El Paseo Restaurant, Mill Valley

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El Paseo, Mill Valley

By Ashok Khanna

Also Posted on bestofsfbayarea.com

As you walk the brick path from Mill Valley’s Sunnyside Avenue to Throckmorton Street, you pass an outside dining area, a patio with a fireplace, dining rooms on both sides and an alcove with a dining table. Tucked away behind ivy-covered red brick walls, it’s El Paseo, seeming lifted from a small European town. The restaurant’s rustic decor—red brick walls, metal-framed windows, gas light styled chandeliers and white tablecloths—promises a distinctly Continental dining experience. American English is the only clue that you’re in the States.

Patio

Patio

El Paseo restaurant has been around since 1948. In 2009, it was purchased and lovingly restored by Tyler Florence, a celebrity chef with several restaurants in the Bay Area and who hosts a show on the Food Network. His partner in the venture is Sammy Hagar, a Hall of Fame rocker and wine connoisseur. They reopened it as a steak house in March, 2011, but included other dining options for broader appeal.

Alcove

Alcove

Our reservation was at 7:30—peak dining time—and our small room was fully occupied by informally dressed locals, the din of their voices forcing us to raise ours in competition. While we looked over the menu waiting for our order to arrive, we were served warm popovers and the house’s complementary sparkling water.

One Dining Room

One Dining Room

Our first courses were a medley of salads: layers of butter lettuce with chunks of avocado and blackberries, with green goddess dressing and hints of tarragon. It was delicious, although the blackberries were incongruous. The tomato and kale combo with prosciutto, tomato and pepita was tasty and substantial; but the market greens salad with sunflower seeds was over-dressed with citrus vinaigrette, wilting the fresh leaves.

Butter Lettuce Salad

Butter Lettuce Salad

On earlier visits, my dining companions had been favorably impressed with the restaurant’s steak, veal and hamburgers. Although El Paseo bills itself as a Marin chophouse, we did not order any meat. Instead, two of us ordered the roasted corn risotto with mushrooms and peas with a poached egg floating in their midst, and the third ordered seared diver scallops with black quinoa, tomato, basil, yogurt and raisins. To accompany the risotto, we sampled Pascal Jolivet Sancerre 2013; with the scallops we tried the Hecht and Bannier Grenache 2010.

The risotto was mildly sweet with the poached egg mixed in. Butter gave the dish substance and added flavor; the beech mushrooms and fresh al dente petite pois (small peas) were delightful. My dining companion thought his serving of four medium-sized scallops would be insufficient, but they were fresh and plump and more than substantial. The black quinoa with yogurt sauce on the side made the dish filling.

Roasted Corn Risotto

Roasted Corn Risotto

The wines paired well with our food. The Sancerre was dry and flinty, an excellent offset to the risotto’s buttery taste. The Grenache was light and spicy, a contrast to the scallops’ briny flavors but complementing rather than overpowering them.

We shared one dessert, the peach mousse over a coriander oak crisp with a vanilla gelato over peanut brittle. The mousse was airy and fruity, ending our meal on a pleasant note. The crisp, gelato and brittle were not memorable.

After taking our order, the waitress was unobtrusive and the bussing staff was attentive, clearing our plates simultaneously rather than when each of us finished, an unusually nice touch. Recorded background music became noticeably loud as other diners finished and left—the only potential sour note in an otherwise delightful dining experience.

Street parking is available. Diners seeking tables at peak hours should call ahead for reservations.

El Paseo, 17 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941. (415) 388-0741. http://elpaseomillvalley.com