San Francisco Chronicle

Marin gem stays bright

- Michael Bauer is The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic and editor at large. Find his blog at http://insidescoo­psf.sf and his reviews on www.sfchronicl­ E-mail: mbauer@ sfchronicl­ Twitter: @michaelbau­er1

Few restaurant­s are as enduring as Picco in Larkspur, which opened more than a decade ago. Over the years, it has been able to adapt to changing customer demands and remain fresh.

Its longtime culinary guide has been Bruce Hill, who is also involved in Zero Zero and Bix in San Francisco. For the last few years, the kitchen blossomed under his second in command, Jared Rogers, who left a few months ago to open a restaurant in Charleston, S.C. Because of the timing of his departure, I took the restaurant out of the Top 100 while Hill groomed the new chef: Jason Turley, who has cooked at such places as Gitane in San Francisco and Parlour in Oakland.

Turley has picked up the rhythm, barely missing a beat, although some larger plates are a bit out of sync with the otherwise vibrant menu. Over the last decade the menu has evolved somewhat, morphing from mostly small plates to a wider selection that now includes nearly 30 dishes (about six more than they had a couple of years ago).

Part of the reason may be that in Marin, there are fewer options, so restaurant­s are more likely to try to be all things to all people. At Picco, that means offering dishes that range from a good version of kampachi crudo ($17.95) with chiles, fava beans, black radish, micro-cilantro and cumin-dusted sesame seeds, to a Grandma-inspired pork and beef meatballs ($17.95) doused in San Marzano tomato sauce with thick slices of grilled garlic bread.

There are many reasons to go to Picco, including great cocktails, like the barrel-aged Manhattan ($15). The fries are another winner ($8.75), with a custard-like texture below a thin, crisp exterior. Few places do risotto ($7.50/$14.95) better; it’s made from scratch on the half hour so diners always get it fresh, reinforcin­g the adage that risotto waits for no one. On my visit it was an earthy combinatio­n with morel mushrooms, sweet peas and basil.

I also fell for the pappardell­e ($24.95), where gossamer ribbons of pasta were coated in rabbit sugo with Castelvetr­ano olives, a thick dusting of aged pecorino and a drizzle of lemon olive oil. However, on another visit, my pasta choice was too much of a good thing. Nasturtium fusilli ($29.95) came with Maine lobster, chanterell­e mushrooms and pieces of charred apricots. The waiter poured on a thick corn broth, making the pasta too rich and soupy. After two or three bites, I realized it would be better as a shared plate for four to six people.

Picco is a standout on salads, including an exceptiona­l Little Gem ($11.95) with shaved summer squash, aged pecorino cheese and Green Goddess dressing. The ingredient that made it rise above other versions was the generous scattering of warm toasted walnuts. I’m always amazed at how one small detail can have such a transformi­ng effect on a familiar dish.

The restaurant also features six large plates, which from my experience are more complex and less successful than the appetizers, salads and pastas. Wood-grilled, line-caught tuna ($32.95) was seared, sliced and arranged over Rancho Gordo beans with artichokes and dabs of green olive tapenade. A thick swipe of bean puree anchoring the top of the plate looked like somebody had run over a dog deposit. I’m still trying to figure out why chefs are so enamored with these treatments, because the puree and sauces quickly become cold and gummy when spread on the plate.

Desserts include a masterful almond apricot tart ($9.50) with strawberry rhubarb sorbet, as well as a stylized version of polenta cake with cherry compote, basil ice cream and pistachio crumble. Every offering is familiar, but features a little twist that makes the dessert distinctiv­e.

Service has always been a strength at Picco, and it continues to hit all the right notes. The menu is meant to be shared, and the waiters always remember to bring utensils so that diners can actually divide what they ordered. They pace dishes correctly and make sure there are never too many plates crowding the table.

The handsome interior has also been a draw, with a small narrow patio overlookin­g Magnolia Street and a barn-like ceiling that gives an airy appeal to the 100-seat space. And maybe the biggest bonus of all: Next door is Pizzeria Picco, which has some of the best pies in the Bay Area.

Unfortunat­ely, they aren’t available in the main restaurant, but diners can always take a frozen pizza home to heat up at another time. It is almost as good as what you’ll get at the pizzeria.

It’s just one more way Picco continues to offer something for just about everyone.

 ?? John Storey / Special to The Chronicle ?? At Picco, service is smooth and the interior has an airy appeal.
John Storey / Special to The Chronicle At Picco, service is smooth and the interior has an airy appeal.

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