May 9-15, 2007

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First Bite


By Carey Sweet

AVA stands for American Viticultural Area, meaning where a domestic grape is grown. The AVA of a wine is said to dramatically influence its quality and flavor profile (that terroir term we're all so fond of tossing around these days). Marketing hype or truth? It helps for the taster to have superb sensory skills, but actually, a grape raised in a posh neighborhood can be remarkably superior to one born into a poor house.

AVA is also the name of a hot new restaurant on the main street in San Anselmo. Brought to us by husband-and-wife team Dan and Holly Baker (owners of the popular Provincial French Marché aux Fleurs in Ross), it focuses on one of America's richest culinary AVAs: its own backyard. Main ingredients are strictly sourced from within 100 miles, meaning poultry comes from Petaluma, striped bass is hooked in our own Pacific waters, cheeses are contributed by happy animals across the NorCal counties and even the salt is harvested from the sparkling Sonoma Coast waters.

We're supposed to be impressed that all the meats and fish here are sustainably raised and caught, breads are artisan fresh-baked and much of the produce is purchased directly from local farmers at the Marin County Farmers Market. Truth? This terroir treatment is terrific. It's impossible not to taste how remarkably superior ultrafresh, well-cared-for ingredients can be to mass-marketed stuff trucked in after sitting around in a warehouse somewhere.

I wouldn't have ordered something as fragile as roasted celery root soup ($8.50) otherwise. But this creamy, thick purée is vibrant, rustic and delightfully tart-crunchy with garnishes of chopped green apple, croutons and crème fraîche. And while virtually every California-style restaurant lately has a strawberry, bleu cheese and hazelnut salad, AVA's version is extraordinary thanks to its top-notch arugula, Point Reyes bleu, crisp hazelnuts and brilliant Watsonville strawberries ($9.50).

It would be easy enough to make a meal of AVA's delightful "nibbles," paired with a glass or several from the list of California family-owned-only wineries. There are Marin root radishes with butter and sea salt ($4) and a fun Redwood Hills goat cheese fondue with croutons and Marin honey ($5). A tiny plate of dates ($7) is like savory candy, the fleshy fruit stuffed with St. George cheese and wrapped in Hobbs bacon.

This is not to say that high-end ingredients can save AVA's periodically careless cooking. Fresh from Petaluma or not, the fried chicken ($16) featured a massive chicken leg still connected to its thigh that was salty and greasy and unwieldy, paired with salty green chard tossed with shallots and salty pancetta. And while a toss of pappardelle, artichokes, Bellwether Farms ricotta, pea tendrils and Meyer lemon sounded positively exquisite, what showed up was disconnected, oddly flavorless and clumsy to eat (toppings simply slid off the too chewy, wide noodles).

Happily, pan roasted Olsen pork loin ($19.50) was perfect, plated with rhubarb and a big hunk of decadent bacon that's really just glorious, braised fat. Entrées include one side dish, and my choice of potato, cauliflower and Carmody cheese gratin was intensely satisfying.

Even with a few missteps, here's another truth: AVA is a wonderful addition to any neighborhood.

AVA, 636 San Anselmo Ave., San Anselmo. Open for lunch and early dinner, Tuesday-Saturday. 415.453.3407.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.