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Dependable Pleasures 

Or, Paradise Regained -- at least as far as lobsters are concerned

Wednesday, Jan 18 2006
The realization came to me with a jolt. I'd forgotten to mention one of the best things I'd eaten at Scott Howard in my review, something we had all liked so much we'd requested seconds of it both times we were there, recklessly ignoring not only the recent bad press ladled out to carbohydrates, but also our parents' frequent admonition at restaurant meals: "Don't fill up on bread." The irresistible item was the tiny shallot and Gruyère biscuits, the most delectable offering in a better-than-usual basket that included focaccia and wheat bread.

Such esprit de l'escalier moments are rare, happily. Perhaps the biscuits swam into memory because I was mourning the loss of one of my favorite baked goods, the almond cherry loaf cake that I never failed to pick up if I was in the delightful Rockridge Market Hall in Oakland. A counterperson told me that the bakery had eliminated the cake from its lineup because the price of almonds had gone up precipitously. Still in shock, by rote I picked up a couple of my other favorite treats, a glossy ham-and-cheese turnover and two massive yet light cheddar-chive biscuits, the taste of which triggered the memory of Scott Howard's much smaller but equally delicious baked goods.

The loss of that buttery, homely yet exquisite cake -- an affordable and dependable pleasure that triggered little dietary guilt because it wasn't iced and was usually consumed in thin slices with a cup of tea -- set off a cascade of other regrets. It's the time of year when I get a contact low from abandoned New Year's resolutions littering the psychic streets. I'd made a resolution never to make New Year's resolutions unless they were about more rather than less (i.e., "Eat more blueberries" rather than "Eat fewer buttery, homely yet exquisite cakes"); fortunately, something I remind myself to do regularly anyway is to eat more fish. (Fish as brain food -- and otherwise good for you because of its omega-3 fatty acids -- is one of the few old wives' tales that the New York Times' Science section has sanctified rather than debunked.)

I knew I'd chosen the perfect restaurant for lunch after seeing The New World at the Rafael, in which one of the first colonists raved about the bounty they'd discovered in America: "We found oysters -- they're as thick as my hand -- and fish everywhere, flapping against our legs! We're going to live like kings!" I've dined at the Yankee Pier in Larkspur three times in three years, each time royally. This visit was perhaps the best: Hilary, Martine, Jeremy, and I shared a Pier Platter to begin, usually four assorted oysters, two littleneck clams, two prawns, and a cup of the day's seviche, which we augmented with two clams and two prawns so that we could each have one. The just-opened shellfish were fresh and briny; the multifish seviche (salmon, tuna, snapper) nicely tricked out with avocado, minced peppers, and red onion; and the cups of red cocktail sauce and mignonette at the ready. We also shared a mug of lushly creamed and baconed New England clam chowder topped with a dill drop biscuit.

Although Yankee Pier's owner, Bradley Ogden, spends most of his time in Las Vegas these days, cooking at his eponymous, award-winning Caesar's Palace restaurant, his kitchen standards are handsomely upheld in Larkspur: Our mains were all faultless, whether fried whole belly Ipswich clams, grilled tombo tuna, beer-battered fish and chips made with snowy cod, or the exquisite lobster roll, a split bakery bun loaded with a lightly mayonnaised salad full of chunks of Maine lobster and a judicious amount of chopped celery and peppers. We followed them with Ogden's signature dessert, a creamy butterscotch pudding. I even got a lobster roll to go -- to bring to my mother, the lobster queen, who had happily descended from her hilltop in a pouring rain the week before in order to treat me, Mary, and Steve to lobster rolls at Sea Salt (2512 San Pablo, Berkeley, 510-883-1720), purveyors of the other variety (in which the lobster chunks are simply bathed in butter rather than ensaladed).

My mom also accompanied me to dinner at Yabbies Coastal Kitchen, even though I warned her that the steamed Maine lobster with drawn butter had already been ordered and lustily consumed by my friend Arthur at my first meal there (I prefer to try as many different dishes as possible). He and I had shared a cold seafood platter (Yabbies' smallest version of three, plenty generous with six oysters, six spicy steamed mussels, four littleneck clams, four prawns, half a cracked Dungeness crab, and the seviche of the day), feeling luxuriously spoiled after viewing the bleak world of Munich. (Arthur had wisely vetoed my double-bill idea of seeing Syriana, too, feeling we'd already had enough holiday cheer.) Back then I'd been more than happy with my main course, a superior version of linguine with clams, the pasta well seasoned with chili flakes, full of whole roasted garlic cloves and chopped pancetta and capped with 30 clams in the shell. The crème brûlée Arthur and I shared afterward was one of the best I'd ever had, reminding me what a good dessert it is when properly prepared.

"Oh, it's been there forever," was the response when I told people how good my dinners there had been -- "forever" in this case meaning since the spring of '99. The room, with its wine-colored walls and kilim-covered cushions on an upholstered banquette, looks cozy, and we felt cozy, tucked into a corner table. Since they were on special at $1 each before 6:30 p.m., the Blue Point oysters were irresistible. We began with three big ones, flat and tasting faintly livery, and served with all the pomp and accouterments of the seafood platter: fresh-grated horseradish, red sauce, champagne vinaigrette, and lemon wedges. We went on to tiny fried calamari with a spicy sweet-and-sour dipping sauce and a crab cake made entirely of Dungeness (shreds rather than lump, but still noticeably devoid of filler), enticingly plated with a bright tarragon aioli and a sharp and welcome little salad of lettuce, radishes, and orange sections. My mother couldn't resist the lure of the lobster (she even offered to pay for it herself; it's currently 1 1/2 pounds for $35), and it was as good as Arthur's had been. My chunk of salmon (farm-raised, alas), on a bed of mashed potatoes garnished with diced butternut squash and mushrooms in a bath of apple and onion broth, would have pleased me much more if it hadn't been cooked all the way through; I should have asked for it rare, but the level of sophistication in all we'd tried before was so great that I'd expected it to be custardy in the center.

We finished with a dessert special, a spice cake bread pudding that I also wished were more custardy, though it came with a lovely bourbon caramel sauce. I looked longingly at the Thursday night special: a clambake for two, including a whole crab, shrimp, clams, mussels, potatoes, and corn on the cob, for $39.90. If I come back with Mom or Arthur, we could add a lobster for $26 more. Paradise indeed.

About The Author

Meredith Brody


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