Where do you take your out-of-town friends for dinner when said friends are gourmet cooks living in the South of France? Years ago, Terry and Lois (the erstwhile Quiche Queen of San Francisco) ran a takeout shop on Polk called the French Pantry. Now they've got a genuine French pantry -- they bought an old stone-walled bakery in a village south of Carcassonne and converted it into a bed-and-breakfast. Every year, they come "home" during the slow season, December and January. They were eager to try one of the year's "hot new places"; coming instantly to mind was the Moa Room.
Diagonally across from the famed Flying Saucer, the Moa Room is conceptually one of the children of Chez Panisse, stressing high-quality meats and produce. Open since last spring, it's a collaboration between two "gardeners": New Zealand-born chef Jan Gardner and Calistoga organic farmer Linda-Marie Loeb. Gardner, a CCA graduate who was taught by Saucer star Albert Tjordsman, made some awesome connections as a caterer for visiting film productions: Named for an extinct antipodean bird, the Moa Room was designed by Oscar-nominated production designer Andrew (The Piano) McAlpine.
"This was a very good choice," Lois purred, settling on one of the long yellow-green banquettes that line two walls -- comfortably firm, she noted, and narrow enough to let diners sit up straight and reach the table without having to battle the upholstery. "I love the menu," she continued. "Apparently they change it every week. It's not too long to be manageable, and all of it sounds good. And I really like this wine list. They have bottles from all over, even New Zealand." "Can we get any New Zealands by the glass?" Terry asked. Lois scanned the list again. "Damn it, no," she answered, "and I really would have liked to try one without spending $33 a bottle!" We settled on an $18 Viognier from the Ardeche (which proved rather harsh) followed by a mellow $21 Mourvedre from exotic Emeryville. As we waited for our appetizers we took in the big, Maori-influenced stone and metal art on the walls, and the handsome black-and-white open kitchen -- which, alas, sent forth sufficient din to inspire a compensating roar from some 40 patrons all trying to hear themselves talk.
Knowing that we planned to share, our server intelligently brought appetizers in two rounds. First to reach the table were precisely 12 small, tender black mussels in a carrot and green curry broth ($7). The Thai-influenced curry was based on minced green herbs (rather than dried spices), its creamy broth deliciously complex, with the sweetness of carrot and garlic, the zestiness of cilantro, and the aggressive citrus notes of fresh kafir lime leaves. The house-baked sourdough was a little too heavy for sopping the last drops of sauce; it got on better with the butter (which was of superior quality). "We just started baking our bread," the waitress told us. "This is the first time it's actually come out right -- it seems to change with the weather. A few days ago, we had to run out to the bakery." Next up was a leek, port, and Stilton soup ($5.50). TJ, sipping, asked about the ingredients. "Port wine and Stilton, an English blue cheese, are a classic after-dinner pairing that they've turned into a soup," said Lois. "That's what I love about this menu. The combinations make sense; they're not aiming to shock." But the soup's flavor was primarily a sooth-ing rich cheesiness, comforting against the winter downpour but lacking any detectable wine flavor. "Maybe they just waved the cork over the soup pot, like vermouth in the ultimate dry martini," said TJ. Well, any port in a storm.
Our second round of appetizers included sweet potato pancakes with duck confit and cranberry relish ($6.50). "This is a classic combination, too," said Lois, "like turkey and cranberry sauce." While hot, it was a toothsome juxtaposition of light sweet crepes, rich fowl, and tangy fruit. Ten minutes later the final bits had turned from crepes to Krusteaz; as the pan-cakes cooled, they gained weight along with the eaters. We also tried the beet, orange, and pecan salad ($5.50), which included baby greens, tiny red and yellow beets, a few whole nuts, and some unbilled mandarin orange slices in a likable but elusive thin red dressing. We decided that the fetal beets would've had more flavor if allowed another week's gestation.
As often seems to happen (for some mysterious reason) at restaurants headed by CCA grads, the main courses were less consistent than the starters. The favorite was Gorgonzola, spinach, and ricotta ravioli ($12.50). The pasta were of classic ravioli size and thickness (that is, not the big near-transparent wonton-skin versions of the more uppity local eateries). They were topped with sweet bits of caramelized shallots, and were bathed in a smooth, rich Marsala cream sauce that bore just the right touch of the sweet heavy wine. "With a sauce like this, the pasta doesn't even need a stuffing," said TJ. "It's like a great veal scallop sauce," I thought. "This could make a wonderful sauce for braised Belgian endive," Lois schemed. In contrast, Terry's gargantuan braised lamb shank ($14.50) was unsauced, its meat a bit dry. It came, though, with a moist mushroom-barley risotto that the barley lovers found divine, and even the barley-shunner (me) still found very good. Carrots and sharp winter greens lent clean contrasts to the dense meat. Another entree had grilled portobello mushroom ($12.50), perfectly cooked, presiding over a humid bed of polenta with the texture of soupy cream of wheat. Underneath it all was a slightly spicy sauce that vaguely involved chilpotle chiles, and along with the mushrooms were two big succulent grilled chiles: an earthy red poblano with a wee nip, and a wicked green-black pasilla with a Steven Seagal kick.
The bouillabaisse ($16.50) was disappointing. Even before the move to Bouillabaisse Country, this was one of Lois' specialties -- and hers was truly fantastique. The Moa Room's wasn't quite. It had an excellent broth, sweet with the anise undertone of fresh fennel. Also fine was the rich, garlicky rouille (roasted red pepper aioli) floating on top and spread on pieces of baguette toast. But the soup was served infernally hot in a covered tureen -- a strategic error, since between the kitchen and the table every single species in it cooked to death.
"The overcooked whitefish is standard for bouillabaisse," said Terry, "because it just overcooks automatically as soon as you drop it in the hot broth. But here the clams are rubbery and the lobster is actually mushy. Everything has given its all to the broth; they should have just strained it out and started over with virgin shellfish."
"The shellfish has to go in just before serving," Lois added. "And a proper bouillabaisse has much more shellfish and less whitefish. The menu says it has lobster, clams, mussels, and prawns as well as halibut and monkfish -- but what's in here, all these big fish pieces and maybe six little clams, two shrimp, a couple of mussels, and one lobster claw?"
The kitchen returned to form with the sweet course ($5 each); in fact, Gardner is the rare dinner chef who's also got chops as a patissier -- at the exalted Postrio, no less. We enjoyed the juicy pearlike texture of quince fritters, served with a subtle anise sauce and with a scoop of ice cream just touched with clove. I'd argued against ordering prune and armagnac souffle with orange creme anglaise: "Prunes and armagnac are for duck legs, not dessert," I opined. "Prunes and armagnac are for anything they want to be," Terry riposted. He was dead right: The souffle tasted gorgeous, with an ethereal bread pudding around the outside and a warm, loose, lush custard in the center. But the biggest hit was orange coconut napoleon with citrus vanilla sauce. "This pastry is so light, it wasn't rolled 15 times, it was rolled 25 times," TJ declared. The filling of the phyllolike layers scintillated with fresh orange flavor, with coconut shreds lending texture and nuance. The only disappointment was a chocolate roulade; it had a nice chocolate mousse filling, a drizzle of bittersweet chocolate sauce, pleasant poached pear slices -- but the cake that held it together was boring. "This isn't a real genoise," said Terry. "It's Duncan Hines quality." With that, we headed for a nearby quiet bar to talk the night away, and then dream of sharing another dinner -- next time, in Carcassonne.