By Tanya Henry
When news surfaced that Michelin-starred chef Ron Siegel had joined forces with West Marin’s Rancho Nicasio, Bay Area food lovers were both delighted and confounded. Envisioning fine dining at the aging roadhouse known for its lively music and bar scene was, to put it mildly, a stretch.
But given that Siegel—who most recently was the executive chef at San Francisco’s Michael Mina—lives in Marin County and has school-age children, it’s quite conceivable that the celebrated chef was ready to trade in the bridge commute and late hours for more bucolic environs and a civilized work schedule. In April, Rancho’s newly renovated Western Room rolled out a spring menu of hyper-local ingredients, incorporating cooking techniques the likes of which may never have been seen before at this 75-year-old historic tavern.
In keeping with the existing décor, the separate dining room maintains Rancho Nicasio’s lodge feel, but the addition of a leather banquette, dark wood floors, burgundy-hued ceiling (it used to be white) and more leather booths elevates the room from shabby to comfortable and casual. Pretty purple tulips on the tables (there is seating for 46) add a pop of color and warmth. Plenty of early-evening light streams into the room, which opens to an outdoor patio that seats another 40.
Brickmaiden bread ($4) is offered in the Small Bites section of the menu, and I was prepared to be annoyed at the charge. However, an accompanying house-made butter infused with plenty of lemon zest made me bite my tongue. A bright tarragon salsa verde offered a complementary acidic balance to a bite-sized buttery Dungeness crab ($7) —the size of a tournedo enrobed in thinly sliced avocado.
Our server showed his pedigree (he had been at Aqua) with his enthusiastic and eager responses to questions about preparation and ingredients. A nicely portioned Mount Lassen Trout ($15) arrived, and another server carefully poured delicate dashi over the fish, mushrooms and daikon—making for an exquisitely layered dish.
Five main (or second) courses include an herb-roasted chicken with ramps, Bolinas black cod, a steak option and a memorable Sonoma County duck breast ($30) with pickled cherries, pork confit and turnips.
A chef of Siegel’s caliber landing in West Marin is nothing short of a coup. But if his plates, which regale us with recently plucked miner’s lettuce, edible flowers and ice cream dotted with candy cap mushrooms are any indication of his state of mind, I’d guess that he too, is pleased to be there.
The Western Room serves dinner five nights a week. For reservations, call 415/622-2219, or visit seatme.yelp.com/r/rancho-nicasio/.