Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Dining Room, San Francisco CA

Chef Ron Siegel needs no introduction - from his time at Aqua to Charles Nob Hill to The French Laundry to his fame as the first American winner on Iron Chef - the man clearly knows his way around a kitchen. Having missed out on my opportunity to experience the Chef's brilliance during my last trip to the Bay Area (my family did not like the menu) I made sure reservations were secured early for my return -solo- visit. After an already excellent gastronomic trip with dinners at Manresa, Ad Hoc, and La Folie plus a day of great breakfast and lunch from Canteen, the Farmers Market, and Brenda's French Soul-Food I decided to end my trip, hopefully on good note, at The Dining Room. Before getting into the rest of the review, I want to offer a great deal of praise and credit to Angelo Severino for his superb service both via phone and e-mail - by far the most helpful and gracious contact person I've ever talked to at a major restaurant.

Having parked much earlier in the day near Canteen and having walked all about San Francisco for the previous few days I felt I had a good feel for the city and after some time browsing at the mall after dinner I made my way to The Ritz at 5:30 for my 6:00pm reservation - knowing I had to be back at the airport by 9:00 I figured this allowed plenty of time. Walking up to the enormous hotel I chuckled at the two Bentley's, a Maseratti, and a Lotus in the parking lot - glad I left the rental at Canteen. Walking up to the doors I was greeted with a gracious "good evening sir" as the double doors were opened wide. In similar fashion I was greeted with a "Dr. U, we've been expecting you" as I checked in at the hostess desk. From here I was led promptly to a plush booth...about 4 feet from the Hostess station. As the room was nowhere near full I must admit I found this an odd seating choice, but it did suffice. Before moving on let me note the service - exemplary in every single way. Multiple servers presented multiple dishes, but one "captain" stopped by frequently to check in and ask how I liked dishes, if I needed anything else, etc. All dishes were described in exquisite detail, everyone was all smiles and, honestly, all aspects of service were on par with the very best - Trotter's, The French Laundry, Providence, Alex - certainly not cold and disinterested like the service at Manresa.

Having already explained my disinterest in beef and desire for the 9-course menu with Angelo via E-mail my server was aware and presented me a menu "to browse - in case you changed your mind." Thanking him for the offer and requesting a copy of the tasting menu (to be sent at a later date as it is spontaneous) my server disappeared to the kitchen. Moments after he left I was presented with the glorious wine-cart which I politely declined and two bread options - the first a rather bitter olive loaf that I did not care for, but the second a wonderful sourdough that was baked with a crispy "crown" - excellent and hearty and even better with the smooth textured salted butter - I found the use of fleur de sel to salt as opposed to sea salt particularly interesting in terms of texture.

Browsing the room I was impressed (as expected) by the decor and next presented with three magazines to peruse - Esquire, a San Francisco high-living magazine, and film magazine - given the variable (sometimes quite long) time between courses I actually found this quite interesting and beneficial to my overall experience. Moments after starting into the first article I was brought my first amuse - small croquettes/puff pastry filled with an unmemorable goat cheese and potato. Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, but generally quite boring.

The second amuse was vastly superior to the first and consisted of an extraordinarily fresh New Caldonia Prawn with Avocado puree and pepper oil. Succulent and flawlessly prepared, the prawn was quite sizable and actually one of the best I've ever tasted while the avocado/pepper combination gave the dish a somewhat "tartar" feel without destroying the textural contrasts - a great start.

Following the prawn I waited only minutes before my second amuse arrived - titled 64-degree Quail egg with golden osetra caviar and cedar smoke the dish consisted of a poached quail egg and caviar resting daintily atop a plastic film atop a glass filled with cedar wood smoke. With an "mg" feel akin to The Bazaar and Moto (and clearly inspired by Adria and Achatz) a simple touch of the egg released a puff of smoke from a small hole in the film and surrounds the diner with a dense aroma meant to enhance the flavor of the egg/caviar. While interesting (and even more fun to watch the elderly crowd confusedly interact with) the overall effect was somewhat blunted and the caviar, for being purported golden osetra, was somewhat bland.

