I confess I didn’t know about Bodega Bay’s Terrapin Creek Cafe until I read that it picked up a Michelin star last year. In my experience, Bodega Bay restaurants have borne out the maxim that the better the ocean view, the worse the food. So when I heard about Terrapin Creek, I was a little anxious about trying it. But I drove by a few times and noted that the place had no ocean view. A good sign. And then I went in to eat.
I’ll come right out and say it: I don’t think Terrapin Creek deserves the Michelin star. Unless the Michelin inspectors grade on a curve and take into account the slim pickings in Bodega Bay, the award seems overly generous. Plop Terrapin Creek down in San Francisco or Napa, and I don’t think it would garner the same attention. I’ve eaten at my share of one-star restaurants, and Terrapin Creek isn’t on that exalted level.
But at the same time, so what? Terrapin Creek is a comfortable, reasonably priced, welcoming place that makes great use of local ingredients. That’s more important than a five-pointer from a French tire company.
Opened in 2008 by chef-owners Liya Lin and Andrew Truong, the restaurant’s humble, out-of-the-way setting occupies the end unit of a boxy complex of small shops just off Highway 1. Step inside, and the place exudes charming personal touches like fresh flowers, a homey, open kitchen, saffron- and mustard-colored walls, pendant lamps and appealing landscape paintings. The setting sun suffuses the cafe with warm light.
The menu is seasonally driven and small, but with enough variety to keep things interesting. As is so often the case, the starters are where all the action is. The Monterey Bay sardines ($12) are a standout. The three filets are lightly fried and then draped across a tidy mound of shredded cabbage, sliced avocados and radishes that have been delicately dressed in a curry and lime juice vinaigrette. Topped with a dusting of toasted bread crumbs, it’s very nice.
If it’s still on the menu, the California halibut crudo ($13) is an essential order. Crudo is Italy’s take on sashimi. Translucent, pearly slices of exceedingly fresh halibut are drizzled with pale green extra virgin olive oil, a bit of lemon juice, red chile flakes and a scattering of chopped mint and buttery chopped fava beans. It’s outstanding.
I was less impressed with the puréed English pea soup ($8). The peas in the soup are plenty fresh, but the soup needs salt, a hit of lemon juice or something to really set it off. The crumbled feta and lemon oil couldn’t quite do it.
The roasted beet and goat cheese salad ($10) isn’t going to win points for originality, but the tangy goat cheese, toasted almonds and just-picked green in a mustardy vinaigrette won me over.
From the list of entrées, my favorites are tied between the local king salmon ($27) and roasted game hen ($28). This year’s salmon season is a record breaker, and the salmon are back in abundance. One fisherman I talked to said that feed for the fish was so plentiful, the salmon were just swimming in place and gorging themselves, allowing them to put on lots of extra fat—and fat is what makes our local salmon taste so good. The square fillet was pan-fried to a pleasing crispness outside, but all that fat kept the fish wonderfully moist inside. The accompanying roasted Jerusalem artichokes and mushrooms and sautéed bok choy in a savory dashi and soy sauce broth add another layer of flavor.
But that game bird is hard to beat. The skin is crisp and crackly yet conceals meat that just about squirts with juice—a neat trick. As delicious as the bird may be, the excellent bacon- and garlic-enhanced green lentils served alongside could stand alone; they’re just as good.
The generous Creekstone Farms rib-eye ($29) with whipped potatoes and sautéed broccolini and oniony soy sauce will satisfy meat lovers, but it doesn’t rise above what it is: steak and potatoes.
Desserts are good, but not remarkable. Service is crisp and professional. The staff know the menu well and are happy to talk it up. There’s a short but appealing wine list, too. What’s not to like?
Whether Terrapin Creek has a Michelin star or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is if a restaurant is good enough to merit a trip out to Bodega Bay, and Terrapin Creek definitely is.