There is an old saying that goes, “the man who has confidence in himself gains the confidence of others.” The self-assured menu, the elegant decor of the dining room, the poised staff, and the confident kitchen combine beautifully to exude confidence throughout Ora, thus gaining the confidence of the diners, in spite of a few imperfections.
Ora is the third and newest transformation of one of Shiram Bijan’s Sunnyside Avenue restaurants. I first knew it as First Crush, which I gave a mixed review to in October 2003. I found First Crush a beautifully designed, conceptually interesting, the menu well thought out, yet some of the dishes were technically flawed and the kitchen lacked complete competence. As Ora, the restaurant is transformed; the menu is intriguing, the wine list extensive with interesting and well thought out selections, and the food is properly executed.
The menu boasts intriguing headings: beginnings, nourishings (soups and salads), land, water and garden. We were able to sample from all categories and were delighted with most everything. The menu is set up to accommodate both diners who like to share and those who prefer not to have other people’s forks on their plates.
From the beginnings, we chose Calamari “Kung Pao” ($8.) Small, slightly chewy squid rings and tentacles are tossed with sweet onions, peppers, chili flakes and roasted peanuts. We found the flavors good, clean, and the dish itself not too oily.
Another beginnings selection brought three glistening mounds of raw fish artistically arranged on a beautiful platter in Trio of Tartare ($12.50) Atlantic salmon dice are lightly coated with miso paste and mustard. Magenta Ahi is paired with tiny brunoise of mango and avocado tempura. Our favorite of the trio was the Hamachi poke—small tuna pieces, lightly kissed with soy sauce, toasted sesame oil and green onion. Perhaps because the Hamachi preparation was the most straight forward of the three, its flavors were clear and complementary. Deep-fried won ton wrappers are served alongside—unfortunately in our case, the server brought them long after the Trio, and didn’t let us know what they were for.
Under the nourishings category, an unusual, intriguing dish is Papaya Salad ($9.50). Shreds of cabbage, mango, green papaya, mint and chicken breast are gently tossed with chilies and lime. The piquant notes were perfectly balanced by the acidic lime, and the variation of colors and textures were beautiful.
Garden offerings were truly outstanding, and definitely worth revisiting. Everyone in our party loved Tempura Haricots Verts ($7.50). Imagine tiny, tender green beans with a gossamer coating of rice flour batter, deep-fried to crisp and greaseless perfection. Now gild the lily with the nuance of truffles and offer a slightly citrus ponzu sauce for dipping, and you’ll arrive at the most exciting and inspired dish of our evening.
East meets West successfully, although subtly in Carnaroli Risotto ($12.) Large plump, al dente grains of Carnaroli rice are bathed in a rich vegetarian stock, and accented with bright green edamame (fresh soy beans) maitake (cultivated chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms) and finely chopped preserved lemon. The combination of texture, color and extremely delicate flavors made this dish intriguing, interesting, but perhaps a bit understated to win over everyone’s palate.
Land offers the most selections: chicken, duck, quail, beef, lamb and pork. We ordered Five-Spiced Duck Confit ($15.), and although it was good, it wasn’t fabulous. Rich, hearty duck can tolerate many layers of flavors, and we were hoping for at least five spices. We couldn’t distinguish anything save the black pepper and cinnamon. The accompanying baby bok choy was delicious, and could stand alone as a dish.
Hoisin BBQ Short Ribs ($16) brought a little mound of tender, beef ribs, braised in soybean paste, sugar, garlic and vinegar. Shredded celery root and tart apples and fried onions rounded out and lightened up the dish. Like the duck, the ribs could have taken on larger flavor dimensions, but as they were, they were good, not great.
Tea Smoked Filet Mignon ($17.) was delicious, as only the king of steaks can be. The melt-in-your-mouth texture of the meat was paired with a small potato cake with a restrained amount of wasabi, sautéed broccolini and a mild bordelaise. We couldn’t detect the advertised flavors however. I didn’t taste any tea smoke or Bordeaux in the meat or the sauce.
Water choices brought our diverse group tuna, salmon and scallops. Seared Bigeye Tuna ($17.) are slices of Ahi that have been seasoned with ginger, garlic, shoyu (rice wine) and yazu (Japanese citrus), then seared and served rare on a bed of daikon sprouts, tiny white mushrooms and a little deep fried soft-shell crab. A splattering of fresh mango coulis brings an esoteric beauty to the plate.
I loved the Diver Scallops ($16.) Giant sea scallops are perfectly cooked—crisped on the exterior, with a succulent and creamy interior. A mélange of wild and exotic mushrooms with a touch of garlic and parsley are excellent partners to the scallops. Salmon Steamed in Banana Leaves ($16.) sounded exotic, but an unseasoned salmon fillet, wrapped and tied up in a neat little green package, under whelmed us. Leeks, shiitake and sesame seeds could have provided some flavor and contrast, yet for an unknown reason, did not.
The wine list is impressive, with something for everyone, from everywhere. Wine and sake director Cate Hughs has culled an international collection, which include several sakes as well as wines from smaller wineries, known as “boutique wines”. Our table selected New Zealand as the pays d’origin for our bottle of Babich Chardonnay ($23.) and Argentina for our Felipe Rutini for our Malbec ($27.)
They were good choices, but with all due respect to our oenophilic dining companions, I prefer when restaurant staff has the confidence to recommend appropriate pairings to our menu.
Save room and time for dessert at Ora. Chocolate Torte ($7.) is deep, bittersweet chocolate with glossy chocolate glaze. A mini, melted milk chocolate milk shake shares the beautiful plate with a light vanilla crème Anglaise, and a tiny scoop of vanilla gelato. The presentation is lovely, although the little milk shake detracted from the torte.
The dessert with the Asian influence was the Classic Bananas “Fosters” ($7.). It was interesting and quite delicious, although I’m not sure what was “classic” A shot glass filled with lemongrass and ginger syrup provided the Asian and astringent elements, even though the effervescence was missing from the advertised soda. Warm bananas come bathed in warm brown sugar caramel sauce, and garnished with fresh coconut and candied almonds.
Striped Red Raspberry Rose Water Panna Cotta ($5.) is another break from tradition, even if it wasn’t that successful. We couldn’t taste the rose water, but the custard itself was well executed—smooth, creamy, with the right amount of gelatin to set the custard, without making it rubbery, a common mistake. We found neither strips nor stripes.
Overconfidence can lead one to overestimate one’s own abilities. At Ora, the confidence in the atmosphere exudes puts diners at ease and makes for a pleasant and interesting experience, even if not every thing is absolutely perfect. After all, confidence is needed in trying something new, in exploring new territory, and in the ability to be comfortable in one’s efforts.
Ora Restaurant, Bar, and Lounge
24 Sunnyside Avenue, Mill Valley
415 381 7500
From The Ark Newspaper