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Reviewed on Sunday, August 5, 2007

If a restaurant can be said to have it all, the new Nick's Cove in Marshall might qualify.

It has the view. Through the large plate-glass windows or from the outdoor deck you look west across a mile-wide expanse of Tomales Bay to the Point Reyes peninsula -- a scene of unspoiled serenity and beauty.

It has the decor, where the deer and the antelope play.

It has the food. Boy does it have the food.

And it has the customers. Although it's been open less than two months, word has spread. On a recent Friday, all the tables were reserved for the whole night, although a communal table made of marble with black and white inlays was open for walk-ins. By 7 p.m., the restaurant was packed -- but even so, the noise level was just moderate.

It has a beautiful, handcrafted wood bar and the quality wines and liquors to back it up.

And it has an attentive and plentiful staff that moves your dinner along nicely no matter how full the 20 or so indoors tables get to be.

Restaurateur Pat Kuleto and his partner, Mark Franz, bought Nick's Cove, that century-old ramshackle roadhouse and cottages on the northern Marin coast, in 2000. Restoring it has been a labor of love. The finished room looks like it's been there forever, although everything is new or refurbished.

Kuleto is the man who almost single-handedly invented modern Bay Area restaurant design (Boulevard, Farallon, Jardiniere and Fog City Diner in San Francisco, Martini House in St. Helena, and many others). His designs are always interesting, thematic and fun. No matter where your eyes alight, there'll be something interesting to see.

At Nick's Cove that means, for instance, many stuffed deer and antelope heads; mounted elk; bighorn sheep; moose heads and antlers; and stuffed fish. One of the deer heads is from a 26-point buck. Also on the walls: outdoorsy scenes, old-fashioned pistols, old signage (``Oyster Loaf -- 50 cents''), and such. The decor thus hearkens back to the 100-year heritage of the place -- sort of a Teddy Roosevelt reference.

The uniformed lads out front doing the valet parking, however, do seem incongruous, not only with the rough-and-ready decor inside, but also with the very rural dairy-country setting along Route 1 in this sparsely populated area at the Marin-Sonoma border.

Nick's Cove emphasizes its fish dishes, but it is not entirely seafood. The menu changes almost nightly, and on a recent night offered wild mushroom fettucini, rib-eye steaks, pork chops, hamburgers and cheeseburgers. Therefore the wine list contains plenty of good reds along with fish-friendly whites. Few whites are better with seafood than crisp, cold, steely French chablis, and Nick's has a good selection, including the 2004 Jean-Marc Brocard Grand Cru for $100. You don't have to go overboard, however. The 2006 Inman Family Russian River Valley Pinot Grigio is $52, the 2006 Kuleto Estate (Pat's label) Napa Valley Rosato is $36 and a 2001 Charbonniere Chateauneuf-du-Pape is $92. Corkage is $15.

Kuleto and Franz ran into some environmental problems during their seven-year redo. The giveaway is the presence of Nick's Cove Red Legged Frog on the menu for $2 million. The menu says the frog is ``served with plenty of sticky red tape.'' Now, the California red-legged frog is listed as a threatened species on the national endangered species list. So you can figure that Nick's Cove is spang in the middle of some prime red-legged frog habitat.

Tomales Bay is also known as the breeding ground of the great white shark along with Hog Island's inimitable oysters, which are grown just a few miles south of Nick's Cove. This means that

Hog Island Virginicas ($24 a dozen **** ) couldn't be much fresher, and freshness is everything with oysters on the half shell. Crassostrea virginica is the Atlantic oyster found from Canada to Florida, and is a sweet and briny morsel. Crassostrea gigas is the familiar, larger West Coast barbecue oyster, originally brought over from Japan when the native Olympia oysters were fished out or decimated by pollution. Hog Island is growing all three types. At this time of year, the Atlantics are superior.

The Bodega Bay Dungeness Crab Cake ($16 ***) is a large, thick cake jam-packed with local crab, lightly seasoned and served with a fennel remoulade. It could use just a touch of spicy heat.

Wife-and-husband team Heather Ames and Matt Weinbeger, both formerly of Farallon, share the title of executive chef and to them must go the credit for the insanely good Brandied Duck Liver Mousse ($9 ****) that comes with Della Fattoria's luscious fig-walnut bread. Just imagine bread with chunks of figs and walnuts, covered with foie gras mousse. It's heaven. Pitted black and green olives, whole grain mustard and cornichons also decorate the plate, but the bread and mousse need no further fixing up.

A Cucumber and Radish Salad ($8 ***1/2 ) pairs the spicy snap of radishes and watercress with the sweet acidity of pink grapefruit segments. All of this sits in a pool of cucumber foam and is topped with avocado creme fraiche. A side order of French Fries ($4 ***1/2 ) was about as good as fries get. They appeared to be twice cooked in hot oil so that the outside was crispy but the inside combined toasty potato with softness.

The Oak Grilled Local Pork Loin Chop ($24 ****) was extraordinary. A good 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick, the meat was flavorful, juicy and tender. Yellow peach chutney gave a sweet and sour tang to the pork, and the accompanying cornbread was fabulous (did they use bacon fat?). All this sat on a bed of bitter dandelion greens. What a wonderful plate of food.

Seared Bolinas Halibut ($22 ****) couldn't have been better. It had the advantage of being locally caught, and had been flash-seared to retain all its juices. The fish was flaky and tender. Also on the plate: haricot vert green beans, Nicoise olive tapenade and cherry tomatoes.

It was hard to choose between the berries in Champagne sabayon, bittersweet chocolate cake, yellow peach galette and Ranger cookie ice cream sundae for dessert. But the Yellow Peach Galette ($7 **) sounded too good. Unfortunately, the galette was a pro forma example of a galette, with leathery peach slices. The crust made an attempt to be flaky, but didn't quite make it. But with this wonderful atmosphere, great food, and fine company around the communal table, who cared?

To sum up: Nick's Cove goes from being a shabby, out-of-the-way coastal burger joint to one of the finest restaurants in a part of the world brimming with fine restaurants.

Restaurant: Nick's Cove, 23240 Highway 1, Marshall

When: Lunch Monday, Thursday and Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m. and Friday through Sunday to 9:30 p.m.

Reservations: Needed. Call (415) 663-1033.

Price range: Moderate to very expensive, with entrees from $12 to $36.

Web site: www.nickscove.com.

Wine list: ***

Ambiance: ****

Service: ***

Food: ***1/2

Overall: ***1/2

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