In the '70s this city led the country into a food revolution. Then the '80s came along and San Francisco sat back and watched the revolution rush past. As other cities eagerly experimented with new ideas, discovered new cuisines, tasted, tried and generally stirred up a passion, San Francisco slumped to a standstill. Good restaurants here continued to be wonderful, but when you asked "What's new?" the answer invariably was "Not much."
Now we've hit the '90s, and it looks as if San Francisco is on the move again. While the rest of the country continues to spawn copy-cat restaurants, bringing us more pasta, more blendo cuisine, more 8,000-ingredient concoctions on the cutting edge of nothing, San Francisco has just given birth to two true originals.
One is in the city, one is in the country. One is cozy, one is cool. Their inspirations come from continents separated by many miles and many oceans. The two restaurants, in fact, could hardly be more different. They are, however, alike in two respects: each serves absolutely delicious food and neither is like any other restaurant in any other place.
LARK CREEK INN
It's apple cider weather in Marin County. At 9 a.m., people are tucking their hands beneath their crossed arms as they stroll through the twice-weekly farmer's market, inspecting curly cabbage and picking over rosy bunches of radishes. At one stand a man runs his fingers through baby lettuces which fill a child's plastic wading pool to overflowing. "Beautiful," murmurs Bradley Ogden dreamily. Then he spies a bunch of wild onions in the next stand and pounces on them. "I just love coming to this market," he says, reaching for his wallet.
Ogden lives half a mile in one direction. His new restaurant, Lark Creek Inn, is a couple miles in the other. "How you doing?" people ask. "When you coming in?" he replies, tossing sacks of walnuts and boxes of broccoli into the back of his pick-up truck. He wanders off to buy some more produce, leaving the truck unlocked. "I figure if somebody takes it," he says, "they really need it." With Ogden's shy smile and all-American looks, the scene seems straight out of Norman Rockwell. It's not: at 36, Bradley Ogden is one of the best-known chefs in America, and the reply to "when you coming in?" is likely to be "I haven't been able to get a reservation."
"I've always wanted my own place," says Ogden, driving through a stand of redwoods and up to the inn. Smoke spirals peacefully out of the chimney, perfuming the air both inside and out. A suckling pig roasts in the fire; quails turn on the spit above it. The air is heavy with the scent of roasting meat and baking cakes.
Ogden made a name for himself at San Francisco's Campton Place, where he served elegantly upscale American fare of the sort that put American food back on the map. Here he is doing something different. "This is my food," he says. "It's more than American. It is seasonal. It is robust." And, he might add, there is a lot of it.
Unlike so much of what is called new American cooking, this is food for real people with real appetites. It's food that would please both your Aunt Minnie and your most finicky foodie friend. It is food with roots.
At lunchtime, you might start with a bowl of roasted butternut squash soup-- deep orange, deeply flavorful and completely comforting. Or a basket of crisply fried squid and clams with homemade cocktail sauce. Or applewood smoked ham served with pears, applesauce and bread sticks. These are the very best American ingredients cooked with disarming simplicity. You could go on to a baked meat loaf sandwich (served on grilled brioche) or one of the world's largest burgers. Feel like more? How about Yankee pot roast with parsley and onion dumplings?
Leave room for dessert. These are take-no-prisoners portions of the sort of sweets that go straight to the soul of America: berry shortcake with buttermilk ice cream fills an entire plate. Butterscotch pudding is a dream. Devil's food cake is so dark and dense you know it must have a secret ingredient (it does).
Dinner follows the same basic scenario. The portions are huge. The food is delicious. Everything is fresh, seasonal, filled with flavor. You can tuck into a plate of braised oxtails or simply settle in with gently grilled shellfish served with new potatoes. There is grilled beef liver-- a real steak that has been basted with the fat from country bacon. Salmon is pan-roasted. Spit-roasted free range chicken comes with potatoes mashed with chives.
What makes this food different from that served in other American restaurants is Ogden himself. His feet are firmly planted in rural America; he visited New York City for the first time as an adult, and did not take his first trip to Europe until three years ago. He's a well-trained, talented chef, and for years he paid his dues, putting on the ritz and cooking finicky food for people who wanted it. Now he's serving the food that he likes to eat. He put a fried egg sandwich on the bar menu--and was thrilled to discover that it's exactly what we've been wanting to eat too.
Lark Creek Inn, 234 Magnolia Ave., Larkspur. (415) 924-7766. Dinner for 2, food only, $45-$70.