Mad for Madcap
Over his storied career, Ron Siegel has worked for an impressive lineup of chefs, including Daniel Boulud, Michael Mina, and Thomas Keller, the latter for whom he served as the inaugural sous chef for The French Laundry.
But now Siegel is finally working for himself.
In a most splendid fashion, too.
Madcap, his first very own restaurant, opened in San Anselmo earlier this summer. You’ll find him in the compact kitchen, which he has joked is smaller than the walk-in at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, where he was executive chef for many years. His wife Kimberly, whom he met when she was a server at The French Laundry, runs the front of the house. And when his two teen-age daughters aren’t in school, they often can be found in the dining room, jotting down orders.
It’s a small venue, about 47 seats, yet it feels a bit larger, thanks to the fact that there are two dining rooms. Artist Michael Brennan conceived the warm space, punctuated by dark wood, a marble bar top (where about three people can squeeze in to dine), deep red velvet banquettes, and his own eclectic paintings, including one of Raquel Welch striking an iconic pose from “One Million Years B.C.”
People have been flocking here since it opened, as evidenced by the fact that unless you really plan ahead, you might have to make due with a 9 p.m reservation. That’s what nearly happened when I was invited in to dine as a guest of the restaurant. But thanks to a cancellation, my husband and I were able to slip into our seats an hour earlier.
Siegel remains modest about his 1998 exploits as being the first American-born chef to defeat an “Iron Chef” in Kitchen Stadium in the original Japanese version of the culinary competition show. But there’s no mistaking how his time in Japan has heavily influenced his cooking, giving him a passion for its ingredients, techniques and esthetics.
At Madcap, the menu cover is reminiscent of Japanese paper. Inside, you’ll find a la carte selections, as well as the option to do a chef’s tasting menu, with many of the courses drawn from the regular menu.
The latter is what we opted for. At $80 per person for about eight courses or so, it’s one of the most reasonably priced tasting menus in the Bay Area, too. The portions are modest yet satisfying. In fact, because of the Japanese influences, this is a tasting menu that will leave you satiated with its clear, vivid flavors, but not feeling as if you’ll need to leave the restaurant, rolled out in a wheelbarrow, because of an abundance of butter or cream.
The tasting menu began with a curl of raw big eye tuna with yuzu gel so aromatic that you could smell its lovely floral-citrus fragrance the minute it was put down on the table. It was a one-bite wonder — a tiny thing with such big presence.
Then came uni panna cotta drizzled with Indonesian vanilla oil and just a pinch of freshly grated ginger. It was as thick, smooth and rich as any dessert, but decidedly in the savory category.
Equally creamy and velvety was the butternut squash soup. With his many years of fine-dining experience, Siegel is a master of garnishing. He knows how to add just a tiny sprinkle of something or another to give the entire dish a real pop. Such was the case with this soup, which received a restrained garnish of candy cap mushroom crumble and pine nuts. Think of it as almost a savory granola with the maple flavor of the mushrooms and the buttery, toasty crunch of pine nuts.
His beautiful avocado roll is like a maki roll without the rice. Instead, it’s filled with more big eye tuna, this time finely chopped like tartare, wrapped up inside nori and buttery thin slices of avocado. It’s garnished with fresh hearts of palm, ponzu gel, and a black sesame seed paste sauce that adds richness and nuttiness. You don’t miss the usual wasabi at all. Instead, minus its sinus-clearing heat, you really taste the lushness of the fish instead.
Next, a favorite Siegel ingredient: shima aji or striped horse mackerel. The oily, silky fish gets a counterpoint with pomegrante-tarragon jam, radish, kombu and fresh, cream-hued seaweed that Siegel describes as like a fruit roll-up. And darned if it doesn’t possess that same chewy texture, along with a briny, subtle fruitiness.
If Siegel ever wanted to open up an Italian restaurant, he certainly has the chops to do it. His Devil’s Gulch rabbit tortelloni has been a favorite — for good reason. The filling is succulent; the pasta wrapper is the perfect blend of tender and delicate yet toothsome. Here, it’s served with a miso-mushroom puree, chanterelles, and a Parmesan foam. As part of the chef’s tasting menu, you get three of them. But I could easily eat a dozen — without a second thought.
If you’re a long-time “Iron Chef” fan, then you know that Siegel won “Battle Lobster.” He definitely has a way with the crustacean, cooking it such that it really does just melt in your mouth. The claw and tail meat pieces are ever so crisp on the very edges, then entirely supple within. The lobster rests in a pol of dashi broth, which you’ll want to drag a spoon through to get every drop. Shaved radish, salsify puree (which has an oyster-like flavor), and a leaf of mustardy tatsoi add subtle depth and bite.
Juicy dry-aged Flannery rib eye comes with Siegel’s favorite carrots — Nantes — which are nearly as sweet as candy.
Dessert is a moist square of hachiya persimmon pudding cake with grapeseed-flour crumble and ice cream infused with more of those lovely candy cap mushrooms. It’s like a homey spice cake, gone up a notch or two or three.
Unlike so many of Siegel’s previous establishments that were more special occasion destinations, this is a place with a price point and vibe that beckons you to return much more frequently.
And if you go once, no doubt you will again. Because it’s easy to go mad for Madcap.