The Buckeye Roadhouse is one of the few restaurants in Marin that maintains a standard by which all surrounding eateries are judged. From the dramatic dining room to the adrenaline–charged bar scene, a visit to the Buckeye “commits.” We had dinner in the lower main dining room on a gorgeous fall evening, as the sky was ablaze with pastel washes of coral and orange. I noted as the sun was setting, that the dining room lights were lowered not once but twice –- in small increments -- so that the adjustment was not too jarring to me and my fellow diners. This level of detail is evident in every aspect of the dining experience, from the expertly smoked duck to the perfect crispness of the frito misto.
We started with an assortment of appetizer specialties. The Oysters Bingo are the house favorite and they were exceptional. These savory “poppers” contain a generous mélange of oyster, nutty parmesan, and spinach all broiled to a crispy bubble-brown and served on the half shell. They never disappoint. Two other standouts on the appetizer menu were the fried calamari with frito misto veggies and the sesame encrusted ahi tuna. The calamari was coated with an impossibly light dusting of breading, almost tempura-like, and served with a tomatillo dipping salsa that was right on the money. The ahi was as flavorful a slice of seared tuna as I have ever had. But the accompanying cabbage salad is what took this starter over the finish line. The expert touch of adding crispy wonton shavings paired with a ginger-hoisin vinaigrette brought this cabbage salad standing at attention. Note to the management: you could present a larger fillet of ahi with more salad and offer this as a lunch entrée.
The only flat note on the starters menu was a seasonal tomato soup made with fresh heirloom tomatoes. Though it featured a generous “island” of fresh crab along with basil and tomato chunks, this soup was surprisingly tasteless and muddled. The carrot and celery base seemed to have leeched all of the sparkling tomato essence out of the mixture and I was left with a sort of rust-colored musky bouillon.
Our server was an expert guide of the wine list, and in fact suggested a particularly rich Cabernet loaded with spicy fruit and tannins. It quickly became a favorite of the table. We tried a varied assortment of entrees. The Buckeye is known for its on-the-premises smokehouse, so our expectations were high for the house-smoked Sonoma duck. We were not disappointed. The fowl was slow cooked to a deep and spicy tenderness and was served with a balsamic-red wine reduction sauce. The sauce was outrageously good, and in fact the dining room filled with the smells of different diners’ smoked meats lofting through the air. I also have to single out the mushroom and goat cheese bread pudding that accompanied the duck. This rich side dish expertly enhanced the dark smokiness of the duck with its own savory-sweet indulgence. Another standout was the grilled Meyers Ranch rib-eye steak with roasted potatoes and vegetables. Not only was this beef done exactly to our order (dusty pink in the center), but it had an enormously complex flavor that stayed interesting through the meal. We ordered a side dish of cauliflower and broccoli au gratin just to be decadent…and it was. This is gourmet “comfort food” defined!
We had a seared scallop risotto with pancetta and English peas that was lovely in its subtlety of flavor and, along with the roasted sole, was surprising in the way it kept our interest throughout the meal. Likewise the lamb shank and pork chop were studies in expertly prepared meats. It was all the more disappointing to be stopped dead in our tracks when presented with an odd concoction, which the menu had described as “Lasagna with Portobello Mushroom and Fontina.” We were a bit dumbfounded by this particular “lasagna.” It had layers of paper-thin pasta sheets seemingly hand-placed in an attractive stack, but featured thick leek skins and voluminous greens (raw green beans? asparagus?) overpowering every bite. The crunchy texture was unpleasant and the other tastes too subtle. It was very difficult to get a distinct flavor from the dish. It became more of an exercise in eating textured volume rather than a taste delight. I have heard that this lasagna typically features a butternut squash center that makes the whole dish work. I highly recommend a question to your server to see if the butternut is being included in the dish on your particular visit.
For dessert we were thrilled by the outstanding pineapple upside-down cake with caramel sauce. Paired with a dollop of deliciously rich vanilla ice cream, and served warm, this dessert was worth every calorie! When my partners tasted the pineapple upside-down cake, they proclaimed it the taste of their childhoods. I was especially impressed by the buttery sweet cake, and could have been satisfied with that alone, sans the “glitz.” We also tried the S’mores pie (teenyboppers only, please), the baked lemon pudding (more huckleberry sauce would have helped), and the strawberry shortcake (a butter cookie substituting for rich shortcake?). All were serviceable desserts but none came close to the magical zenith achieved by the pineapple cake.
I have been going to the Buckeye Roadhouse regularly for the past ten years, and every time is like going there anew. Be prepared for a wonderfully complex dining experience in a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere. The Buckeye excels in just those kinds of contradictions: “down-home” smoked meats coupled with detailed sides and sauces.
Occupation: Public Health Professional
Favorite Restaurant: Udupi Palace
Reviewed Buckeye Roadhouse: Saturday, September 16, 2006
Located directly off of Highway 101 at 15 Shoreline Highway, the Buckeye Road house has a warm, welcoming, dressed-up lodge feel. The taxidermied moose head lends its own charm, and the bookshelves upstairs give a comfy feel. My husband and I made reservations for a Saturday evening, and it was packed. The acoustics in our area made for a near unbearable volume, but our table did offer a sense of privacy.
