Friday, July 30, 2010

The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton: Survival of the Fittest

If food trucks were last year's hot trend, then this year may be remembered as the rise of hotel-restaurants. The likes of Bloomfield (The Breslin/Ace Hotel), Chang (Má Pêche/Chambers Hotel) and Vongerichten (The Mark Restaurant/Hotel) are just some of the culinary titans to recently embrace this movement in New York. But San Francisco also boasts their own array of such ventures, with Michael Mina's flagship restaurant located in the Westin St. Francis and since 2004, chef Ron Siegel has run the kitchen at The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton after having spent time at Aqua, Charles Nob Hill and Masa's. Thomas Keller's original sous chef at The French Laundry, Siegel made a name for himself in 1998 by becoming the first American chef to earn a victory in the original Iron Chef series, defeating Iron Chef French, Hiroyuki Sakai in a lobster battle. Siegel is known for combing French techniques with Japanese elements and although I tend to be reluctant about eating at hotels, positive review after positive review prompted me to see first hand what all the fuss was about.

After scaling the street mountain where we had parked, MW and I entered through the lobby of the Ritz Carlton. With no separate entrance for the restaurant we were initially puzzled before eventually spotting a sign proudly displaying images of chef Siegel's triumphant appearance on Iron Chef. Everything about The Dining Room's decor reeked of excess, now some 20 years too late. Freshly ironed whites, polished silver and rich tones of red and gold evoked memories of a guilded past when this was San Francisco's marquee power lunch destination, but sadly, in its current state it is nothing but a shell of its former self, looking awkwardly antiquated and in great need of a makeover. Keenly aware that we were the youngest couple in the restaurant by a good ten years, I was initially skeptical that service would overlook this fact. But fortunately, I was proved wrong as service was friendly and efficient.

Having read the menus beforehand, we went with the Chef's Tasting Menu, featuring exquisite proteins and products sure to make any foodie wet himself. We started our meal with a bottle of Riesling, Kabinett, Bernkasteler Lay, Dr. Loosen, Mosel Germany (2007). Slightly sweet, it proved exceptional with our opening dishes that were heavy on seafood.

Next, the kitchen sent out a volley of amuse bouches as MW and I settled into our seats. First, was a small Pastry stuffed with Chicken and CandyCot Mushrooms. The pastry came pipping hot and had a nice buttery taste and flaky texture.

Next was one of the more memorable dishes from the vacation. A tear-shaped glass container arrived with cellophane wrap which held a 64 Degree Poached Quail Egg on top of Brioche Croutons served alongside Osetra Caviar and topped with Chive. To further enhance the sensory experience of this dish, a small incision was made in the cellophane, allowing a perfume of Cedar "Essence" to escape, lending the an element of smoke to each bite.

Our final amuse was a piece of Grilled Aji with Cherry Gelée and Shaved Daikon Radish. The smokey flavor of the Aji was particularly enjoyable when combined with the sweetness of the cherry gelée and the bitter daikon radish.

Bread service consisted of your choice between Sourdough and an Olive Bread, both made from the nearby La Boulange Bakery on Polk Street. There was no artisan butters nor were there any fancy salts from the Jurassic period, instead, this segment of the meal seemed very pedestrian when compared to our other meals. How spoiled we had become in such a short time...

Luckily, our meal was anything but pedestrian. Our first course of Live Spot Prawn Sashimi with Blue Fin Tuna Sashimi, Freshly Grated Wasabi, Ryuhi Kombu, Ponzu Gelée and Soy Sauce was an incredible start. Drawing from the bountiful Pacific Ocean, specifically from Santa Barbara, the spot prawn sashimi came wrapped in a thin slice of blue fin sashimi. Fresh wasabi was grated table side on a sharkskin paddle which only further enhanced the dramatic presentation of this dish. Both the tuna and the spot prawn sashimi tasted impeccably fresh and was perfectly captured chef Siegel's ability to fuse California product with a Japanese flair.

Our first course continued further as we were later presented with the Deep Fried Heads of the Spot Prawns. A garnish of two dipping sauces were prepared to accompany this: one with Lemon Juice and Yuzu Salt and another with Lemon Juice and Green Tea Salt. Wonderfully crunchy, shrimp heads capture the purest essence of shrimp flavor, making me thankful for these delectable treats.

