June 02, 2008

TerraMar: Deja Vu all over again?

It's taken us several years to re-cross this particular threshold. For good reason.

Ono Maze was a discovery we made during one of our favorite pastimes. Like many women window shop, John and I menu browse. We pick a neighborhood and stroll the streets studying the menus of its restaurants searching for inspiration.

This was a warm, late summer Friday evening. Sometime in August of 2001. Meandering North Main Street in Walnut Creek we were beginning to see a pattern. Italian... Italian... Italian... Brew Pub... Italian... French Italian... Italian... Wait... What's this? Pan Asian? Hmmm... Lots of seafood. A fair number of shareable appetizer options. With Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese influences. No sign of Italian. We looked at each other... "Let's eat here".

Neither of us could know it at the time, but that evening would ultimately be a tipping point for both of us from a culinary perspective. We walked across the patio and through the door... and Ono Maze drew us in like a magnet. Over the course of four years, we commemorated birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and frantic Fridays. We made friends. First Kelly and then Kevin encouraged us to explore and develop our palates. Their influence has an ongoing impact on how we approach food today, from the way we shop and prepare food at home to the restaurant choices we make and how we evaluate each experience. In many ways although we were well into our thirties when we discovered them, we grew up with Ono Maze. From a food perspective 1616 N. Main Street holds the same mystique as a treasured childhood home.

So when the senior management closed the doors in November 2004 to explore other opportunities we've followed our friends to their new ventures and venues, but we haven't explored the restaurants that occupied the old homestead. Until recently.

I first discovered TerraMar through American Airlines' dining rewards program.

"Terra Mar features casual upscale dining, offering small plates for sharing and a fully stocked bar. They use only the freshest locally grown and harvested California ingredients and strive to provide some uniquely delicious dishes. One of Terra Mar's features is their amazing Oyster and Raw Bar..."

Intrigued, I clicked the link to the menu and started exploring. It was only after I decided this was a must-try that I looked at the address. 1616 North Main. I checked with John and he was agreeable, so off we headed one Friday night. Heck, even if it sucks we'll get some airline miles out of the deal...

Our homecoming experience was a little odd. Three tenants occupied the building between Ono Maze and TerraMar, but very little has changed. The patio and the entrance are identical. So is the bar. The decor. Even the *furniture* is the same. And it was more than a little ironic in an almost squicky kind of way that the hostess -- with no connection whatsoever to us or our long-ago connection with the location -- sat us at *our* table. Where we celebrated the aforementioned milestones. Where we closed the place in November of 2004...

TerraMar, you've got some big shoes to fill...

We decided to make one selection from each section of the TerraMar menu: a raw starter, a garden, a sea and a farm. Because the menu follows a "three ways" theme we selected what would prove to be quite a variety. We started with a "raw trio" that included a tuna tartare John loved, a scallop cerviche I loved, and a beef capaccio we both quite enjoyed. We followed our first course with the house frittes, (served with a cumin-chipotle ketchup we both found intriguing) sliders three ways (barbecued pork, kobe beef, and meatball in marinara), and the duck three ways (confit, duck breast, and foie gras).

I certainly didn't think our experience was this bad. Nor was it without flaw.

The good: The service was friendly and attentive without hovering.

The presentation on *every* dish was stunning. Someone has spent a lot of time, effort and energy picking out the perfect accessories for showcasing the chef's talent. There are no pictures in this particular spotlight because my crappy cell phone camera wouldn't do the presentations justice. Next time I'll take a real camera, I promise!

The menu is very creative, and for the most part well-executed. On a return visit, we wouldn't hesitate to reorder many of the same dishes. The raw trio was excellent. Their ketchup's a far cry from the Heinz or Del Monte of my youth. I'm not a duck lover (well not a *cooked* duck lover... I did spend my college years in Eugene) but I ate my share of the confit and the duck breast.

The not-so-good: For as pretty as the presentations were, most of the dishes were *very* difficult to eat without making a mess. Which is awkward in a white tablecloth, fine dining establishment, even if you're us. (Probably more so if you're the newly dating couple seated next to us, still trying your damndest to impress one another). My inner Len Goodman: "If you want a ten, make the pretty plate easier to eat."

For small plates, the portion's a bit large. John and I are NOT small people. It takes more than a plate of lettuce and a couple of ounces of protein to sustain us. So we were more than a bit surprised when after splitting four "small plates" we weren't sure we'd saved room for dessert. Perhaps our focus on the trios did us a disservice in that regard, but especially with the sliders, if there are three 'burgers' on a plate, they don't need to be fast food sized.

The foie gras. I don't touch the stuff (because the texture and the taste of liver squicks me, not for political or religious reasons). But John loves it. And his assessment is it came to the table unpleasantly cold. More the texture of lard than butter.

Would we go back? Absolutely. There's a lot of the menu that intrigued us that we'd like to explore. And TerraMar's only been open for a couple of months and still finding its footing. If you ever find yourself hungry in Walnut Creek without reservations at Va di Vi, I'd highly recommend you check out TerraMar. Start small and ask for an extra napkin... you'll enjoy the experience.

TerraMar | 1616 North Main Street, Walnut Creek | 925.472.0400

Others who've enjoyed TerraMar...
Julie and Loyd of Artisan Adventures called it "Christmas morning in my mouth"

From the archives...
In 2007 I twisted my pretzels into hangman's nooses.

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