I was watching a man at a table next to mine at Saddles Steakhouse, as he took hearty bites of his braised short rib ($32). He was clearly enjoying the dish, but every few mouthfuls, he stabbed his fork into his companion’s meal, snatching morsels of her crab cake.
Finally, she swatted his hand, said, “enough,” and pulled her plate in closer, protecting the pretty tower arrangement set on avocado and flanked with cucumber, parsley and spicy radish ($15).
Certainly the man had been being obnoxious, but I understood why. Everything is so delicious at Saddles that it’s hard not to suffer envy of every other diner’s plates, even as I’m immensely liking my own. The restaurant in MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa has been a Sonoma fixture for 20 years now, and consistently wows with its classic American menu.
Give credit to chef executive chef Dana Jaffe, who has been crafting the fine food here for 15 years. She keeps the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus simple – shrimp cocktail nestled with spicy sauce and salsa ($15), for example, or traditional Caesar with grated egg yolk, white anchovies and a modern touch of panko atop ($12), and succulent prime rib served with a big, salt baked potato ($30-$45). Little has changed on the offerings, either, with pretty much the same menus year after year.
Yet from the first bite, it’s clear that every dish has been fashioned with high quality ingredients, and thoughtfully prepared for a fine but not fussy meal.
I have to say I was worried when MacArthur Place was sold in October to IMH Financial Corporation of Scottsdale, Arizona. Former owners Suzanne Brangham and Bill Blum had put their heart into every inch of the five-acre property at the corner of Broadway and MacArthur Street, lovingly restoring and upgrading the now 150-year old Victorian home estate turned into a 64-room luxury inn, and the barn that became Saddles.
Yet so far, the investment company has retained the staff, including Blum as general manager (Blum is a community leader; everyone, it seems, adores him). And I can only hope IMH won’t change the somewhat silly but entirely delightful restaurant décor, from the parade of cowboy boots up the entry staircase, the life-size fiberglass horse in the stairwell, western saddles made into lounge seats, and life-size murals of horses, cats and chickens on the main dining room walls.
Settling into a leather chair at a carved wood table in front of the fireplace, I always feel like I’ve been admitted to someone’s living room when dining here. Within seconds, my smiling server brings water and excellent fluffy brown bread and butter. She offers the wine list, a lengthy composition stored in a leather bound tablet, for local sips like Gundlach Bundschu Gewürztraminer ($10 glass), or indulgences such as Opus One 2011 Cabernet blend ($98 glass).
I like the silky Petaluma chicken liver pate ($12) served in a wee-size crock, spreading it on brioche toast and dressing it with Dijon, papaya chutney and a palate cleansing nibble of cornichons. But I truly love the stuffed mushrooms, delivering five meaty beauties overstuffed with garlicky house made Italian sausage alongside cherry tomatoes that burst with juices when bitten ($14). This savory staple never goes out of style.
Onion rings ($11) are dangerous little creatures, too, thin cut, wonderfully crispy with cornmeal and piled high alongside tangy blue cheese aioli – I nearly eat the entire bowlful by myself.
There’s nothing new under the sun with Saddles steaks, but that’s fine, when the meat is so consistent, perfectly seasoned and satisfying. It’s easy to get pricey – say, the signature, 36-ounce Greater Omaha bone-in rib eye ($75) with mushrooms, garlic mashed potatoes, cabernet demi-glace and a standard toss of broccoli, carrot, squash and onion ($12 for the combo of sides – and the defibrillator is free for folks who can polish off this meal).
A six-ounce New Zealand grass fed filet rings in at $36 a la carte, and after I add creamed spinach for $6, a loaded baked potato for $7 and wild mushrooms for $10, I’m in special occasion territory. Still, we’re guaranteed a happy beef coma worth every penny.
Finishing with a light sweet, such as the lovely strawberry cheesecake ($9) feels nearly healthy, then. The creamy round sits in a puddle of crème, artistically decorated with chocolate curls and fruit coulis.
Nods go to the non-steak options, it should be noted. The beet salad is a winner at my table, the root veggies slow roasted al dente and formed into a round with chopped strawberry, mango and a crown of mache on swaths of light berry vinaigrette ($12). Wine poached salmon, meanwhile, is light and rescued from boring by a wash of bright lemon cream that enlivens the accompanying, chunky vegetable ragout, too.
Here’s a tip, too: think Saddles for lunch. One recent chilly afternoon found me basking in the fireplace glow once again, stuffing myself with a hefty rib eye steak sandwich, the thinly sliced meat amply mounded on ciabatta with a mantle of sautéed red onions, gooey provolone, creamy horseradish and jus. Served with superb, crispy-edge steak fries, a pickle and olives, it was sumptuous, and at just $16, a steal.
It put me in such a fine mood, I even shared some of my fries with my companion.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.