Drake
Boulevard.

Margaret Grade and Daniel DeLong’s new restaurant, The Olema, is pared down and assertively rustic, the menu a reinterpretation of their core values in a more casual iteration.

The inn, which the culinary team purchased last year and is currently renovating for guests, has been repainted charcoal; the interior is woody and fastidiously decorated—from the hardwood floors to the fireplace in the foyer to taxidermic ornamentation and tables covered with brown paper instead of white linen.

The culinary team has managed to deliver high-concept rustic food faster and at a more reasonable price in this 53-seat restaurant, and has done so without making the food seem like an afterthought to a rebranding ploy. Their minimalism rewards diners in several focused, mature and perfectly composed dishes.

The appetizers shine and are decadent enough to stand on their on. Bone marrow, served melted and in the bone, is divinely dressed down with simple white dinner rolls. The dish is layered with added richness in the form of an oxtail-onion jam.

Another well-executed starter is a slow-cooked duck egg, which

is mixed tableside with chunks of tender potato, leeks, bacon and cabbage.

The dish redeems a folksy British recipe, called bubble and squeak, with a classic combination of ingredients embellished by the addition of the egg and enlivened by salt from the bacon.

On the entree menu, The Olema offers a lamb shank that will appeal to anyone who appreciates braised meat. The shank is cooked to perfection—sinews tendered, served in a delicious glaze and paired expertly with pumpkins—and the flavor of the lamb fat is dark and well developed, brightened by the maple tones of the sauce and pairings.

The menu also offers a vegetarian option—a reinvented bouillabaisse of local zucchini, cauliflower, button mushrooms, fennel and other vegetables—that managed to develop a rich flavor despite not using a fish, beef or chicken stock.

The seafood dishes on the menu also highlight the kitchen’s respectful approach to local food. An appetizer of Tomales Bay Oysters hardly needs improvement from simple presentation on the half-shell, but at The Olema the bivalves are served in a shot glass with an oyster essence jelly. The chefs’ light touch improves the dish.

Likewise the baked crab is an exquisitely fresh choice (Mr. DeLong says he cooks for the fisherman and his crew in exchange for first dibs), and it is seasoned simply with herbs, with fingerling potatoes and a fluffy Meyer lemon aioli on the side.

“To me it’s stuff I’d like to eat if I wasn’t thinking about food,” Mr. DeLong said in an impromptu interview after a recent meal, noting the difficulty of mastering technique and consistency “with ever-changing product.” “This kitchen’s really going to be focused on best practices. If something is great to grill, we’re going grill it.”

The restaurant’s fledgling dessert and wine lists—and offerings for children—may leave customers wanting until they are further developed. On a recent visit dessert was limited to a big bowl of Straus soft-serve ice cream with a choice of four toppings, such as olive oil or Armagnac-brandied prunes. This classic indulgence succeeded as a digestif for the entree-satiated members of our party, but pastry fans will no doubt await more ambitious efforts.

Nonetheless the overall experience, food and service, revealed a professional effort in concept, design and execution.

“Our commitment is to cooking delicious food from farms and fields within reach at prices within reach for the sake of celebration,” the menu says. Indeed the food is local (you can ask your server the name of the farmer, and she may be eating at the table next to you) and the experience a bargain (starchy sides are $5; generously portioned appetizers, $10; and entrees, $20).

It was Felix Garcia, the son of the Mexican soldier granted this land in the 19th century, who gambled away the 1876 farmhouse that is now home to The Olema. Ms. Grade and Mr. DeLong appear determined to avoid any such risks today. West Marin should still feel lucky to have them at home, in their comfort zone, cooking for us.

 

The Olema is located at 1000 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, in Olema. Dinner is served beginning at 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday. For information and reservations call (415) 663.1034  or visit theolema.com.