Dish one of the proper tasting consisted of Asparagus soup and (per the menu I received later by e-mail - not the hard copy I was promised by my captain) shrimp with morel mushrooms. The dish I did in fact receive, however, was the same soup prepared tableside with lobster. While I certainly would never turn down lobster as a replacement for shrimp and was actually quite impressed by the dish at the time, it became an issue later in the meal. Creamy and tasting of very fresh (and very buttery) asparagus the warm soup was wonderful while the morel taste certainly came through with great aplomb. The lobster, while fresh, was rather overcooked in my opinion - almost as though it was an afterthought.

After a seemingly long delay (20ish minutes) dish two was presented and for myself consisted of Tuna Sashimi with live spot prawn, Japanese sea salt, and yuzu gelee. Playful in presentation and actually the best dish of the night, this dish consisted of wonderfully textured slices of toro served raw and layered with the deveined sashimi tails of the spot prawns - both perfect, both on par with the best sashimi I've ever experienced and both ever-so-slightly enhanced with the addition of spots of salt and yuzu. An additional aspect of this half of the presentation was the grating of fresh wasabi (explained ad nauseum how rare this is by my server) on sharkskin....good, spicy, but not as life-altering as they claimed. Furthering the "play with your food" concept of this dish, a second plate was served with deep-fried prawn heads and two types of lemon juice dipping sauce prepared at tableside. Though I've only had a similar preparation once before I can definitely say this version was several degrease superior - it was fantastic.

After a much shorter delay, likely 5 minutes (and an article about, ironically, Manresa in the San Francisco magazine) my third dish was presented - Salmon with pea puree and orange jus. While I admit I am not a salmon fan at baseline, I found this dish to be "good but not great." While the salmon certainly maintained its characteristic fattiness and mildly fishy flavor, the texture was somewhat grainy - almost as though it had been frozen. Similar to the previous asparagus soup the pea reduction certainly displayed the chef's hand with fresh vegetables and the orange jus lent a unique contrast of citrus acidity that did help to balance the dish. (Notably, the alternative dish - served to a female dining with her husband at the table next to me who also received the salmon - was Japanese Blue Fish with roux scented with red onions, white polenta, shiso, spot prawn essence. This dish, and others later, made me wish the menu were presented and choices were given as it looked divine.)

Once again arriving after significant delay (20ish minutes) dish four was a bit perplexing to me. Entitled Lobster with morel mushroom and lobster hollandaise on the menu my first thought was "didn't we already do this?" As it turns out -see dish one- this was supposed to be something new. What it was, instead, was quite similar in every way to the first dish with the only difference being the butteriness of the sauce. While I'll not complain too much about excess lobster, the fact that I received 21 dishes at The French Laundry without a single repeat ingredient and 16 at Manresa without a similar flavor or texture (though some similar ingredients) left me wondering about Siegel's purported creativity.

My next dish, again significantly delayed (without continuing to mention this, my meal took nearly 3 1/4 hours - nearly as long as my meal at TFL and I received vastly less food) was a winner, though once again upon seeing the alternative I was saddened. Presented simply and elegantly, Seared Foie Gras with pickled huckleberries and pineapple reduction was actually one of the best seared preparations I've ever tasted (Danko and One Market were slightly better) and the portion was quite substantial. Well cooked without any sinew or gaminess the tender foie was well balanced with the acidic huckleberries and incredibly sweet pineapple broth. While I wished for a bit more textural component, the dish worked. My disappointment? I prefer chilled/terrine preparations and the alternative was a terrine with port wine reduction and marcona almond that looked divine.

Following the natural tasting menu progression, dish six of the menu proper was Quail with black rice, enoki mushrooms, and mustard greens. Having had a superb preparation of quail at La Folie and a great squab preparation at Manresa I must admit that this version was on par and the with the other fowl I'd experienced on the trip and was literally fall off the bone tender. Given the two dishes of morels already presented I was glad to see the enoki mushrooms and their decidedly fragrant aroma was quite pleasing. With that noted – there was no rice on this dish, but instead (from my notes) a “new pomme puree” that tasted mostly like a liquid baked potato. Alll in all a very solid dish featuring multiple simple flavors that came together well. The alternative choice, Duck with pineapple and garlic flower looked quite pleasing on the neighbor's table, as well.

