Turns out that eating a burger inside a butcher shop isn't as off-putting as you might imagine. At least not at Belcampo Meat Co., one of the most sustainable and humane meat producers in the country. Whatever qualms I anticipated feeling didn't arise, because eating meat in this monument to it is a singularly pleasurable experience.
Belcampo's restaurant and butcher shop is the head of a whole meat production chain that the company owns and manages, from raising its free-range animals on its 10,000-acre, CCOF-certified organic farm up near Mt. Shasta to processing them at its Yreka slaughter facility, designed with input from animal-empath Temple Grandin. The 3-month-old butcher shop and restaurant in Larkspur, 30 minutes north of San Francisco, is a prototype for planned expansion into the city and other points in California over the next year.
You hear the platitude great meals come from great ingredients spouted a lot around the Bay Area in relation to produce, but not so much about protein. A major reason Belcampo's dishes are so delicious and satisfying is the quality of the meat — which is not to discount the smarts of chief executive Anya Fernald and head chef Ross Wollen, who have created dishes that put their product in the spotlight. They've also cannily designed the menu to highlight meat cuts they can't easily sell in the butcher shop, ensuring they use as much of the animals as possible.
Case in point: a brunch hash made with braised beef cheeks so tender they melt in your mouth, accompanied by diced potatoes and a poached farm-fresh egg. It was simple comfort food, but the intensely beefy flavor of the meat was a revelation, one of those lightbulb moments that remind you how beef is supposed to taste: wild, gamey, interesting. This boldness is intentional – the beef is dry-aged in the butcher shop for 21 days to draw out its flavor. "I want it to have real personality," Fernald says.
The beef is certainly the life of the party in the French dip — properly soft bun, a light bite from horseradish sauce, complex and beefy au jus — as well as the juicy cheeseburger. Both go very well with beef tallow fries (which have that umami roundness that McDonald's spends a lot of money artificially creating) and come with house-made ketchup so sweet it almost tastes like tomato jam.
Cow isn't the only thing on the menu, however — all sorts of flesh and fowl are represented. Lunch one day brought a goat meat sandwich, the meat tempered with Middle Eastern spices that softened its gamey edge. A sweet tomato cream sauce blanketed two well-seasoned, porky meatballs with an ideal meat-to-fat ratio. Turkey in a fricassee was so tender and flavorful you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for pork. Dinner brings bigger entrees like a 1.5-pound maple-glazed pork belly, which can be shared.
It should be obvious by now that this is no place to take a vegetarian. Even the salads are heavy on the meat, like a red cabbage slaw with walnuts and big rashers of bacon, or a chicory salad with a sherry dressing, topped with an optional chicken gizzard confit.
Belcampo is in the Marin Country Mart, a faux-rustic mall across from the ferry terminal. Its foodie options include a brewpub, a bakery, an ice cream shop, and an upscale Latin American joint, tucked in among several bougie shops. (When asked for directions to the bathroom, we were told they were "outside to the right, next to the dog clothing store." It's that kind of place.)
The butcher shop-restaurant itself is bright, tiled, and airy, painted with the shop's signature burnt orange and hand-drawings of animals with little blurbs about how happy they are. Half of the space is devoted to the open kitchen and marble-topped dining tables; the other serves as the butcher shop and store, which peddles local products like Frog Hollow jam and Blue Bottle coffee as well as cuts of meat, from steaks and chops to marrow bones and sweetbreads. In March, Fernald and Wollen plan to open a deli counter serving their own pastrami, corned beef, and turkey sandwiches, plus meats by the pound.
And that's the utopian ideal of a butcher shop-restaurant — the dishes are advertisements for the product, which you can then purchase and make yourself, knowing you're making a choice for the environment as well as for flavor. On a weekend visit, we were so impressed with the richly spiced sausage on the breakfast sandwich (which was draped with a lovely, lemony hollandaise), we ended up walking away with a few packets of sausage and a carton of farm-fresh eggs for later. The company will launch online ordering and delivery this month, and Fernald plans to expand into Los Angeles and Palo Alto this year, with a San Francisco location tentatively planned for early 2014. The world will be a better place for it.