Dish

Small Potatoes
Many chefs dream of opening that little corner bistro with a stylishly homey touch -- a place small enough to reflect their own idiosyncrasies. But in restauranting as in so many other businesses, bigger is often better.

"You're guaranteed a whole lot more if you open a big restaurant," says Joanna Karlinsky, co-owner of the Meetinghouse, which opened in Pacific Heights earlier this year. One thing you're guaranteed a whole lot more of is first-rate produce.

Karlinsky describes her own restaurant as "tiny" -- only 40 seats. One important consequence of its relative minuteness is the challenge of obtaining the best fruit. While big-time places such as Postrio and Hawthorne Lane might go through several cases of blackberries a week, Karlinsky says, she only needs a flat or two -- and commercial produce suppliers don't pay much attention to restaurants whose needs are so modest.

So it's off to the farmers market for Karlinsky -- sometimes the Saturday affair at Ferry Plaza, but more often these days the Thursday market at the Marin Civic Center. ("Their prices are often half of Ferry Plaza's," she says.) Karlinsky goes into the market "with things in mind" to buy, she says, but, in the best local tradition, she's also willing to snap up what's good and adjust the evening menu accordingly.

"For a small restaurant, it's the only way I can get high-quality fruit," she says.

Vegetables are another matter: The stock available through the Meetinghouse's regular produce supplier is "generally on a par with the farmers markets," she says, largely because most vegetables aren't as perishable as such stone fruits as peaches and nectarines, which keep only a few days even in the refrigerator.

(The stone fruits, incidentally, have been "incredible" this year, she thinks. "The early season peaches were awful, the cherries were terrible, and the apricots were watery. But since the rain stopped, things have been wonderful.")

The result of Karlinsky's farmers marketing is that she has access to the same first-quality ingredients as the big places. The difference is that they just call up on the phone and have it delivered, while she has to make a trip ("with a dolly, which I pull myself"). But it's not a terrible burden.

"It's fun because I get to be outside for an hour in the sunshine," she says. "It beats scrubbing the toilets" -- one of the unglamorous tasks that fall to the owner of a restaurant whose business isn't yet large enough to support paid staff. Yet even that's a small price to pay for a place of one's own.

"We're not cool and hip," Karlinsky says, "just good."

By Paul Reidinger
sfwdish@aol.com

 
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