Our server, Megan, was attentive, graceful, and friendly enough.
Let me say upfront, the food was solidly and comfortably good. We did not walk away disappointed. My duck had a full flavor and was cooked so as to obtain its optimal balance of juiciness and crispness. The Prime Steak was equally as satisfying. The accompanying dishes leaned toward fat, earthy, comfort food flavor, and were tasty but not exciting. The portions were more than substantial and the food was presented well.
For dessert we tried the Strawberry Shortcake, a simple but cheery combination of mascarpone cream, fresh strawberries, and shortbread.
During my dining experience, I could not get out of my head that Buckeye seems like an upper middle class Denny’s. Undoubtedly their food is of much better quality but their vision seems to be the same. They cater to a clientele that is looking for a reliable and comfortable experience. They enjoy immense popularity from the local residents. Their menu doesn’t make you think too much and they offer quality food that tastes very good.
Given the full experience, the prices are steep but not unreasonable. It is a great place to take that friend or relative that does not have an adventurous palate but likes the “going out” feel.
Occupation: Education Program Director
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Canto do Brasil
Reviewed Buckeye Roadhouse: Saturday, September 16, 2006
I’ve passed by the Buckeye Roadhouse many times on the way back to San Francisco from various points in Marin County, and never really thought about dining there. Now that I’ve visited, I’ll definitely remember it as a dining destination and not a place to pass by. My partner Ray and I ventured up to the Buckeye Roadhouse for a leisurely Saturday lunch. By early that afternoon, I’d worked up quite a bit of an appetite and was ready to sample what the restaurant had to offer.
Upon entering, I was immediately impressed by how fast we were seated (I’d wisely called for reservations, as the restaurant was pretty full, even for Saturday lunch). The main dining room is a spacious, comfortable lodge, evidently built in the Arts and Crafts architectural style, made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright. Out back is the smokehouse, from which the scent of slow-burning wood wafts into the air. That scent is enough to make me hungry. The restaurant looks like a great place to have a meal in the fall or winter, where the coziness of the interior would offset the cold weather outside.
Our server, Liz, was quick, friendly, and efficient. We tore into the sourdough bread that she brought out to the table; that was the best sourdough I’ve ever (noticed) eating! It was crispy on the outside without being tough, and light and springy on the inside without being too, well, sour-tasting. We soon asked for another helping.
I started my meal with a scrumptious salad of butter lettuce accompanied by walnuts, thinly-sliced apples, Pt. Reyes Original Blue Cheese, and a fantastic slightly sweet vinaigrette dressing. I couldn’t figure out what subtle flavor graced the dressing, guessing that it was something citrus –- wrong! It was maple! Once Liz told me that, I could recognize the barely-present sweetness of pure maple (not the concocted stuff). Who would’ve guessed? It is an understated and clever use of flavor.
Since I don’t eat any mammals (and that means pig, cow, goat, or lamb, for people who forget), I’m always a little bit apprehensive about menu choices when I try out a new place –- especially one with a smokehouse: “Aw man, am I going to be relegated to one little vegetarian dish?” But worry not! There were quite a few chicken, fish, and vegetarian entrée choices. Instead of going with one of the offerings of grilled fish, which seems to be cooked similarly in restaurants across the spectrum, I decided to be more adventurous and try something like the Chili-Lime Brick Chicken. Maybe it was the rhythm in the name that drew me in – lee-li, brick chick. The folks at Buckeye Roadhouse flatten and roast half a chicken and serve it topped with crunchy baked pumpkin seeds, avocado salsa, and a small risotto cake. I was surprised by how juicy the chicken was! The skin, or perhaps the way that it is roasted, seals in the moisture so that the meat, especially the breast, is tender and succulent, with a slight tanginess from an infusion of lime. Yum. The avocado salsa was a good complement to the chicken, as it provided a counter-flavor to the chicken with a cool smoothness that only avocado provide. I also loved the pumpkin seeds for an extra crunch and a bit of nuttiness, which added another dimension of texture to the entrée. The risotto cake was breaded lightly with a scoopful of risotto on the inside. It was okay –- I didn’t think that it added greatly to the chicken-avocado-seed combination, which is also served with a cheese-stuffed green chili, which I also skipped over (I have a thing about eating a lot of cheese nowadays –- I keep thinking about my heart). But perhaps other diners will enjoy them.
I love desserts, and the Buckeye Roadhouse doesn’t disappoint! I had to play eeny-meeny-miney-moe between the key lime pie, the S’Mores pie, the baked lemon pudding, or my childhood favorite, the pineapple upside-down cake. Since I believe that no one can bake a better pineapple upside down cake than my mama, I chose the S’Mores Pie. Like its campfire namesake, the pie has a foundation of graham cracker crust, layers of dark chocolate, and is topped by mountainous inches of meringue-y marshmallows –- like two or three inches of the light white stuff. The entire slice is perhaps baked for a moment for a fireside taste and served warm. As one can imagine, the pie is quite rich; I couldn’t eat anything else sweet for the rest of the day, but it was worth it! I wish that there was more chocolate and crust, as those flavors and textures took a back seat to the marshmallow, but nevertheless, the whole thing was scrumptious!