Insalata is located in San Anselmo, which is a lovely residential community in Marin County complete with tree-lined streets, local merchants, hiking trails, and upscale food markets. The San Anselmo lifestyle focuses on relaxed, healthy, family life; and a stroll through the center of town is a somewhat nostalgic walk past family-owned businesses and restaurants that are situated along the local creek. Insalata has its own small parking lot and, should the lot be full, there is abundant free street parking within an easy walking distance to the restaurant.
Insalata Owner Heidi Insalata Krahling began her white tablecloth restaurant career at Joyce Goldstein’s iconic San Francisco restaurant, Square One. Krahling comes from a food-loving Italian family that emphasized food as a creative force. The locally sourced products Goldstein used at Square One were a continuation of Krahling’s family cooking experience and encouraged Krahling to seek locally grown elements when she opened Insalata. Named for Krahling’s father, Insalata has received honorable mentions from the Michelin and Zagat travel guides, and has earned its title as a Marin County Neighborhood Jewel.
The building that houses Insalata is a nod to an earlier, gentler time. The restaurant has an ocher painted exterior covered with ivy. The sheltered entrance portico is complemented with weathered wood benches and a sparkling carriage house lantern to welcome all guests warmly. My dinner companion and I stepped into Insalata’s large open dining room and were welcomed by the enthusiastic staff. The small, central bar that divides the dining room into smaller spaces was directly before us. To the left is the “mezzanine” dining area and to the far right is a large room that can be used for private parties. The open kitchen is at the back of the restaurant with the busy take-out counter.
Insalata’s interior strikes the right note in recalling the colors and romance of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The walls are painted a soft butter yellow; the ceilings are high and supported by wood-clad beams; and the lighting is soft, while still enabling diners to both see their companions and food. The tables are generously sized, the chairs are comfortable, and the murmur of dinner conversation flows around you softly. Guests are nicely dressed, and the tables are often made up of multi-generational families and friends.
The big surprise that catapults the dining room from comfortable to extra-special is the huge paintings of sensuous plums, persimmons, and lemons that hang on the walls. Looking at them in all their sumptuous glory, I concluded that San Francisco artist Laura Parker must have been in love with the Mediterranean region when she painted them. Take, for example, the painting of the persimmons, which measures roughly five-feet-high by fourteen-feet-long. Parker used all of that canvas to paint no more than eight persimmons, huge in scale, and opulent in shape and color. How lucky for diners that the art of the food at Insalata is equal to the art on the walls.
We moved from the bar into the dining room and took a look at the wine list. Selecting a wine was a challenge because the extensive by-the-bottle list covers the entire Mediterranean region of Italy, France, and Greece, while layering in wines from Napa and Sonoma Counties, Oregon, Germany, New Zealand, Chile, and Australia. How does anyone navigate a list this complex? Well, just ask the staff. Insalata’s general manager, Jim Warren, worked at San Francisco’s Square One restaurant for many years honing his encyclopedic knowledge of world-wines. The staff at Insalata spends a lot of time discussing and solving the question of which wine goes with what food, and welcome questions. I took cowardly refuge in a familiar glass of white wine, the Picas Negras Torrentes from Argentina, but in retrospect I recommend that you ask and explore Insalata’s adventurous wine list.
At the same time that our glasses of wine arrived, our server placed a bowl of what appeared to be hummus on our table. Having experienced our fair share of hummus-overload at friends’ dinner parties throughout the years, my dinner companion and I both had nothing but culinary scorn for hummus. After we had ordered dinner, I absent-mindedly picked up a warm piece of pita bread and dipped it into the bowl. The chick peas were smooth, comforting, and surprisingly flavorful. The green swirl that topped the hummus tasted of garlic with a subtle pepper after-shock. How could this be hummus? Astonished, I asked our waiter and, sure enough, it actually was hummus. Gone was the paste of our past and in its place was a truly delicious, spicy, silky, garlicky, and peppery delight.
The appetizer we ordered, Crispy Cigars, arrived with a little fan fare. Pastry had been spread with Feta cheese, squash puree, and Turkish spices. It was then rolled, hence the name Cigar, and fried. When dipped into their cilantro, cumin, and mint sauce, the Cigars were an unusual combination of crisp outer pastry accompanied by a spicy filling tempered by the mint sauce. It was a knowledgeable blending of textures and flavors that seemed just right for beginning dinner.
At a restaurant named Insalata, how could we possibly skip the salad course? We tried the Syrian Fattoush Salad, just because I love to pronounce “Fattoush.” This was a crisp green salad that combined tiny cherry tomatoes, black olives, onions, and pieces of toasted pita bread (the Fattoush part) with herbs of cilantro and mint. This tasty and refreshing salad got us ready for our entrees.
The Moroccan Lamb Tagine (pronounced with a soft “g”, tay-jean) was once called “$10,000 Lamb Stew” on the Insalata menu. This is a name I prefer to the more formal “Moroccan Lamb Tagine,” because it hints at a story. It goes like this: The folks at Insalata entered a lamb recipe into a contest sponsored by the American Lamb Board. The recipe won a $10,000 prize, thereafter being listed on the Insalata Menu as “$10,000 Lamb Stew.”
The Moroccan Lamb Tagine is a complicated recipe with a spice list that includes ginger, curry, coriander, cumin, cardamom, saffron, and cinnamon, plus lamb and another dozen or so ingredients – ordering this dish in such a restaurant is the preferred alternative to tackling it at home. And order it you must, because it is delicious and unique. Its spices meld seamlessly together; taste exotic with lamb; and result in sophisticated, wonderful comfort food.
The Yogurt-Marinated and Grilled Chicken was tender and moist with the crispest of chicken skins. It was served on a bed of bulgur and almond pilaf, which was a robust complement to the heartiness of the chicken. Bulgur is wheat that has been steamed, dried, and ground, and it has a slightly nutty flavor. The Yogurt-Marinated Chicken was topped with preserved lemons and watercress that tied the spices of the chicken together with the earthy flavors of the bulgur pilaf. Insalata has always searched out good, local, food sources and the chicken was so tender and flavorful that it reminded me of how good chicken can and should taste.
When dessert time approached, we took a look around and realized that we were surrounded by tables awash in plates of “S’morsetto,” which is the Insalata version of s’mores. The dish looked good, and from the sighs of the guests it must have been wonderful. But having decided that we wanted something other than chocolate, we tried the Ginger Pear Cake. The warm cake was more like a pudding than a dry cake, and was served in a bowl with a scoop of vanilla ice cream accompanied by spiced pears and a caramel sauce. It was flavored with the spices of the Mediterranean, transforming the Ginger Cake into a rich and luscious finale.
The Insalata dining experience is a creative interpretation of Mediterranean cooking. The flavors are complex and authentic, and they transport each guest to a warm, sunny, fragrant place. Dinner at Insalata is refreshing and relaxing as the knowledgeable staff will ensure that your wine selection will match the ambitions of Krahling’s food.