Ethicurean feast: Five courses at Manka’s Inverness Lodge

Manka's Inverness LodgeThe Dairy Queen Mother is in town visiting from DC, and last week Surfer Sis and I went with her to Stinson Beach for a few nights. After my first-ever attempt at surfing (not successful), in Bolinas, we had a not-very-memorable dinner in Stinson. Well, that's not quite true: the raw Tomales Bay oysters were excellent, and there was one other memorable part. In response to my asking where the lamb was from, our inexperienced waiter replied, "Uh, someplace up north, you know, one of those no-torture farms." All I could picture was a little sheep in an Abu Ghraib hood with wires attached to its hooves. (The chops were actually from Australia.)

This is all to say that I was really looking forward to the next night's dinner, at Manka's Inverness Lodge, which serves a five-course, prix-fixe meal composed primarily of seasonable local ingredients.

The following day, the Potato Non Grata (my husband) and Surfer Sis's boyfriend, Ranger Dave, drove up and joined us. We had a great afternoon playing Frisbee and foxtail on the windy beach, lubricated by a little pinot noir out of plastic cups, and then played hackeysack in the motel garden. My family is not usually this outdoorsy or active; we can thank Ranger Dave for helping us work up an appetite.

Manka's did not disappoint. Tucked away in the woods on a side street above Inverness, it's an expensively rustic-looking place with lots of wood, cozy fireplaces, animal heads and fish on the walls (including a billy goat's), and antique mismatched place settings. Food-related quotations by MFK Fisher, Brillat-Savarin, and others are stenciled on the plaster walls. The service was unobtrusive, knowledgeable, and impeccable. I think it has the best background music — dramatic instrumentals from the Balkans, the Middle East, and Asia — of any restaurant I've ever been to: most places either have some sort of bland Kenny G "classical" or annoyingly present contemporary rock.

Tomato soupThe night's menu was printed in tiny block capitals on a small card. Elsewhere, other amateur reviewers have described Manka's menu style as "precious." I would say it is writerly; someone's having fun making it up, and I like that. I have reproduced it verbatim below so you can decide for yourself.

As we perused the extensive — and intimidating, as it went up to $450 bottles — wine list, we were served a gougere as an amuse bouche. (Translation: a cheesy cream puff as a tiny palate teaser.) Ranger Dave, who is clearly well brought up, announced he was ordering the first bottle of wine, and he chose a 2000 Peacock Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa for a cool hundred bucks. We gasped. It was worth it: velvety, not front loaded like the cheaper wines the Potato and I usually buy, and with slight chocolate and cinnamon notes.

mankas_souffle.jpgHere's the menu:

"A soup of local autumnal tomatoes dotted with wee puffs of Ig's aged jack": Good but not outstanding, the puffs slightly on the soggy side and the tomato broth slightly undersalted.

"Crimson Bolinas beets alongside a twice-baked soufflé of local goat's milk cheese": The soufflé was melt-in-your mouth airy, just enough to satisfy, and the very thinly sliced beets that accompanied it were perfectly cooked, with an almost Shiraz sort of winey flavor.

"The king of surrounding seas slightly smoked in our wood fired oven propped atop leaves of local romaine in another little sea of Tomales mussels": I thought this salmon was out of this world, with an intense applewood flavor, barely cooked so more fleshy than flaky. The splash of mussel-tinged sauce was perfect with the chunks of grilled romaine. However Ranger Dave, a salmon lover, thought the fish's natural flavor lost out in the competition with the smoke.

mankas_salmon.jpgUnfortunately by this time we were all out of the Peacock Cab, so we ordered a 1988 Marin County Quail Hill Cabernet ($75) for the next course of duck. Although it didn't produce the aaahs that the Peacock did upon first sniff and sip, it opened up nicely. It was more tannic, with a slight blue-cheese tang that some found offputting. We rather wished we'd had the two wines in reverse order.

mankas_duck.jpg"Breast of Jim's ducks seared over almond wood draped over a hash of Peter's potatoes and confit of duck leg": The sliced pieces of breast were as tender, fatty, and delicious as I would imagine medallions of human baby. The Potato and I weren't as crazy about the hash, which seemed just a little over the top rich and greasy. I asked, and was told the ducks were Penngrove, from Petaluma. A little research uncovered that "Jim" is Jim Reichardt, of Sonoma County Poultry's Liberty Ducks, who supplies pretty much every fine Bay Area restaurant with his outdoor-penned birds.

mankas_pie.jpg"A miniature pie of Inverness apples with local dairy whipped cream to your heart's desire": Oh, boy. This dessert slayed me, it was so buttery/lardy rich and delicious, with a sweet crumbly top over still-crisp apple slices. The head waiter came around with a big serving bowl of whipped cream with almond extract to ladle on top. Surfer Sis took "to your heart's desire" to mean "as much as you want" and asked for an extra scoop. I was jealous.

mankas_cookie.jpgBy the time we were done, almost three hours later, we were full but not groaningly so. The portions had been reasonably sized and the courses well paced. And then we got a little silver plate of snickerdoodles warm from the oven, which pretty much sent me over the top. (I suppose I didn't have to have two of them, but…) All in all, I would consider this Ethicurean feast a bargain at $58 per person, not including wine and service — and even if you're not staying in the area, well worth the hour-plus drive.

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