38 Miller Ave.
Mill Valley, CA 94941
Modern bistro fare
Dinner nightly; lunch Tuesdays-Fridays; weekend brunch
Entrees (dinner): $13.50-$33
Full bar, good wine list
Since taking the helm at Balboa Café in October 2015, Chef Howard Ko has been slowly infusing the menu with his take on classic bistro choices and the resulting dishes are beautiful, surprising and (most important) absolutely delicious. We tried a wide sampling of menu items and enjoyed every one.
We started with a glass of Roederer Estate Brut Rosé NV (Anderson Valley) and a light, fresh salad of Marin Roots Farm petite greens tossed in a bright sherry vinaigrette, which was a nice palate opener.
A burrata (fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream) was wonderfully gooey and delicate, topped with pomegranate molasses (sweet and tart), arugula (peppery) and baby and shaved daikon radishes (crunchy, nutty). Served with simple, buttery crostinis, it was a delightful start.
Chicken liver mousse, a new menu item, was garnished with a coffee crumble and cranberry. Served with more crostinis, it started with a cocoa-like sweetness that evolved to a rich and savory finish, much like a glass of red wine. To pair, we enjoyed 2013 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir (Santa Barbara), which was smoky, meaty and supple.
Japanese Hamachi crudo was almost too pretty to eat. Accompanied by a black sesame puree (that, seriously, would taste good on a rock), avocado, soy, cucumber, pink grapefruit and red shiso, it was a delight for both the eyes and taste buds. The interplay of textures and bright versus soft flavors was a treat.
A duet of salads came next. The first was a Lyonnaise (frisee, bacon, fried potatoes and mustard vinaigrette), which was served warm and topped with a poached egg. The broken egg yolk coated all the elements with a creaminess that was rich and satisfying. Charred broccoli salad with quinoa, avocado, preserved lemon, herbed almonds and black garlic ranch highlighted Chef Ko’s ability to mimic flavors, with the charred bits of broccoli, almonds and quinoa all delivering nutty elements that built upon each other, with the herbs and mild garlic enhancing (rather than dominating) the dish.
My next dish was olive oil poached halibut, which was flaky and perfectly dressed with a sauce of mussel juice, fresh cream and dill oil; and served with cauliflower and fresh mixed greens. What impressed me was how the sauce and vegetable components enhanced the fish’s delicacy rather than overpowering it. The dish paired well with a 2013 d'Arenberg The Hermit Crab Viognier Marsanne (Australia).
Across the table, my husband enjoyed prime rib, cooked medium rare and plated with celery root puree, celery and charred radicchio. The dish was savory and bold, made even more so by Ko’s housemade steak sauce. It was matched with 2013 Textbook Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) for a complete contrast to my entrée. We also sampled pork tenderloin with grilled pearl onions and parsnip, fresh greens and a swirl of nettle sauce, an earthy, succulent choice—especially when paired with 2011 Wild Hog Vineyards Petite Sirah (Dunnigan Hills).
At this point, my husband opted to end with an espresso martini, and I was abandoned to carry on alone. Next up: desserts.
After a meal this extensive, there was no way I had room for more. But I nevertheless sampled bites of several outstanding treats. The cheesecake was tangy, airy and light; key lime pie was rich and tart; crème brulee was lush and lovely; and the chocolate mousse was dark, velvety and dense. But when a massive chocolate sundae arrived, I simply couldn’t resist: Knob creek bourbon, butter pecan ice cream topped with pistachios, caramel and chocolate sauce. It was decadence of the highest order—I ate the whole thing (and I’d do it again!).
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