All-Star basketball player Shaquille O'Neal believes, "Excellence is not a singular act, but a habit. You are what you repeatedly do."
Applying this philosophy to the team at Larkspur's Picco, Chef Bruce Hill's and Real Restaurants' latest venture I experienced excellence on absolutely every level. On each visit, my experience was perfect in every way, proving that excellence is a habit, and not a singular act.
The menu is seasonal, reflecting local, seasonal ingredients-from the winter cauliflower, to the autumn figs, components are celebrated and polished to bring out their best qualities.
The restaurant itself is lovely, occupying the space that contained the local coffee house Java Java, and more recently the raw foods of Roxanne. These days, the rooms are cozier, more inviting, and friendlier, without being cramped. The interior brick wall remains, and is warmed up with contemporary photographs, comfortable banquettes and high back chairs. The high, lofty ceiling and large windows open up and enlarge the 85 seat room.
I like the way the menu is divided-with straight forward categories: right from the sea, meat, poultry, cheese, shell & fin fish, soup & salads and vegetables. I've found the servers have terrific suggestions not only about menu items, but about the order the dishes should be served and wine pairings as well. In the autumn, our dinner began with Melon Gazpacho Shooters ($1.75 each), a smooth and vibrant puree of melon made savory. More recently we began with a small cup of organic cauliflower and truffle soup ($2.25). Rich and earthy, the slightly coarse puree served as a tabula rasa for the deep earthy truffle oil swirled on top, ascending lowly and unappreciated cauliflower to a new height.
Ceviche is always offered-in the fall with halibut ($9.75), currently with Pacific sea bass. Super thin slices of glisteningly fresh fish overlap each other on a square glass platter and are embellished with finely chopped chilies, cilantro sprouts-the flavors are pure and complement each other beautifully. The chilies are only slightly piquant, but provide just enough spark to gently heat the palate.
A truly elegant, sophisticated presentation elevates the currently mundane Tuna Tartare ($12.95) to a new level. Ruby sequins of Ahi are enhanced with Asian pears, peppery shiso leaves, sesame oil and gently mounded on chewy rounds of sticky rice. The contrasting textures and complementing flavors were what made this now common and ordinary California menu staple into an exceptional dish.
As is the Tuna Tartare polished, so are the Mini Burgers ($9.95) unassuming, yet tremendously popular. Three two-bite burgers are covered with caramelized onion, sautéed mushrooms and a touch of local blue cheese. The flavors are strong yet balanced, and the bun hearty enough to support the components without taking over.
Quail ($13.75) is delicious-a perfectly grilled little bird is boned and butterflied and presented on a little hill of beets that are dressed with a touch of olive oil, rich balsamic vinegar and a few crisp shards of pancetta.
Vegetable offerings are extensive. Torta of erbette chard ($8.50) has become a kitchen mainstay. A classic Western European dish, Chef Hill's interpretation includes ultra thin pastry that enrobes mild chard, that is paired with ricotta, leeks, basil and a touch of Balsamic vinegar.
Broccoli and garlic are good together, and Picco's version renders them excellent. In Broccoli de (sic) ciccio ($6.95) stir fries tender broccoli shoots with toasted garlic, finely chopped chilies and lemon zest.
The wine list is extensive, with interesting selections from most of the world's wine growing regions. The knowledgeable servers are eager to offer appropriate suggestions. Because of the diversity of the dishes, we opted for individual glasses rather than bottles.
Desserts are probably the most unusual features at Picco. In the fall, we enjoyed an extremely refreshing yet intensely flavored Lemon-Basil Ice Cream ($7.75) An Apple Strudel($6.95) was warm and cozy, combining apples, butter, plums, and vanilla ice cream into a sensational presentation. More recently, we savored warm chocolate Madeleines ($2.25 each), paired with delicate and smooth Panna Cotta ($2.00 each). The excellence was in the perfect execution of these classic desserts.
I appreciate the fact that the seafood items on Picco's menu are on the Seafood Watch for Healthy Oceans Best Choices or Good Alternatives list, and that organic produce and local farmers are supported whenever possible. Chef Hill's respect for our planet is indicative of his respect for his staff, purveyors, and ultimately his clientele as well.
The motto at Picco is "taste more-dare to share". I too, prefer savoring a few delicious, perfect bites from several interesting thoughtful dishes, than a massive piece of bland food-there's no value to me in super-sizing. Therein lies the excellence-the balance of flavors and textures, of sizeable portions, of helpful servers, and of comfortable décor. Picco is innovative without being bizarre, elegant without being stuffy and attentive without being overbearing. This is a restaurant where excellence is a habit.
320 Magnolia Avenue,
Open nightly from 5pm to 10pm. Reservations and credit cards accepted. 415 924 0300.
From The Ark Newspaper