The first visit to a new restaurant always carries the hope or expectation that the experience will to some degree be educational, whether by way of exposure to a new ingredient, a novel mode of presentation, or a previously unseen fusion of techniques from disparate culinary traditions. One doesn't, however, necessarily expect that education to entail the solution to one of the longest-simmering mysteries of popular culture.
Which is why it came as a curious surprise, on spending an evening at Madcap, a two-month-old restaurant in San Anselmo, to learn that Scooby-Doo's diet had consisted mainly of empanadas.
Glancing at the appetizers, I came across an unfamiliar dish. What's a "scoobie?" I asked the server, guessing it was a heretofore unknown regional specialty. The server explained that Madcap's chef, Ron Siegel, is a fan of Scooby-Doo, and liked the idea of putting a Scooby Snack on the menu. And what was it, exactly? An empanada, of the fried rather than the baked variety, filled with a mix of dehydrated black olives and Toma, a mild, semi-hard cheese from Point Reyes Farmhouse Creamery. Who knew that cartoon dogs had such sophisticated palates, or more to the point, that a chef whose CV includes protracted engagements at several of the west (and east) coasts' most highly regarded restaurants, would even think of putting something so refreshingly goofy on a menu? There's no question, though, that Siegel has earned the liberty.
For decades, Siegel has been toiling in the kitchens of others. He was at George Morrone's Aqua, when it opened on California Street in 1991. After a time at Aqua, he relocated to 76th and Madison in Manhattan, to Daniel Boulud's eponymous Daniel. When Thomas Keller opened The French Laundry in 1994, Siegel was his second in command as sous-chef, a post he held for two years. From The French Laundry, he migrated to Charles Nob Hill, earning accolades in the local and national press during a seven-year stint there as executive chef; then onto Masa's, the Ritz-Carlton, and Michael Mina. For the past year, Siegel had been running a kind of pop-up called The Western Room in one of the dining rooms at Rancho Nicasio, a popular bar-and-barbecue establishment in Marin. It was a canny move, as during his tenure there, he developed a devoted following north of the Golden Gate—a following that would in turn follow him to Madcap.
Although schooled in French classical technique at the California Culinary Academy in the late 1980s, Siegel's style was also heavily influenced by a fateful trip to Japan. Chosen as a contestant on Toshihiko Matsuo's immensely popular program Iron Chef back in 1998, Siegel trounced the Japanese chef Hiroyuki Sakai on his home turf, becoming the first American victor in the show's history. Following his win, Siegel spent four years going back and forth to Tokyo, immersing himself in a new culinary culture.
I chatted with Siegel recently and asked about his experience there. "I just really enjoyed the food of Japan," he says, "the cleanness, the simplicity. I love seafood, and they're super passionate about seafood. It's a lighter style of cuisine in the sense of not using butter and cream, but it's still extremely flavorful. It changed a lot about the way I looked at food." And while he emphasized that he had learned "a ton" from Keller and Boulud, he considers his time in Japan to be one of the most influential experiences of his career.
On a recent evening, when my dining companion and I opted for the startlingly economical $80 chef's tasting menu at Madcap, the Japanese influence was on full display from the opening salvo: an exquisitely fresh and almost bubblegum-pink morsel of Bigeye tuna, adorned with a tiny yellow marigold and garnished with soy salt and a little button of jellied yuzu, a sharply acidic citrus fruit native to East Asia that is frequently used in Japanese cuisine. Next up, the aforementioned scoobie, served as an accompaniment to an intensely enjoyable soup made from burstingly ripe and deliciously sweet heirloom tomatoes pureed to a silken creaminess and decorated with dashes of extra virgin grapeseed oil, which, looked at in a certain way, called to mind a somewhat canine smiley face.
Next: a sweetly buttery cut of sashimi-grade New Caledonian blue prawn, wrapped in an avocado cloak and nestled against an upright wedge of white peach and seasoned with a dab of cilantro salsa verde. Hot, or rather, cold on its heels, Shima Aji (striped horsemackerel), draped with gossamer ribbons of oboro kombu (a type of seaweed from Hokkaido) and accompanied by a pair of dramatic, black rice crisps.
We were, by this point, three glasses into a wine pairing, drawn from a wine list curated by the chef's wife, Kim Siegel. The Siegels first met at The French Laundry and have worked together intermittently ever since. While Siegel never trained formally as a sommelier, she said, "being around food and at great restaurants, you learn about wine as you go along. And being a person who drinks wine, and going out to eat a lot, you're always your keeping eyes open, and constantly asking questions." Her own modesty aside, Siegel's taste in wine is as sure as it is astute: from the florally Alpine essence of a pinot gris from the Alsatian winery Famille Hugel, to a brightly aromatic pinot noir from Mira in the Napa Valley, to the current pour, a brisk, shimmery-gold and terrifically grapey Fiano from the Campanian producer Aia dei Colombi.
Ron Siegel, meanwhile, continued to knock it out of the park: white truffle and butter bean ravioli, garnished with roasted mushrooms and a Parmigiano-Reggiano spuma; an ever-so-slightly seared cut of locally caught king salmon; and a meaty hunk of cod from Bolinas served on a brushstroke of pureed potato with a perfectly caramelized slice of eggplant for company.
Casting an eye around the dining room, it seemed most of our neighbors were going for the tasting menu as well. Precisely how Siegel and his crew of three—crammed in a kitchen ill-suited to claustrophobes—manage to produce food like this and send it out in synchronized fashion, is beyond me. Quantum physics are possibly involved. Or perhaps it's simply the inspiration and influence of a man who has dedicated the better part of his life to perfecting his craft. In either event, the end result is a kind of magic. // Madcap, 198 Sir Francis Drake Blvd. (San Anselmo), madcapmarin.com
In the mood for a throwback? Watch Siegel's victorious 1998 appearance on Iron Chef: