The drive to Nick’s Cove restaurant, just a few short miles southwest of the tiny town of Tomales, is a windy and wonderful adventure through roadside groves of eucalyptus and over estuaries, with expansive coastal views in the background.
The nearly century-old roadhouse and cozy cottages that are Nick’s Cove have been renovated and revamped many times, most notably by restaurateur Pat Kuleto, who sold the complex back to one of its original investors in 2011 after a multimillion-dollar renovation project that lasted seven long years.
A series of chef shuffles, staffing challenges and bland menus that overpromised but underwhelmed have stifled its ability to become a destination seafood restaurant, despite some solid chefs at the helm. Former San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer delivered an especially harsh review in 2013, saying it was no longer worth a special trip. Even Yelpers seem to run hot and cold on the experience, with reviews ranging from ebullient to downright angry.
Suffice it to say, I haven’t been to the restaurant in at least a decade.
But news in late August that “Top Chef Masters” winner Chris Cosentino revamped the menu at Nick’s Cove stoked immediate interest from naysayers. The San Francisco chef, who envisioned groundbreaking restaurants like Cockscomb and Incanto, seemed to be going all in on seafood, including dishes that reflected his childhood in Rhode Island.
The resulting menu isn’t wildly different than previous iterations and includes Nick’s Cove standards like fish and chips, cioppino, raw and barbecued oysters, a Stemple Creek burger and a classic Louis salad. But updates include a classic lobster roll, as well as Rhode Island clam chowder (a more brothy version of its cousin, creamy New England chowder, is also available), Fries with Eyes (whole fried smelt), steak frites with Point Reyes blue cheese butter and smoked black cod dip with fried Saltines.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I dove into the experience with high hopes — maybe unreasonably high. While every dish we tried was perfectly fine, nothing was transcendent. I’ve had meals at Cosentino’s other restaurants, and nothing at Nick’s Cove reminded me of the passionate, seasonal cooking he’s known for.
But unrealistic expectations have long been the bane of many coastal restaurants. Beach-bound diners often have hard-and-fast expectations for seaside menus: chowder, fish and chips and crab sandwiches, regardless of seasonality. It’s understandable but a shame, because it binds chefs to public expectations rather than creativity and the chance to use the most of-the-moment ingredients. Anyone suffering through gluey chowder or flaccid fish and chips at coastal restaurants knows breathtaking views don’t always mean great food.
When you enter the roadhouse, you won’t immediately see that traditional table service has switched to a more casual walk-up style, requiring diners to order and pay before sitting down. Certainly, it’s a more cost-efficient service model that diners should expect to see more frequently as restaurants continue to be beleaguered by staffing woes. Remote coastal locations have always had trouble attracting high-quality staff due to distance and seasonal business cycles, which makes this model even more understandable at Nick’s Cove.
On the plus side, every dish is picture-perfect, and the kitchen excels at plating. Take the Nick’s Cove Louis salad ($19), which has been on the menu for years. The Little Gem lettuce was crisp and delicious, with snappy green beans, a spot-on six-minute egg and lovely boiled potatoes. Unfortunately, crab isn’t included in the price (an extra $10), and in September, Dungeness crab isn’t in season locally. Locals know the plump and sweet crustacean is best bought directly from a fishing boat in December or January (recent seasons have been short and challenging, which means there’s even less reason to have it on the menu). Despite a generous serving of crab added to the salad, it just wasn’t the experience I’d hoped for. Adding bay shrimp for $6 might have been a better bet.
The lobster roll ($32) comes stuffed into a split-top bun and is perfectly tasty but not mind-blowing. We couldn’t even find the sea urchin aioli ($4) we added to the roll because it was buried beneath the already-creamy lobster salad.
A bowl of cioppino ($30) with mussels, snow crab, calamari and rock cod seemed a bit paltry, with a slab of grilled bread and aioli dominating rather than complementing the seafood. Overall, it tasted fine, but the snow crab was mealy rather than juicy. Fish and chips ($24) was underwhelming in portion size, but crispy and far from the worst I’ve had.
We did like the Fries with Eyes ($10), whole smelt battered and served with tartar sauce, but the coating could have been crispier. A Big Baked Oyster ($9) from nearby Hog Island Oyster Co. was subjugated to bits of spicy nduja sausage and a pile of green onions. Again, it was perfectly good, but the oyster seemed like more of an afterthought than the star of the plate.
At the end of the meal, feeling like the wind had gone out of our sails, my dining partner and I tried the Straus soft-serve ice cream in a taiyaki fish cone ($12), a waffle-style cone in the shape of a wide-mouthed fish, stuffed with creamy swirls of chocolate and vanilla. It’s hilarious and novel and topped with a toupee of “Neptune’s Beard” (threads of twisted sugar piled atop the fish’s head). It’s downright snort-worthy, and we couldn’t stifle peals of giggles.
Maybe that’s why I still can’t entirely quit Nick’s Cove — the drive, the view, the good company, a plate of fresh oysters and a fish-shaped ice-cream cone with a sugar wig isn’t a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon at the coast.
23240 Highway 1, Marshall, 415-663-1033, nickscove.com. Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.