Manka’s Inverness Lodge

Keeping the home fires burning: Comforting food and cozy surroundings greet diners at Manka’s Inverness Lodge.

Rustic Romance

Inverness Lodge the perfect winter retreat

By Paula Harris

WEND YOUR way this dark wintry night through the foggy backroads to Marin’s wildly beautiful Point Reyes Peninsula and your reward for the trek is a cozy superb supper served in the rustic and romantic comfort of an old lodge tucked away atop a hill under the stars. If you can find it!

It’s a real challenge to locate the turnoff for Manka’s Inverness Lodge in the misty darkness. We know there’s a signpost, we know there’s a hill, but we can find neither as we drive back and forth over the same stretch of road beside Tomales Bay.

The owners of neighboring restaurants must get really pissed off with all the lost souls heading for Manka’s who stop by in a panic (jeeze, they may lose their reservations) and ask for directions, as we did in two places on either side of the elusive eatery.

All fretting is forgotten, though, when you at last find the elegant old hunting lodge, built in 1917. Step into the cold, pine-scented night air and crunch your way through the leafy ground to a pumpkin-laden porch accented with a couple of creaky hickory rockers.

Inside is pure casual though sneakily indulgent comfort. The reception room is dark, but dotted with the golden-orange glow of mica table lamps. The light from a crackling fire dances in the large rock fireplace. The room is filled with deep plaid-covered couches, rustic wood furniture, baskets of logs, vintage fishing gear, and antique game boards. There are classic photographs on the walls, a chandelier fashioned from antlers hangs from the ceiling, and smoky jazz lazily emanates from the sound system.

The room is also filled with diners waiting to be seated. Lots of diners. It’s not usual to have to wait half an hour or more (even with reservations) to get into the dining room. Still, the ambiance is so mellow that any complaints are quashed by the warm room, the soft lights, and the relaxed and charming hostess in the ankle-grazing dark skirt who sips red wine and offers to bring you a glass of champagne (alas, not free) while you bide your time.

The wait is worth it. We are lulled into a state of relaxation seated in the shadowy dining room, which also has rustic wooden chairs, snowy linen tablecloths, more glowing mica lamps, and real ivy sneaking in through the window frames.

There is a five-course supper for $58. All that’s required is to sit back and relax and let the server bring you the chain of courses.

The large majority of what is served is grown and raised and caught within 15 minutes of Manka’s. The daily changing menu highlights wild game, local fish, locally raised birds, rabbits, lamb, abalone, and oysters–plus an array of greens roots, fruits, and olives grown on the property. Foragers ferret out wild mushrooms and pick buckets of huckleberries for the restaurant.

TONIGHT’S dinner begins with local goat’s milk camellia–a soft, delicate, not too “goaty” cheese served with a sweet syrup and fruits in square silver bowl. The delicious dish features a chutney of sun-dried sour cherries and pieces of candied pumpkin that were “plucked from the porch.”

Next up are bites of sweet soil-flavored baby Bolinas beets tumbling over a fluffy egg-rich parsley-garlic custard encircled with a butter sauce dotted with piquant black olives. Pure decadence.

The soup of Tomales Bay mussels is a creamy saffron-scented brew topped with ribbons of fresh green sorrel. The mussels are plump and perfect.

At this point, the “clearing ice of lemons” is a lovely palate scourer. It’s a tart, slightly creamy sherbet served in a small martini glass.

The main course is a choice between grilled axis deer or (for vegetarians) local wild mushroom risotto. Manka’s may be heavy on the game meats, but will accommodate vegetarians in all the courses offered on the menu. For example, the vegetarian in our party was served a delicate salad of spicy-bitter wild arugula dotted with pomegranate seeds and flecks of goat cheese.

The risotto is a nutty-textured delight flavored with cauliflower and served with porcini, beech mushrooms, and leeks. It’s a very satisfying alternative to the meat.

And the tenderloin chop of wild axis deer grilled in Manka’s fireplace is a rich-pink tender morsel on a slender bone. It’s accompanied by mashed parsnips, slow-roasted shallots, and a venison sauce flavored with oranges and autumn spices. What could be more perfect with a glass of deep red wine on a night like this?

The wine list, by the way, is expansive (and expensive), with more than 150 selections, a number of which are from small and often quirky domestic and foreign wineries.

Finally comes the dessert, a puddinglike bittersweet double chocolate gelato atop a pumpkin syrup-soaked pastry wedge (which is more the texture of a sponge cake) served with crunchy salty-sweet seasoned walnuts. The pastry base is too stodgy, but the rest of the dessert is wonderful.

Linger by the fire afterwards or plan to stay overnight in one of the lodge’s luxuriously rustic rooms or cabins.

Final note: Restaurant times at Manka’s frequently alter, so plan to call ahead for seasonal changes (and please note that the restaurant will be closed for several weeks from January to March) and complete directions.

Manka’s Inverness Lodge Address: 30 Callender Way (Argyle St.), Inverness; 415/669-1034 Hours: Dinner; the restaurant will close between January and March Food: Local delicacies, heavy on game meat Service: Usually a wait to get into the dining room, but service is great Ambiance: Woodsy, romantic, and relaxing Price: Expensive Wine list: Large selection Overall: 3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

From the December 28, 2000-January 3, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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