The Mill Valley Film Festival is in full swing this week, attracting large crowds to the town’s picturesque streets. The festival-goers come expecting Mount Tam views and high-end boutiques, but a vinyl-spinning, buzzing restaurant with a line at the door might come as a surprise. That would be Molina—opening merely half a year ago and already a bona fide hit.
With its indie playlist, offbeat design touches and a wood burning stove for a centerpiece, Molina, in many ways is the brick-and-mortar manifestation of its chef and operating owner Todd Shoberg. The white wood and the furry throws convey his Scandinavian heritage, while the quirky paintings add whimsy to the minimalism. The much talked-about daily playlist, courtesy of the record stacks in the kitchen, is printed and brought with the menu, and goes well with his tattooed persona and the waiting staff’s denim aprons and striped shirts. There’s also the combination of rebellion and no-frills seriousness, in everything from the vibe to the food.
“There’s a very rich and funky culture here people tend to forget about”, says Shoberg. When asked about this untypical atmosphere. “The beat poets, Jack Kerouac, The Grateful Dead played their first gig here. A lot of people that didn’t have the cookie-cutter life and came here for the same reasons I did—the woods, the mountain, the magical weather.”
He worked in a number of San Francisco restaurants before joining Piatti in Mill Valley and then transferring to consult and manage the whole Moana restaurant group, to which Piatti and Molina belong. This is his big return to the kitchen, “a dream come true,” and the menu projects his excitement, as well as years of experience and a love for fresh tastes and ingredients.
Shoberg comes up with the dishes the day before, sometimes adding and improvising with his chef de cuisine right before the service, basing his creative punches on local ingredients and the mood. Flipping records and incorporating local ingredients to create “coastal Northern California cuisine,” he’s trying to bring Mill Valley “back to its roots,” to unbutton the neat and structured restaurant scene and bring in a curated experience of “a dinner party in our kitchen.”
The name of the restaurant has everything to do with it—Jason Molina, the late Chicago musician, is Shoberg’s favorite, and while researching ithe surname he discovered it means “miller” or “mill operator.”
“We’re all Molina here, from the diner to the dishwasher, one big family,” he says.
This loose and familiar attitude attracts the crowds, be it sophisticated city diners or local foodies looking for an adventure. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely working. Ordering from the short, 11-dish menu is as entertaining as playing a guessing game with the background music or overhearing the waitress calling a gray haired diner “girl.” Unconventional combinations are key, but the dishes are no-frills delicious and, even more surprisingly for such a hyped-up place, reward the diner with quite filling portions.
Take the olives for example—this seemingly cliché ingredient makes two appearances in the refreshing appetizers section, and lets each dish shine. Green olives add surprising smokiness to the watermelon and feta salad and make for an addictive taste. Black olives infuse salty undertones into the zesty squid dish, complimenting the cherry tomatoes and the crunchy greens. Other vegetables get a chance to sparkle as the dinner progresses to entrees—fennel lends its distinct aroma to the very precise, indulgent seafood stew, with juicy prawns, mussels and manila clams swimming in rich broth. This dish is a classic, proving Shoberg is both grounded and improvisational.
The off-beat experimentalism is back, however, with the trout. Adorned with brown butter apples, bacon and chanterelles, it posed endless questions about the perfect bite. The desserts, on the other hand, are comforting and straightforward—apple ‘pop tarts’, delicate poached quince with crème fraiche and caramelized hazelnuts provide an honest balance of tart, sweet and crunchy. Molina maybe be wild at heart, but Shoberg has something for everyone, from the retired lady on a lunch date, to an ex-beatnik to the modern day hip girl and her friends.