For this week’s flagship review, Michael Bauer heads north to the Nicasio, CA (population 96) where the tiny town is now "the unlikely home of the best and most modern food in Marin County." The Rancho was built in 1941 as a sort of community center and entertainment venue and has a timeless roadhouse vibe that Bauer is just smitten with. If you ignore the car and the flat-screen TV, "you’d swear you’d walked into a hermetically sealed time capsule."
While the roadhouse has an easy, "better than you’d expect" menu, it is actually the 47-seat Western Room in the back where America’s first Iron Chef Ron Siegel is working the magic that Bauer feels fit for his blessing. Siegel has a four-star pedigree coming from the Ritz and Michael Mina (nb. also a Nicasio resident) and he’s doing most of the work at the Rancho by himself, which makes for "serious food" despite the casual western vibe. Standouts include a rabbit tortelloni ("one of the best pasta dishes I’ve had in a long time"), hamachi crudo and a Mount Lassen trout swimming in a shallow pool of fashion broth.
From Bauer’s tone it sounds like there wasn't a bad dish to be found on the menu, which changes frequently based on what the nearby farms are dropping on Siegel’s doorstep, and includes weekly prix fixe menus on Sundays. The whole effect, Bauer says, "can’t be replicated anywhere else." Three stars for Rancho Nicasio - three and a half for the Iron Chef’s food, but only two for the roadhouse atmosphere.
For this week’s update, Bauer returns to Rintaro. On his first review, Bauer loved the dining room but wasn’t quite as taken with the less-than-Zen food. What’s changed in the past year and a half is chef Sylvan Mishima Brackett has honed his techniques across the board and is now making precise cuts of tuna and some of "the best udon noodles I’ve encountered in the Bay Area."
Other izakaya items like the gyoza, and a chicken-thigh meatball yakitori ("juicy as a liquid-filled sponge") are even better than the first time around. The only disappointment here was the pork katsu, from which the "dense panko coating fell off like a robe." Undressed pork aside, Bauer says Rintaro has "found a strong vision" and for that he’s handing out three stars.
Self-proclaimed "mayonnaise-averse fusspot," Pete Kane tries to figure out [extreme Seinfeld voice] what’s the deal with ramen? at Oakland’s Itani Ramen. Probably the most annoying thing about ramen is people’s weird desire to wait a long time before they can eat it, so it’s refreshing to hear Kyle Itani’s latest endeavor doesn’t suffer that particular problem. The menu is small — just four ramen variations and four apps plus gyoza and some rice bowls. And the big menu standout is actually the "Egg 3 Way," which is when a jidori egg enters into a open relationship with "fat pearls of ikura" and a "generous helping" of uni.
On the seasonal ramen list, the cold Nanban Zuke Ramen with pickled and fried sardines and a "pleasantly softened acid bath" for broth was the top pick, with the shoyu ramen a runner-up. Notably missing here is the crowd favorite tonkatsu broth, and maybe a bit of the portion sizes, Kane says. While the prices are comparable to other ramen joints, the bowls themselves are "noticeably smaller." But what it lacks in value, it makes up for in hip elements like a vending machine full of Japanese frozen snacks and a "bitter-tart shochu cocktail" served in a hollowed-out grapefruit. The verdict: Cool vibe, but can we get a little more soup?
Togi’s Mongolian Cuisine
In his neverending search for the next undiscovered East Bay chef, Luke Tsai heads to the nondescript Asian Grill in downtown Oakland. Despite the dive-y facade boasting "Japanese Sushi Bar. Mongolian Restaurant. American Breakfast," the place has recently changed hands and chef Enkhtuguldur Sukhbaatar (a.k.a. "Togi") is working to rebrand it as a more straightforward, traditional Mongolian restaurant. After 15 years cooking in China, plus a few in the Bay Area at various Benihanas and "other restaurants of that ilk," Togi is ready to clear up any misguided ideas about what Mongolian food really is.
Which means: lots of dumplings and noodles, but not so much rice or spice. According to Togi, most Mongolian cooks don’t use much seasoning beyond salt, pepper and an "enduring love for Maggi sauce," so the dumplings don’t come with much in the way of accoutrements. While the place still sounds a little bare, at this point, Togi is rounding out the menu with Bento boxes for the lunch crowd and plans to feature even more exotic Mongolian specialties like a whole lamb roasted over red-hot river rocks. The verdict: Togi’s is an exciting new course correction for Mongolian cuisine and one to watch in the near future.