The Gossiping Gourmet: First courses are best at Lark Creek

For many years, whenever my husband and I were in San Francisco visiting friends, we always loved to drive up to Larkspur for lunch or dinner at Bradley Ogden's Lark Creek Inn.

So we have been eagerly awaiting the opening of Lark Creek in Fashion Island. The owners have done a beautiful job of remodeling the old Daily Grill space, adding a large outdoor patio and lounge and updating the interior with a very contemporary feel: dark taupe walls, lots of wood, oversized light fixtures and a beautiful mosaic tile wall at the rear.

The atmosphere is sophisticated and casual at the same time. In keeping with what seems to be the trend these days, the room is quite noisy.

Both of our appetizers were very good. A plate of creamy, warm mozzarella was surrounded by chunks of heirloom and cherry tomatoes. The red and yellow cherry tomatoes were as sweet as candy, and the heirlooms were wonderful.

These were the best, most flavorful tomatoes we have eaten all season. They were lightly dressed with an aged sherry vinaigrette, making for a lovely pairing of flavors and textures.

We were intrigued by the barbecued chicken tamale pancake, which turned out to be as innovative as it sounded. On the bottom was a pancake made of seasoned corn meal with kernels of whole corn. Next came pieces of chicken in sweet barbecue sauce topped with avocado salsa and, finally, skinny strips of crispy tortilla.

A sprinkling of cilantro garnished the dish. Each bite was a little different and each was delicious: salty, spicy, savory and sweet.

We were less impressed with the entrees, in particular the head-on gulf prawns ala plancha, which means "grilled on a metal plate." These were big prawns whose heads had been unattached but then placed back on. The crustaceans were in the shell, and the shells had been seasoned with a spice rub.

However, the prawns were rather tasteless, and the rub on the shell was so spicy that it overwhelmed any flavor that the prawns might have had. The best part of the entrée was the bed of vegetables on which they rested. Roasted corn, poblano chilies, cubed zucchini and basil all made up a tasty hash that was dressed with roasted tomato vinaigrette.

We found the Maine lobster spaghetti arrabiata to be much better, but not up to the caliber of the wonderful appetizers. A large bowl of al dente spaghetti provided the bed for a exceedingly small half lobster. There was very little meat to scoop out, although a small piece of sweet claw meat was tossed in the pasta. The tomato sauce had a bit of kick from Calabrese chilies, but the dish really needed more lobster.

Lark Creek also has a selection of almond wood-smoked steaks and chops that are served with a seasonal side and your choice of sauce, including the Lark Creek signature, red wine butter and Bearnaise. The wood-grilled truffle burger sounded like a must-try on another visit: Perigord black truffle cheese, truffle aoli and frisee on a brioche bun.

Dessert was another high point. The Valrhona chocolate Bailey's cake was a moist and wonderful dark chocolate cake surrounding a filling of rich caramel chocolate mousse. It was finished with a hard, sweet, whiskey-flavored chocolate glaze and crunchy candied peanuts. A scoop of yummy salted caramel ice cream completed this treat.

Lark Creek is SPE Certified's first West Coast partner. The menu says SPE stands for sanitas per escam, which is Latin for "health through food." It notes the "stringent standards for nutritional goals, including fat, sodium, vitamin, fiber content and ingredients that also meet sourcing and handling goals which maintain their intrinsic and beneficial qualities."

Lark Creek offers a SPE three-course prix fixe dinner for $32.

TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

Lark Creek

Where: 957 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach

When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Prices:

Appetizers: $9 to $15

Entrées: $15 to $38

Desserts: $5 to $9

Wine:

Bottles: $28 to $105

By the glass: $7.70 to $16.50

Corkage fee: $15

Information: (949) 640-6700 or larkcreeknb.com

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