Fresh at the Cove

  • Clam chowder at Nick's Cove, Marshall. April 27, 2011.

One of the chief joys of dining at Nick's Cove in Marshall is getting there.

Whether you're driving north from Point Reyes Station or south from Bodega Bay on Highway 1, the drive along the eastern shore of Tomales Bay offers one spectacularly beautiful view after another.

And when you arrive, there's just as much pleasure in the food. It starts with the oysters. There's a 200-foot dock that juts out over the water that you can stroll on and two dining rooms with big window views of the bay. If you look to the south, you're looking at the Hog Island Oyster Co.'s oyster-growing beds. On a recent night, the menu offered Hog Island Sweetwaters at a pricey $3 each, but where else are you going to get oysters so fresh they were just pulled from the cold, salt water of their growing beds? Six Sweetwaters ($18, 4 stars) were incomparable, and if you love raw oysters, you'll flip over these.

People who want to sell you oysters from other places will tell you that the liquid in the oysters when their shells are opened is their "liquor," making it sound like something good. What it really is, is the oysters' metabolic waste products. Won't hurt you. Doesn't taste very good. The Sweetwaters at Nick's Cove have none of that. Whatever liquid is held in their shells is fresh bay water — briny, clean, and icy cold.

On the other hand, why would Nick's Cove sell Beer-Steamed PEI Mussels ($10, 2 stars )? PEI, of course, is Prince Edward Island, over 3,000 miles away in the Canadian Maritimes on the Atlantic coast. They grow fine mussels there, but after harvesting, packing, a 3,000-mile plane ride, and a truck ride up the West Coast, it's no wonder the mussels seemed tired and tasted a little funky. Yet beautiful mussels are farmed right there in Tomales Bay. The mussels were beer-steamed and dressed with garlic and very spicy slices of red Fresno chiles. Chunks of slow-roasted pork belly were sprinkled on top.

Oysters aren't the only four-star dishes on the menu. You can land a beautiful meal just sampling around the first courses. For instance, the Clam Chowder ($10, 4 stars) is simply the best cream-based clam chowder I've ever had. While the soup is creamy, it's not thickened with corn starch or roux, so it's not pasty. It is succulently delicious and loaded with Manila clam meat, diced apple-wood smoked bacon, diced potatoes and chopped leeks. A sprinkling of minced parsley decorates the top. It's the perfect cup of chowder. Maybe it helps that as you spoon up this noble soup, you can watch the waterbirds settle far out on the water and see little waves lapping at the piers of the dock.

Crab Louis ($18, 4 stars) can often be a disappointment due to a paltry amount of crab, but not this monumental delight. A large handful of fresh-picked Dungeness crab meat sits atop a bed of butter-lettuce leaves. A traditional Louis dressing of mayonnaise, cream, lemon juice and Worcestershire and chili sauces is poured over it. A small pile of slender matchsticks cut from a red radish perches on top. Avocado slices, crumbled hard-boiled egg, cucumber slices, and diced tomatoes are placed alongside the lettuce.

Service is professional and snappy at Nick's Cove. The rooms are rustic, with the walls hung with elk antlers and deer heads. Decorations are mostly nautical — anchors, abalone shells nailed to the wall, that sort of thing. And there's even a wry joke on the menu. When Pat Kuleto and Mark Franz were developing Nick's, they discovered that the site is in the habitat of the endangered red-legged frog. This caused long delays and much officiousness by governmental agencies. And so the menu offers "Red-legged frog with mounds of sticky red tape, $2,000,000."

The wine list has no jokes, but it does contain lots of good wine. A 2008 muscadet from France is $35 a bottle and perfect with seafood. A 2005 Alsatian gewurztraminer is $60, while a 2006 Austrian gruner veltliner is an astounding $90, considering most gruners are in the $12 to $30 range (although 2006 was a classic vintage in Austria).

A glass of that muscadet would be a fine accompaniment for the Crispy Fried Calamari ($12, 3 stars), nicely cooked although the calamari rings were chewy. It came with a marvelous house-made tartar sauce. A Dungeness Crab Cake ($14, 3 stars) appetizer is a single four-inch diameter, thin cake of almost pure crab meat browned on both sides and given a dab of smoked paprika aioli.

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