Thursday, June 22, 2006

1: Reno, of all places

Reno, June 22

The drive is a familiar one: down 101 to Novato, across the Black Point cutoff past Mare Island, onto highway 80 at the improbable roller-coaster garden, through the Vacaville hills and into the central valley.

How it's changed in the last fifty years and more. When I was a kid the Black Point cutoff was something out of Dante, a narrow road through heavy fogs, chasms real or, worse, imagined on each side. You only took that way if the ferries were out of commission, because of a late hour, or heavy seas on the Bay, or perhaps, who knows, some kind of labor issue.

Now the road's uneventful. Everyone drives at the same speed, of course, since there's only one lane in each direction: but everyone is now able to drive at the same speed, whether through the cruise-control or, less likely, attentive competence. The cars don't break down; you never see anyone pulled over onto the shoulder: it's just drive, listen to another CD, answer the phone, drive; and then you come to the amazing humpback bridge past Mare Island, and stay these days on a multi-lane freeway across the canyon toward Six Flags or whatever it is, and you're out of the Bay Area and into the Valley.

One hundred six outside the car, says the thermometer on the dashboard, but we're hungry, it's past one o'clock, so I pull off the road into Davis and stop at the park, two or three blocks north, two or three blocks west. One parking bay is shaded, and there's a concrete picnic-table and -benches in the shade; and afterward we walk across the park to Ciocolat (301 B Street, 753-3088), a fine place for an iced mocha at a table on the deck.

From home to Reno is 250 miles, five hours not counting the Davis stop (but including time wasted in Santa Rosa, driving to and from the AAA office to pick up some maps). Finding the motel was easy: Lindsey picked the cheapest one in the AAA Tourguide, a Travelodge on West Fourth Street -- forty-four dollars for us and two grandchildren, who made friends quickly with other kids in the pool while I got the e-mail on the free wi-fi that doesn't work in the room but comes in okay on the parking lot.

While online I look for a restaurant. Zagat has nothing in Nevada north of Las Vegas, it seems. We find some other webpages, though, and reading between the lines, and making allowances for local enthusiasms, we settle on the 4th Street Bistro. Good thing we do: the place is genuinely good. There is a place to eat east of the Waterboy in Sacramento: I would not have believed it.

I have a nice Greek salad with boquerones, those sweet little Spanish anchovies innocent of salt and olive oil; and afterward a truly inspired plate of lamb noisettes, grilled, touched with lavender-scented salt, and set about a mound of pureed cannelini, with a mint-based "pesto" and tracings of harissa sauce -- not Italian, not Sard, not Provencal, not North African, but beautifully balanced, integrated, fully arrived; a thing I'll happily order every time I'm in this town.

The hostess looks at us appraisingly as she brings something or other: Aren't you Lindsey, she says; and Lindsey admits she is. Natalie the executive chef comes out with Lindsey's book, for a second inscription -- for Natalie did an internship at Chez Panisse back in the late 'eighties, before cooking stints at Stars and Bix, and then opening this place of her own in Reno six years ago.

4th St. Bistro is, in short, a Bay Area restaurant in Reno, the only slow food-like place, she says, in the entire state of Nevada. She's working with local farmers and purveyors, moving the Waters revolution into the Basin & Range, and to judge by tonight's dinner with both authenticity and real polish.

We have dessert, of course: pot de creme, apricot upside-down cake, semifreddo, and -- my choice -- a clafoutis that's just the ticket, the thin batter, the cherries, the sugar crystals --

We're on our way to Santa Fe, if you don't mind a little rhyming. Tomorrow we cut across Nevada on the old highway 50. I'm not sure where we'll eat tomorrow night. But even if it's a total wash-out we'll have the memory of tonight's dinner, better by far than anything I'd have looked for along this part of the road.

4th Street Bistro: 3065 W. 4th Street, Reno; phone (775) 323-3200

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