Photograph by Rory MacNamara

Eclectic Eats

Chinook blows hot and cold in San Rafael

By Paula Harris

CURIOUSLY, the most insistent memory we’ll take with us when we leave Chinook Restaurant in downtown San Rafael may not be of the food or the decor, but of the waitress. She manages to be hardworking and very jolly–in a grim sort of way.

As if operating on autopilot, this bustling lady enthusiastically admonishes us to “Enjoy!” whatever she places before us on the white linen cloth. A candle, a plate of food, a glass of water, hell, even the menu. “What does she expect us to do?” we wonder. “Lick the print?”

We duly dub her Stepford Server. Not that it’s entirely her fault, mind you–to be fair, she seems to be hustling tremendously to keep up with the flow and pace of the demanding diners. Even on a surprisingly quiet Friday evening on Fourth Street, this place is keeping a steady pace.

One might imagine that a restaurant called Chinook would feature Pacific Northwest specialties, but chef Sunita Dutt instead offers a real eclectic mix of global cuisines, from beef carpaccio ($8) and Fiji style “bouillabaisse” ($19.50) to chilled oysters ($1.25 each) and tandoori chicken ($15).

Chinook is, according to Stepford, named for the moist warm wind that blows from the sea in the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest.

The restaurant is a cozy and bright oasis in the midst of a gray autumn main street, with an inviting full bar at the entrance. The tables are aglow with tea lights (but no salt and pepper receptacles), lively splashes of colorful art and tapestries embellish the soft salmon-hued walls, there’s a snazzy artsy blue, purple and yellow carpet, and a spiral staircase graces one corner.

We quickly scarf down a basket of yummy home-baked artichoke loaf and cumin corn bread with the appetizers. The fried calamari with lemon-basil sauce ($8) is a hit. It’s a huge plateful of light, fresh-tasting (and not at all rubbery) little golden rings. Our one gripe is the sauce, which is a bit overly tart and tastes of pickle.

On this cold evening, we also enjoy the five-lentil soup ($5). It’s nourishing and luxuriously thick with whole lentils and flecked with aromatic cilantro leaves. Very satisfying, although it would be improved with a tad less lemon juice.

A child at a nearby table is asking for chicken noodle soup. “No!” barks Stepford with a dazzling smile. “Just lentil or butternut squash.” The kid falls silent.

Our favorite appetizer is the wild mushroom and chestnut flan ($9), served warm, with the silken texture of a smooth paté. It’s rich and lovely with a slight sweet earthiness that pairs well with the accompanying red onion-strewn green salad in a light vinaigrette.

The night’s special, grilled swordfish ($18), is thick and delicious–perfectly cooked. It comes with good roasted root vegetables and a potato galette that has a light texture and is not creamy-rich but is unfortunately overly seasoned tarragon.

For vegetarians, there’s a satisfying risotto ($20), enriched with porcini, black trumpet, and chanterelle mushrooms. It’s lovely, although we heard some diners questioning the $20 price tag. Stepford is not amused. She reels off the ingredients list from memory and moves on to the next table.

The “Rafael Theater Triple-Feature Special” hamburger ($10.50)–named for the stylish and recently renovated deco-era cinema a few doors down–is a sure and safe bet. Made with Niman Ranch hormone-free beef, the burger is a juicy taste treat, resting on an herbed roll. The other parts of the “triple-feature” are a marinated grilled portobello mushroom cap and a rasher of applewood-smoked bacon. A heap of thin and pretty good garlic fries complete the dish, which would indeed make decent dinner and movie-date fare for the theater crowd.

The highly touted house special, apple pie ($6.50), is a huge disappointment. The crust has a mushy texture that looks as if the dessert has been heated and reheated several times, and it tastes stale. The filling is ho-hum. It’s served with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream, which is the best part.

But triangles of Austrian chocolate torte ($6.50), served with accompanying drizzles of raspberry coulis and white chocolate sauce, is a rich and fudgy delight. Our dining companion pronounces it to be “divine.” In addition to the fairly extensive wine list, dessert wines, ports, cognacs, and liqueurs are available by the glass.

Eventually it’s time for Stepford to bring us the check. “Enjoy!” she verily sings, plonking it on the table with a slight glare. We guess we already did.

Chinook Address: 1130 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415/457-0566 Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday-Saturday Food: Global cuisine Service: Highly capable, if not personable Ambiance: Relaxing, chic, and global Price: Moderate to expensive Wine list: Good selection Overall: 2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

From the November 30-December 6, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.