Next up, not enjoying beef (Kobe, again with asparagus plus butterball potato) I was presented with Lamb served with black trumpet mushrooms, ramps, and madera sauce. While not as tender and succulent as the out-of-this-world Lamb at Manresa, the preparation was quite appealing and the mild gaminess of the lamb was well tempered by the pungent yet aromatic madera wine that brought out a great deal of earthiness from the wonderful mushroom and ramp medley. While ramps won't be in season in Ohio for another few months, I found these early season ramps to be better than ours at the peak of season and certainly on par with those of Manresa and Providence.

Transitioning from the savory to the sweet, my next dish was a Lychee sorbet with hibiscus gel and blood orange pearl. Tasty enough with its smooth and silken texture well complimented by the aromatic and flowery gel, I must say the sorbet was relatively forgettable when compared with the incredible dish at Providence and the "pearl" tasted significantly less "blood orange" than "navel orange" - lacking that sharp/bitter that may have added some nuance or "pop" to the dish. The alternative dish, Matcha Granita with genmai-cha ice cream and shiratama appeared quite oriental and would have been interesting, though given the option based on words alone I'd have selected the Lychee.

My final dish was called Chocolate Manjari Cake with caramel and sea salt, macadamia nut ice cream, cocoa nib crisp (I'm thankful I didn't get the alternative, Yogurt Panna Cotta w/ Kiwi Basil soup, tangerine granita, tarweed honey pearl as I really dislike kiwi) and...well, it was okay. Familiar with the rare and fine Madagascar beans after which the item was named I must admit that the dish was somewhat bland in taste and somewhat bitter. While the cake was appropriately moist, my attention was more drawn to the excellent salted caramel and creamy ice cream (which I honestly thought was a stellar vanilla until I read the menu - I did not sense macadamia nut at all.) Great ingredients, great technique, but relatively flat overall - especially compared to the desserts at other Michelin Starred restaurants in California - most notably Boulevard's incredible chocolate dessert.

My final treat of the long evening did manage to make up for my disappointment in the cake - in part because of the quality and in part because of the service. Solid silver, beautiful and ornate, the mignardises cart managed to impress where other dishes did not. Featuring a large array of items ranging from a delicious chocolate canelle to a Meyer lemon cheesecake, pistachio opera cake, marshmallow, passiion fruit chocolate, pecan brittle, caramels with a great buttery/olive oil nuance, plus lemon and rootbeer lollipops I would place this cart at number three all-time in terms of mignardises - behind only Keller's Laundry and the absolutely audacious version at Tru.

All told I enjoyed many aspects of my meal at The Ritz Dining Room and I have no doubt that Chef Siegel knows his way around the kitchen. My question, and the reason I'd likely not return, is why so many repeats and why such flat flavors in some regards while using whimsy and producing outstanding flavors in others? Certainly I didn't go in expecting the fireworks of Moto or the refinement of The French Laundry, but honestly there were moments of brilliance akin to both - but only mere moments. Looking at some of the exotic items I was able to taste and enjoy the restaurant clearly wasn't trying to skimp or cut corners - but in fact I think they may have been trying a little too hard to say "look what we've got" to rich old men with Bentley's than "look what we can do" to people who truly love great food. Sure, fresh wasabi and golden osetra are impressive - but only if used to truly impressive effect. Would I have enjoyed the meal more had I been able to pick/choose some of the courses - likely, but I didn't get to pick at Manresa, Providence, Charlie Trotters, TFL or many others and they shined above. Great service despite the prolonged time between courses and supremely fancy digs (though I'm not sure why I was sat -literally- at the door. Also, I've still not received a hard copy of the menu despite the promises of such. For the extra $30 drive South to Kinch's place......or pay double and try the Laundry - both are better "bang for the buck."

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