Big City-Eats At Small-Town Rancho Nicasio
You’ll be excused if you’ve never been to Rancho Nicasio in Marin before.
The out-of-the-way roadhouse and live music venue may not have been on most people’s radar before. But it sure is now.
That’s because about four months ago, it added a new chef.
Not just any chef. But Ron Siegel, former executive chef of Michael Mina Restaurant in San Francisco, who previously headed Masa’s in San Francisco and Charles Nob Hill in San Francisco. And the first American-born chef to beat an Iron Chef on the original Japanese TV cooking competition.
Chef Max Brown who has been at Rancho Nicasio for 18 years since his father Bob Brown, former manager of Pablo Cruise and Huey Lewis & The News, bought the property is still there. He still oversees the main dining room and the massive backyard barbecue festivities.
But Siegel now serves up an entirely separate menu in the Western Room inside the rustic Rancho Nicasio.
It all came about after Siegel, tired of his long commute into San Francisco from his home in San Anselmo, approached Bob Brown about the idea.
“You drive out here and it’s freaking beautiful. It’s almost like small town America,” says Siegel. “You pull up here and it’s a little funky. I just wanted to cook solid food that’s unexpected.”
Is he ever.
I had a chance to see — and taste — for myself a few weeks ago, paying my own tab at the end of the dinner.
You wouldn’t expect to find a four-star, big-city chef in this secluded spot that boasts moose heads on the wall, rough-hewn walls, and wood, wood, everywhere.
But that’s part of the charm — that inexplicable juxtaposition. In fact, the feeling is a little like that of Saison, when it first debuted as a pop-up at the Stable Cafe in San Francisco, where you enjoyed an elegant chef’s tasting menu while sitting on garden-variety slat chairs.
Here, you come in jeans and a T-shirt to enjoy dishes, many of which would still be right at home on the menu of the Ritz-Carlton’s Parallel 37 in San Francisco, where Siegel also once headed the kitchen.
The Western Room is open Wednesday through Sunday for dinner. With a much abbreviated kitchen crew, Siegel is behind the line, cooking most every dish, plating it, too, and even designing the desserts.
The first hint that you’re somewhere special comes if you order the Devil’s Gulch rabbit liver ($7). It’s not some country ramekin of rabbit pate, but neatly cut little squares with layers of tender almond cake, rabbit liver mousse, fuchsia-hued hibiscus gel, and micro blooms. It’s makes for not only a beautiful one-bite-wonder, but a true palate pleaser with its rich and minerally liver elevated by the fruity-tang of the smooth as glass hibiscus gel.
Drakes By Miyagi yysters ($3) each again perk up the taste buds with spritely agro dolce mignotte, the tickle of heat from tellicherry pepper and the sharp hit of horseradish.
Siegel jokes that the Shima Aji ($16) comes from Nicasio Creek. Not quite. But you can’t fault an Iron Chef victor for his love of Japanese fish, especially when it’s presented so prettily — sashimi-style with pickled salted plum, and white kombu.
Each week, Siegel gets in grass-fed beef from Petaluma’s Stemple Creek and offers it in various cuts on the menu. While my husband is a die-hard rib eye fan, the 28-ounce Stemple Creek rib eye ($74) was even too much meat for him. So he opted for the more modest, corn-finished Brandt 10-ounce rib eye ($35). The perfectly medium-rare steak was presented with king trumpet mushrooms, mashed potatoes, and a glossy red wine jus.
I opted for the Bolinas black cod with pork. It’s a play on surf-and-turf. But instead of steak and lobster, it’s a golden-seared fish fillet with a lush braised pork that’s formed into a neat little brick, making for a lighter version. Summer corn kernels and shiitakes rounded out the dish.
We couldn’t resist ending with the Nicasio Valley flower cake ($8) after Siegel told us it was inspired by a dessert his wife — who acts as the manager of the Western Room — made for her book club. The individual, tender little buttermilk cake gets slathered with vanilla frosting dappled with real flower petals. A sprinkle of shiso salt is a fun, chef-y touch, as is the swipe of blueberry jam on the plate. It’s a satisfying, homey dessert. I only wish the frosting didn’t have a slightly granular texture from the sugar not being incorporated fully.
Being out in the country seems to agree with this urban chef. “It was harder doing this than opening a new restaurant,” Siegel says. “It’s like starting over. I’m having fun. Life is good.”