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Walnut Creek Magazine

Chef Howard Ko Keeps Balboa Cafe Mill Valley at the Top of its Game

Nov 10, 2016 09:46AM ● By Fran Miller

Japanese Hamachi Crudo

Tucked away in the town of Mill Valley lies a destination level restaurant that masquerades as a humble neighborhood bistro. The locals in this quaint Marin County hamlet would likely prefer to keep their cafe classified, lest they lose their usual spot at the 12-stool bar. The regulars who slide into their favorite booth each Friday night might not appreciate our spreading the good word about this restaurant’s talented chef. But it would be a culinary crime to keep Balboa Cafe’s outstanding food and ambiance under wraps.

A mere 45-minute drive from Walnut Creek across the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge, Balboa Cafe Mill Valley (BCMV) - one of the anchors in the PlumpJack Group’s expanding hospitality empire -  is the doppelganger to its San Francisco restaurant of the same name. With a casually elegant and clubby atmosphere, and an amiable staff that encourage camaraderie and merriment, BCMV’s popularity could easily be based on its good natured vibe alone. Alas, there is something special happening in the BCMV kitchen that makes it much more than a local’s spot where everyone knows your name.

While the BCMV menu continues to offer its time-honored American bistro favorites like the classic Balboa Burger and Roasted Mary’s Half Chicken, Chef Howard Ko is changing things up just a wee bit. He’s experimenting, and offering his guests tastes of some of his new creations – several of which he plans to sneak onto the menu in due time. He’s respectful and understanding of diners who want the ‘usual,’ but he’s hopeful that their ‘usual’ might one day be his Red Cabbage Shrimp Mousse in a brown butter dashi broth with roasted black trumpet mushrooms and glazed carrots, or his Shitake Mushroom Consommé with mushroom custard, foie gras and and pickled pepper. This is amazingly delicious and creative food and the mark of a true talent.

Chef Howard Ko

Ko was raised in LA’s Koreatown which he left at age 18 for training at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park. He got his start at Manhattan’s celebrated Daniel, and has since held positions at The French Laundry, The Restaurant at Meadowood, and Goose & Gander. One year in at BCMV, Chef Ko continues to reinvent his menu to highlight the finest foods from local farmers and foragers. He scours the farmer’s markets for seasonal and vibrant ingredients that he uses in menu standouts such as his Charred Broccoli Salad with quinoa, avocado, preserved lemon, herbed almonds, and black garlic ranch, or his Ahi Tuna Crudo with marinated eggplant, black sesame, avocado, pickled onion and rice chip.  Other popular items include Wild Local Salmon with charred ramps, fava beans, fiddlehead ferns, olive, and green garlic sauce, the St. Helens Hanger Steak with pomme puree, grilled asparagus and Balboa Steak Sauce. Traditional bistro food? Possibly – but oh so elevated.

Make sure to peruse the bar menu’s inventive cocktails that perfectly compliment Ko’s dishes - BCMV’s bar program recently received a revival courtesy of Jacques Bezuidenhout and Ken Luciano of San Francisco’s Wildhawk, Forgery, and VERSO. A varied wine menu features several delicious choices from the PlumpJack portfolio.

So, we apologize Mill Valley residents and BCMV regulars for possibly commandeering your favorite corner table or cozy booth. But this beloved hometown spot of yours is just too good to  conceal. 

Balboa Cafe Mill Valley, 38 Miller Ave., Mill Valley

Lunch: Tues - Fri 11am - 3pm

Dinner: Sun - Thurs 5 - 10pm, Fri - Sat 5 - 11pm

Brunch: Sat - Sun 11am - 3pm

Bar open daily. Happy Hour: 3 - 6pm