DINE If you think food Valhalla is the Ferry Building, you haven't been to Point Reyes Station lately. The Ferry Building is just a building full of food — a nice building with interesting food, I concede — whereas Point Reyes Station is basically a village consecrated to food, Foodville USA. It's full of produce markets, butchers, bakeries, creameries, and restaurants, seemingly to the exclusion of everything else. The village, which sits on Highway 1 near the foot of Tomales Bay in the far west of Marin County, is just a few blocks' square, but those blocks are chockablock with people wandering on foot from one little food heaven to the next.
If Marin County doesn't make my list of favorite places, it's mainly because of the dense population corridor along U.S. 101 in the east. To the west, though, beyond the Mercedes-clogged tracts of Fairfax and San Anselmo, the land relaxes into open, rolling country plied by cyclists and dotted with stands of oak trees and boutique agricultural concerns, many carrying the "Marin Organic" label. And the capital of this peaceable (if kingless) kingdom is Point Reyes Station.
Given the bucolic setting, I was a little surprised to step into Osteria Stellina, one of the newer and most heralded restaurants, and find myself in a rather plain gunmetal-gray dining room. It was like being in the officers' mess on a battleship. Gray is a nice color for flannel suits, but on the walls of a restaurant — a restaurant, moreover, serving a Cal-Ital menu that bursts with flavor — it struck me as overcautious.
Still, the nautical hint isn't entirely misplaced. Point Reyes Station was once a port, and nearby Tomales Bay produces a wealth of farmed oysters. Naturally, Osteria Stellina offers these (from Hog Island) raw, and also (from Drake's Bay Family Farms) atop a pizza ($18). This was as improbable a home for oysters as I've ever come across, but it did work. It helped that the rest of the pie was liberally spread with leeks braised in cream (from neighboring Straus Creamery), lemon thyme, and parsley — a tasty, green-yellow paste like a less manic gremolata. A small downside: the paste made the crust slightly soggy.
Damp bread isn't always a disaster. We were smitten with Stellina's version of panzanella ($18), the salad whose key ingredient is stale bread, moistened with vinegar and proof that thrift need not be dull nor otherwise feel like deprivation. This panzanella was the kind the king might be served, if west Marin had a king; it was made with heirloom tomatoes and (non-stale but perhaps toasted) Brickmaiden sourdough bread and further fortified with shreds of local chicken, Point Reyes mozzarella, greens, olives, and a balsamic vinaigrette. Panzanella is irresistibly flavorful, easy to make and share, and wonderfully redolent of both summer and elegant frugality, and I wonder why we don't see it offered more often on menus.
Another Italian favorite that seems underrepresented in this country is the combination of cannellini beans and tuna. At Stellina this dish ($13) was made with conserved tuna (which I supposed to have been poached in olive oil), and it took an additional charge from celery and organic baby fennel, along with lemon quarters to squeeze over the top.
Even something as unassuming as a grilled-cheese sandwich ($14) can become special if it's made with superior bread and interesting cheeses (fontina and, from Valley Ford, Estero Gold) and plumped up with braised veal shanks and caramelized onions. A kind of osso buco sandwich.