Sunday, January 25, 2009

French Kaiseki in Mill Valley - An Evening at El Paseo

Our long-time friends Jeff and Karen were in town this weekend and we met up last night for dinner at El Paseo in Mill Valley.

El Paseo has been operating in Mill Valley since the early 1970's and has always been one of our favorite places to have dinner in Marin. It is located in a beautiful brick, ivy-covered building on a path that runs between Thockmorton and Sunnyside Streets in Mill Valley, just a few steps from the main square and the movie theater.

At night it is a very romantic spot-- in fact I noted on OpenTable that it was ranked the #1 most romantic restaurant in the Bay Area.

El Paseo had sadly fallen into a decline in the late 1990's and into the early years of this decade, but in mid-2006 a Japanese gentleman named Seigo Takei, who has a couple of successful high-end French restaurants in Tokyo - La Chouette ("the owl") in Roppongi and Le Coffret in the Ginza - purchased El Paseo and has turned it around. Seigo is a noted wine collector in Japan and El Paseo has always had an extensive California and European wine selection. However, Seigo also brought in Keiko Takahashi to take over as Executive Chef and she has established a very high standard of cuisine.

Keiko was classically trained in Japan in both the European and Japanese culinary traditions and her cuisine at El Paseo reflects French, Italian and Japanese influences. Plus, she is married to Seigo!

Upon our arrival at El Paseo last night we learned that Seigo was in Japan, but we were very well taken care of by Kazumi Tei who oversees the operation during Seigo's absences. We were seated in the large dining room -- a warm, cozy space with soft lighting, a fireplace and excellent acoustics - no need to shout to be heard.

The menu provided the anticipated difficult choices (the items in italics are those which Keiko feels best express her efforts):

Jeff and I both went with the 4-course dinner, while Nancy and Karen opted for the 3-course alternative. In my case I had:

~ Big-eye tuna tartare with wasabi caviar and egg;

~ Forest mushroom risotto with truffles;

~ Pan seared Tai snapper with turnip and seaweed sauce; and

~ Roasted Colorado lamb chop "Provençal."

The others' choices included the duck pate, beet salad, foie gras, scallops, fillet mignon and duck breast, so we had pretty good coverage on the menu. Everything was good but for me the risotto was the standout dish of the evening.

As I mentioned El Paseo has a HUGE wine list - if you actually ask to see the list several volumes materialize. The wine program is under the capable supervision of Hide Hirabayashi, the Wine Director and Sommelier who was previously at La Chouette in Tokyo, and Hide was there last night to guide our selections. On past visits we have always enjoyed the pairings by the glass suggested for each course, and we decided to take that approach again last night. Hide made some very good selections for us (and was most generous with his pours) - in my case I had the following four wines to accompany my four courses:

~ 2005 La Poussie Sancerre [Sauvignon Blanc];

~ 2006 Arista Pinot Noir “Longbow” (Russian River);

~ 2006 Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay (Napa); and

~ 2002 Sympa Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa - a really rich wine!).

Further dessert wines appeared at the end of the meal. I had the Profiteroles to finish off the evening.

For those who do not want a full dinner, El Paseo also has a separate and very intimate bar area with its own menu. For a quick bite and a glass of something interesting, it is certainly someplace to consider.

Today was a beautiful day here and since I was back in Mill Valley to run some errands I walked down the path past the restaurant to take some photos of the building in the morning sun, including some of the tiles and mosaics set in the walls. It is a great spot during the day too.

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