Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Green Prickly Things That Grow in the Desert

My expectations for dining out in Novato are on a precarious slide. I've reached a point where I'm just happy when a place looks clean and my tummy doesn't hurt afterwards. Actually, I've been cooking at home a lot more than I did when I lived in the City, which is a decidedly good thing. I've also been trolling every blog and restaurant review site out there in hopes of finding a hidden gem, but the good spots all seem to be in Petaluma or San Rafael or other places outside of my 'hood. And so I've been straying... but more on that later.

My most recent Novato experiment took place at Cacti Restaurant, where I was accompanied once more by the fabulous Adam. Cacti is housed in a whitewashed, Spanish-looking building on Grant Avenue that was formerly a church. The double doors are tall and weather-beaten; walking in, we felt a rush of anticipation. The hostess led us to a table in the middle of the dining room, where we could watch the movements of the kitchen through the oblong cubbyhole that also serves as the counter where plates are put up.

We sat for about fifteen minutes before anyone greeted us. There were only about eight other tables seated in the whole place, so it didn't seem to be an issue of busy-ness so much as one of miscommunication - the two servers on staff each thought that we were assigned to the other. This little joke was relayed to us when they both approached the table at the same time. Unfortunately, the ambiguity continued throughout the evening; one took our drink order, while the other one returned to ask if we wanted appetizers.

We began with margaritas, which were served in oversized glasses of the sort you find during a summer sale at Pier One - clear glass at the bottom that gradually becomes a bright shade of cobalt blue towards the wide, jutting rim. They were cold and not too sweet, nicely accented to shards of salt, and we hunkered over our straws and chatted about the Very Important Things that were happening in our respective restaurants of employ - server gossip, menu changes, the horrible customer who came in over the weekend and threw a fit in the middle of dessert...

A runner delivered our starters, consisting of mini tamales and chips, salsa & guacamole. The tamales were arranged like spokes on a puddle of reddish-brown sauce. They were tender and soft, if a bit gummy on the outside. The sauce had a hint of pepper and a vaguely sweet flavor that cried out for more attitude, but we were hungry, so it worked. The chips were crunchy and salty, and though the portion of guacamole was small, it was simultaneously creamy and chunky, without any of the funky "off" avocado flavor that some guacamoles suffer from.

Our starters were long since finished as we sat, talking on and thinking every few minutes that someone might come by to clear the plates or perhaps take our entree orders. We wiggled our straws into the bottoms of our margarita glasses, searching out the last bit of tequila.

Adam watched my eyes dart accusingly around the room. "Our standards are awfully high," he said ruefully. "We're kind of hard to please, being in the industry and all."

"Maybe," I sighed, "but we aren't exactly being difficult customers. I mean, we're just sitting here, waiting for someone to take our order."

After a few more minutes, our server returned - which one was it this time? - with pad in hand, ready to hear what we wanted next. We decided on the Filet Mignon Enchiladas and the Mesquite-grilled Salmon.

Both entrees were, when they arrived, perfectly pleasant. Let me point out two highlights. The first was that the salmon wasn't cooked through, but rather had a moist, rosy center - I love that. I hate it when salmon is cooked through and tastes like dry mush in my mouth. Second, the black beans that were served on the side of both dishes were cooked to perfection. Not too hard, not too soft - firm, yet plush cushions of bean-y goodness with a hint of smoky spice. Mmm.

The enchilada was decent, but didn't make any kind of specific impression. A shrug, if you will. Ditto with the rice. We decided to skip dessert. One of the servers eventually returned with our check, and we went on our way.

This was not a bad dining experience (see note above about expectation level). The service left much to be desired, but then again - everyone has an off night. Admittedly, we didn't order some of the more interesting things on the menu - chips and guacamole are not exactly the test of a chef - and so I think that Cacti merits another try. I already know that it won't be in my top 50, or even 100, but it just might fit the bill when I'm hankering for a margarita and something spicy close to home.

Cacti Restaurant
1200 Grant Avenue
Novato, CA


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