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Left Bank Larkspur

Translated, Charming French

Even in 1910, as the sun would set and the air would cool over this small town only ten miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, denizens would descend on the Blue Rock Inn located in the heart of downtown Larkspur for an evening meal. It became a popular nightly gathering place not only for locals, but also for many Bay Area residents in search of fine dining in one of the Bay Area's most picturesque small towns.

The Victorian Blue Rock Inn may have lost much of the charm it possessed near the turn of the century when Gustave Nagel redesigned it, forging pillars from its namesake local blue basalt rock. However, renowned chef Roland Passot (Left Bank Menlo Park, etc.) has managed to rekindle the overall sense of place that welcomed patrons over one hundred years ago. Simple detailing and the requisite chalkboard beneath the overhang of the large outdoor veranda blur the distinction between the public sidewalks and the more private and romantic spaces beyond the threshold. Immediately soothing and charming, the interior has a whimsical litter of pigs adorning the back of the bar with a larger paper mache boar's head mounted above the stone fireplace.

Our table was located between the main dining room and a smaller, more dimly lit dining room, and from where we were sitting, we could catch a glimpse of yet another, smaller, private dining area known as "La Salle des Amis" situated towards the rear of the building. The interior continues to unfold, revealing spaces within spaces, providing each patron with a sense that they are at once both the center of attention, and a mere spectator within a grand establishment. On this Thursday evening, a jazz trio played various standards and even dabbled in an occasional twelve-bar blues.

The seasonal menu blends French staples with a California sensibility, emphasizing classic fare like escargot ($9.50), tarte Lyonnaise ($7.50), and duck a l'Orange ($18.95). We began with a half dozen oysters on the half shell from Washington State ($10.95) and kir royale ($8.75). These small, sweet oysters quivered on a bed of rock salt and thready kelp with fresh horseradish and nary a drop of cocktail sauce in sight. Next we went with our server's recommendations; the Marseille style bouillabaisse ($18.85) and the evening's veal special, served with fresh morel mushrooms.

The dense, rich, tender veal paired well with a glass of slightly smoky Jaboulet 2001 Cotes-du-Rhone ($6.75). Accompanying the veal were simple and quite buttery mashed potatoes -- the mushrooms were divine. In contrast to the earthy and subtle assemblage of veal, potatoes, and mushrooms, the bouillabaisse broth was a bright and tangy if not downright luxurious support for the generous bowl's cast of characters: perfectly cooked clams, scallops, tender fish, calamari and mussels.

Throughout the meal the service was smooth and friendly with well-timed breaks between courses. For dessert we fell for the molten chocolate fondant cake and blackberry and Meyer lemon sorbet. To round out the meal the softly frozen blackberry sorbet was both pungent and subtly sweet. After deciding to pass on the rather elegant selection of Pastis, we countered the richness of the chocolate and the sweetness of the sorbet with the warmth of a fine cognac.

All things considered, some might find it a bit jarring to be eating 19th century French cuisine while seated in a turn of the 20th century Victorian building updated with late 20th century and even early 21st century lighting fixtures, all while listening to Depression era jazz standards while in plain view of baseball highlights on the small TV above the bar. In some respects the Left Bank tries to be all things to all people; but like a unisex poncho with pockets, this works surprisingly well.

Families, couples, a healthy after-work crowd, and a party in the private dining room were all there and everyone, including the lovely soprano bartender who accompanied the band on a few of the blues numbers, was enjoying themselves. And why not -- Bay Area natives have been taking pleasure in the fine cuisine and light-hearted atmosphere of this unique spot for over 100 years.

Writer Ian Wolfe Ross contributed to this article.

Marin County