Mr Porter Eats

King Of The Mill

Mr Todd Shoberg, the San Francisco chef who deejays while he cooks, goes on the record

  • Mr Todd Shoberg keeps his personal vinyl collection in the open kitchen for easy access during dinner service

Tucked away on a quiet side street along Mount Tamalpais’ gentle curves in Mill Valley, an affluent suburb of San Francisco, you might expect Molina to adhere to the same formula as its neighbours: starched white tablecloths and orderly dishes. Not so. Molina is a deliciously insubordinate newcomer, where Mr Todd Shoberg uses a brick oven, originally built for baking pizzas and hearty breads, to bring out new flavours and textures from fresh Bay Area ingredients – black cod hauled from the briny waters of Fort Bragg, chanterelles foraged from the Mendocino mountains.

“I want the dishes to be a little f*cked up,” says Mr Shoberg, a 36-year-old burly Midwesterner with tribal tattoos, an affinity for fire and, today, a form-fitting T-shirt with the logo of the mountain which his restaurant is perched on. “Loose, a little crazy, and relaxed. To me, that’s perfection.”

  • Household utensils and French windows make Molina feel more like a chalet than a restaurant

Molina looks more like a Swiss chalet than a restaurant, and has small porcelain tubs near the entrance where fennel, chervil and shiso sprout in the Marin County sun. Inside the 42-seat space, servers navigate the narrow rows in denim aprons and white walls give way to a walnut counter, dark exposed beams and a long bench wrapped in a sheepskin throw – a nod to Mr Shoberg’s Finnish roots. But heed Mr Shoberg’s warning: “People here have to be prepared for things to change on a whim — the food, the music, the seating, anything. I like to shake things up, bring my customers out of their little boxes.”

Above the open kitchen is a kitsch mural saluting the wildlife of Mount Tamalpais. It’s this regard for wildness that truly sets Molina apart; primitive cooking means relinquishing some control to the whims of the flames.

Yet Mr Shoberg manages to serve 300 dishes a night with impressive consistency. Within four months of opening this spring, the San Francisco Chronicle named it the best new restaurant in the Bay Area. Word is spreading quickly. But patrons don’t just come for the cooking, as Mr Shoberg is the veritable conductor of the restaurant. “From the kitchen I have a clear view of every seat in the house. I can see the expression in the eyes of someone in the furthest seat when they take their first bite,” he says.

  • A garden-to-flame approach crisps local vegetables without losing their flavour

Mr Shoberg knows how a restaurant should feel: welcoming and pleasantly surprising. “I’ve done it all, from washing dishes to management, cooking pizza to haute French cuisine, so I have a bird’s-eye view of the experience.”

The chef’s hobbies shine through his dishes as much as his culinary background. His Midwest roots are evident in the menu’s accessability (nothing screams unjustifiably obscure), foraged ingredients lend to his love of the outdoors, and a stint as a freelance photographer trained his eye for aesthetic sensitivity.

  • Molina cooks all of the dishes in one brick oven, for rustic upscale results

The art is in taking familiar ingredients and transforming them into something you’ve never quite tasted before. Case in point: ribeye with tomatoes and potatoes arrive at your table with the steak’s fat still bubbling. “The high heat cooks the meat in under three minutes, sealing in the juices instead of cooking them off,” Mr Shoberg explains. Meanwhile the dry-farmed tomatoes morph into an almost ketchup-like consistency and the fingerling potatoes crisp to the point they nearly taste fried. Buttery black cod comes dense and juicy with wild chanterelles and winter squash bathing in a miso pool infused with wild Douglas fir from the mountain. “One of my favourites is our broccoli. We bake it just enough to caramelise the stalks and crisp the outer florets,” Mr Shoberg says. “A pond of amber ale boiling beneath the broccoli steams it, then we dust it with paprika, add a few ribbons of guanciale (thinkly-sliced pork jowels) and a runny egg.” The wine list is curated by a Bar Tartine alumnus (the famous San Fran Tartine Bakery’s sister restaurant), and features rare orange wine. Yes, orange.

  • All of Molina's ingredients are sourced from the Northern California mountains, valleys and ocean

Throughout the evening, devout regulars and curious newcomers pop in and out. Some come for a quick bite at the counter, others stay after the meal for a third glass of wine and an excuse to linger near the warm fire. Between draping blistered gypsy peppers with romesco sauce and slicing heirloom tomatoes into perfect juicy wedges, Mr Shoberg switches out records from his personal vinyl collection (the menu includes the evening’s playlist, featuring anything from Miles Davis to The Black Keys). “I don’t want people to feel as if they’re at my restaurant,” Mr Shoberg says, “I want them to feel as if they’re at my dinner party.”

  • Mr Shoberg tends to his raised herb beds at Molina daily

Plow on Potrero Hill for the Dungeness crab hash.

Four Barrel on Valencia Street. Aside from the fantastic pour-over coffee, they’re always spinning great records.

Outerlands, near Ocean Beach. It’s the cosiest spot to be in that foggy climate.

Nopa, hands down. They are killing it over there, and the chef Laurence [Jossel] will tell you the best worst jokes.

The Alembic Bar on Haight Street for its whisky selection.

1. Talking Heads – “Making Flippy Floppy” 
“I play Talking Heads every night. They’re like our house Martini.”

2. BadBadNotGood – “Can't Leave the Night” 
“This is jazz but it makes you want to twerk.”

3. Moderat – “This Time” 
“I’d like to listen to this floating in space with a glass of Sancerre.”  

4. Bob Marley – “War” 
“To feel the love.”

5. Led Zeppelin – “You Shook Me” 
“For a dirtier kind of love.”

6. The War on Drugs – “An Ocean in Between the Waves” 
“Because they’re one of the best rock bands of the moment.”

7. Bombino – Amidinine 
“One of the best albums of 2014.”

8. Alias – “Wanna Let it Go” 
“Good for vegging out.”