Friday, March 19, 2010

Larkspur's Picco: California Italian Designed for Sharing

I'm up in the Bay Area for a long weekend with friends and a whole lot of eating. I'm staying with my "brother" Joe and his family (Joe and I share the same birthday and have been close friends since we were 12; we're like twins of different mothers). They're just across the Bay from San Francisco in Mill Valley so I've been enjoying tastes of the area. Last night, he took me to a favorite local place he and his wife Audrey enjoy, Picco, in nearby Larkspur.

Picco has been around for several years and chef/owner Bruce Hill describes the cuisine as California Italian, which basically leaves a lot of room for interpretation and embraces flavors you would usually consider belonging to other cuisines. What do I mean? Well, one of the dishes that I saw come out frequently from the kitchen--which Joe and I also ordered--is the ahi tuna tartare. It has a decidedly Japanese turn to it, what with the round sticky rice cake as the foundation and the strip of shiso leaf on the top, and the tuna tartare itself blended with sesame and soy. There's a touch of chopped apple to provide some sweet crunch.

The dish is a perfect introduction to what Picco does, not the least because it also demonstrates the other key aspect of the restaurant. All its dishes are designed and plated to be shared family style. Our next dish, a risotto made from scratch on the half hour, was a generous portion for two, especially given how rich it is. The risotto changes depending on seasonal local produce. Ours was flooded with gorgeous green garbanzos, green garlic, spring onions, and basil. The risotto was creamy but with that terrific tooth bite you want and I was very excited to discover another way to use green garbanzos, which are one of spring's best treats.

Next up for us came a rather unusual salad Picco calls a "slice of ice." It's a plate holding a round of sliced iceburg lettuce, perhaps an inch and a half thick, topped with a creamy tomato-herb dressing, house-cured pancetta, and a soft-cooked egg. Break the yolk and then cut it pizza style. It was like eating a breakfast salad and very refreshing after the risotto.

By now, we were about topped out, but we'd ordered another dish and it was worth making room for--the mesquite grilled California lamb sausage, accompanied by fava beans, radish, crispy potato wedges, and a mint salsa verde. The sausage was a surprise in that it looked more like a small  loaf--think meatloaf--but a tremendous meatloaf, something Mom probably never made. The delicately seasoned moist ground lamb was in perfect play with the mint salsa. It was a fun riff on traditional lamb with mint jelly and far better. I loved the fava beans and radish combination, too.

We were full up but Joe had been telling me about a dessert he and Audrey like to get there and I couldn't pass it by: a chocolate hazelnut milkshake accompanied by soft-center chocolate madeleines. Usually, they serve four of these brownie-like pastries, but they gave us a mini order of two.

This is a grown-up dessert. The milkshake is really just a few sips so you get all that flavor but not in a huge overindulgence. The madeleines reminded me of a chocolate ganache cake I used to make long ago, with the molten flavors almost oozing out but cooked just enough to hold together. It's rich and decadent and it was a great conclusion to a wonderful and unusual meal.

Picco also has a little pizzeria next door that I'd like to try in the future. Clearly, both spots are popular in this cute little town. On a Thursday evening, both were packed.

Picco is located at 320 Magnolia Ave. in Larkspur.

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  1. Where do you find green garbanzos in San Diego? I love them but haven't seen them anywhere for a few years.

  2. I've found them at Balboa International Market in Clairemont and Northgate Gonzalez. Check the links above to get more information. Thanks for writing!