By Jonah Raskin
Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
Saddles, the spiffy restaurant at the glamorous MacArthur Place resort, has long been a destination for beef lovers. Now with prices for top-quality beef rising and the public appetite for beef diminishing, Dana Jaffe, the executive chef, says a makeover is likely, though the look of the new menu isn't clear. For now, beef reigns supreme. When I arrived for dinner midweek, I wondered whether I'd opt for a steak or be cautious and order the seared salmon or the squash ravioli. Once I sat down in the casual dining room with its trompe d'oeil paintings and glanced at the menu, I knew instantly I wanted steak.
My friend wanted steak, too. But first things first. We started with the baked oysters Sonoma ($10) with pancetta and béarnaise with cognac. Next, we shared a creamy shrimp bisque, sweetened with coconut ($7). There were seven different steaks to chose from, including filet mignon, porterhouse and a dry-aged New York. We ordered the 23-ounce bone-in ribeye ($45).
The huge steak, which arrived on a big, white platter, looked succulent and gave off a rich, beefy aroma. It was cooked medium rare with just a punch of salt and pepper and a smidgen of butter, so the meat spoke for itself. It had been turned several times over a hot grill, and seared on the outside to keep the juices inside. I cut the tender ribeye in half with a hefty steak knife, and shared it with my fellow carnivore, savoring every bite.
The Rued 2003 Zinfandel brought out the flavors of the meat. Garlic mashed potatoes ($4.50) and steak fries ($4.24) are available for potato lovers. We chose the wild chanterelles ($8), which were flavorful, and the garden-fresh creamed spinach ($4.75). Next, we had Saddles' salad of mixed greens, goat cheese, walnuts and a cider-thyme vinaigrette dressing. ($8) For dessert, we had the crème brûlée with blueberries ($7).
Jaffe expects greatness from her kitchen staff, and everyone contributes to the Saddles dining experience, including the vegetarian Hindu sous chef. Jaffe buys top-quality grass-fed beef from sustainable ranches in Northern California and Oregon. The steak tastes clean, and it feels good to eat beef that's been treated kindly. Jaffe makes her own pies with fruit from the trees right outside the kitchen, and, using a recipe handed down from her mother, also makes a delicious, cold fruit soup with rhubarb, raspberries, black cherries, prunes, sultanas and cinnamon topped with vanilla bean ice cream. It's worth a special trip to Sonoma.
"Americans thrived on steaks and pies," Jaffe smiles, as though her memories of yesteryear were fresh. "Not so much anymore. If you want to eat the way Americans once ate, come to Saddles." Indeed, it's a carnivore's paradise, and an American steakhouse in the best American tradition. The live Friday night showboat jazz adds a touch of elegance.
Saddles, open for dinner nightly. 29 E. MacArthur St., Sonoma. 707.933.3191.
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