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The Shell Game

Nick's Cove still a winning spot, as long as it doesn't try to get too fancy

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Given its stunning setting on the shore of Tomales Bay and a 20-foot mahogany bar, Nick's Cove would probably remain a popular restaurant even if the food wasn't any good. But after a recent change of ownership, that's not a problem. The food is good—if you know what to order.

With the sun setting or the rain slanting down, a seat inside Nick's is as cozy as it gets. The open fireplace near the heavy front door and deer trophies on the walls make the place feel like a hunting lodge. Open since the 1930s, the restaurant has long served as a roadside tavern between the towns of Marshall and Tomales.

Nick's had fallen into disrepair when restaurateur Pat Kuleto and chef Mark Franz bought it in 1999 with visions of restoring it to its former glory. The venture proved disastrous as the two faced permit hurdles and a nose-diving economy when the refurbished restaurant opened in 2007. A

Point Reyes Light article from last year quoted a letter Kuleto wrote to investors: "For [chef] Mark Franz and I, this has been a complete disaster. . . . Restoring and then operating Nick's Cove required an endless stream of money. In addition to the $3 million originally provided by the investors, I advanced more than $5 million over the years, representing everything I had."

With $13 million of debt, Kuleto and Franz were forced to sell. In August, Nick's Cove sold to Prescott Ashe, managing director of Golden Gate Capital, a San Francisco–based investment firm. (Trivia bonus: Ashe was once a principal at Bain Capital, the private equity firm cofounded by Mitt Romney.) With the ownership change, sous chef and Petaluma native Austin Perkins has become executive chef. Perkins emphasizes local produce, fish and meat. The trouble is that Perkins doesn't always put those ingredients to their best use.

The trick to ordering at Nick's is to stick to the basics. Salads, fish 'n' chips, burgers and crab cakes are all good. And the oysters. As long as they're fresh, it's hard to mess up oysters, and they don't get much fresher than at Nick's. On Tuesdays, the restaurant offers $1 Drakes Bay oysters, and a sack of bivalves arrived at the restaurant from the nearby oyster farm just 45 minutes before a dozen hit our table.

Nick's also lays claim to serving the first Tomales Bay barbecued oyster, and the barbecued oysters ($16 for a half dozen) are superb, with the restaurant's smoky-sweet barbecue sauce and garlic-parsley butter.

What are not so good are the higher-end items. Perkins has been given the keys to the car, but he's still popping the clutch. The duck confit pot pie ($24) would seem to be a slam dunk, but it was flat-out awful. A square section of puffed pastry served as a lid for a gluey, soupy mess that was more cream than anything else. There were bits of duck, carrot and turnip, but the dish was really a bowl of thickened cream with a crust on top.

The venison osso bucco ($25) was also a failure. Instead of a meaty venison shank, the dish was made with boneless chunks of deer meat. I like my osso bucco with a little more osso. (Osso bucco means "bone with a hole," a reference to the marrow in the bone shank the dish is traditionally made with.) I could live without the bone, but the unrelenting sweetness of the dish that comes from a bed of puréed sweet potatoes, chunks of sweet carrots and a sweet, tomato-based, gravy-like sauce made this dish tiresome after just a few bites.

On another visit, the chorizo-stuffed roasted and grilled quail ($28) sounded good, but the house-made sausage had a disturbing liver flavor and a mealy, pasty texture. Thankfully, there are enough hits to balance out the misses. The aforementioned oysters are of course a must-order. The burger special ($14) served on Tuesdays comes with a fat, cooked-to-order patty and a great brioche bun, three barbecued oysters and a pint of beer on the side. Top that.

I was disappointed with the warm cauliflower salad ($10), though, which was really just some mustard-smeared sautéed cauliflower with a few leaves on arugula tossed about, but the perfectly dressed, just-picked Star Route Farms mixed greens salad ($12) offered redemption.

I'm forever leery of overbreaded crab cakes, but the twin Dungeness crab cakes ($12) with fennel-arugula salad were all-crab and very good. Desserts rise above, too. Pastry chef Gillian Helquist makes one of the best flourless chocolate cakes I've had, an ethereal gâteau Victoire with hazelnut cream and hazelnut brittle ($8). The Clementine granita ($7) with sesame sticks is also a winner.

Service at Nick's is top notch. On both visits, servers were friendly and knew the menu well. Nick's has always been a great place for to catch the sunset with a cocktail, but it's worth coming for the food as well. I expect Perkins' cooking to evolve as he settles in. For now, enjoy the classics at this classic spot.

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