The Farm Raised Monterrey Bay Abalone with Shiitake Mushrooms, Chard and a Dashi Broth was my favorite dish of the evening. Sourced nearby from Monterrey Bay, this was one of the most tender renditions of abalone I've enjoyed. Similar flavor-wise to a clam, sweet and briny, its meaty texture was mimicked by the shiitake mushroom and was further enhanced by the subtle dashi it sat in.

The next course featured Ayu, a sweet flavored fresh water Japanese fish, with a Mango and Red Onion Chutney, Hearts of Palm and Cilantro Oil. Instead of being fried whole, as is the typical Japanese method of preparation, the two small fillets were cooked perfectly, rendering the skin nice and crisp without overcooking the delicate meat. 

The evening's most anticipated dish, the Lobster with Summer Truffles, English Pea Purée, Baby Onions, Baby Fennel and Shiso Essence, was also the most disappointing. Overcooked and stringy, even the fragrant shaved summer truffle couldn't save the dish. I was especially dismayed considering this was the same ingredient chef Siegel used when he defeated Iron Chef Sakai.

At this point of the meal we took a breather and ordered a bottle of Pinot Noir, Belle Glos, Meiomi, Sonoma California (2008), which was quite versatile and paired well with our final savory courses.

But this disappointment quickly subsided as we ate a Hot Foie Gras with Pickled Cherry Compote, Brioche, Strawberry Juice and Longpepper. Another favorite of the evening, the chef had achieved a perfect sear on the foie that sung when eaten with the tart cherry compote and brioche that had soaked up the sweet strawberry juice.

Instead of the chicken we decided to substitute it with the Slow-Cooked Suckling Pig with Garlic Purée, Fava Beans, Morel Mushrooms and Gravenstein Apple. Moist and tender, we were extremely pleased with the substitution. The best part of the dish, obviously the skin, had a magical sweet glaze that nicely juxtaposed with the salty pork.

A Veal Tenderloin with Fava Beans, Morel Mushrooms, Roasted Potatoes and a Sancho Pepper Reduction was our final savory course. Cooked to a perfect medium rare, the veal was tender and sweet, satisfying without becoming overbearing, it was a great ending to our meal and tasted even better when combined with our wine.

After a chance to catch our breathes, we were served a palette cleanser of Mango Sorbet with a Lemon-Balm Granita. The lemon-balm granita, mixed with the creamy sorbet was a refreshing start to the dessert portion of the meal.

The Chef's Dessert Tasting consisted of: a Chocolate Manjari Cake with a Black Pepper Foam, Spiced Cherry Ice Cream and a Port Reduction and a "Citrus" Tasting with Lemon Cake, Orange Foam and Lime Ice Cream. By serving us two different desserts chef Siegel bypassed the conundrum of whether to serve a fruit-based dessert or end the meal strongly with a chocolate dessert. In our case, we were lucky enough to sample both with the "citrus" tasting edging out the chocolate cake by a hair.

By this point, MW and I were frantically looking around for the white flag as our waiter pushed a cart full of house-made petits fours. Our waiter graciously packed two boxes full of each Petit Four which included: a Black Pepper Macaron with Chocolate Ganache, a Toasted Sesame Macaroon, a Cherry and Yuzu Florentine, a Strawberry and Cardamom Florentine, a Chocolate Nougat with Pistachios, a House-Made Caramel, a Mint Lollipop, a Chocolate Canelé, a Hazelnut Caramel, a Chocolate Lollipop with Honey and Thyme, a House-Made Marshmallow and a Chocolate Bon Bon with Wasabi Caramel.

The differences between San Francisco and New York are vast. Aside from the three-hour time difference and the fact that they are located on opposite coasts, its safe to say that San Francisco shuts down relatively early, at least by New York standards. So in hindsight, it should have not come as a surprise that our dinner reservation at nine was the final seating of the night. But one thing that both cities have in common is an abundance of great restaurants. From the hole-in-the-wall Cantonese noodle joints (Super Taste/ABC Cafe) to the cutting edge (wd~50/Coi), given the sheer amount of choices coupled with our economy, most restaurants have to constantly evolve to the current zeitgeist or risk extinction (Le Cirque). Perhaps this is my East Coast bias, but only time will tell whether chef Siegel can adapt to the current times so that people may rightly focus on his excellent food rather than scoff at the dated restaurant model that is The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton.

The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco
600 Stockton Street
San Francisco, CA 94108

(415) 773-6198

To see all our pics click the flickr link.

The Dining Room on Urbanspoon

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