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Monday, August 15, 2005

Restaurant Review: The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton

My first visit to The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco was many years ago, so long that I no longer remember the precise date.   What I do recall, however, is how quickly the restaurant earned a spot on my list of favorite places.   The chef at the time, Sylvain Portay, offered very good French-inspired cuisine, with a lobster salad in particular that remains one of my all-time favorites.   Equally notable, however, were the attentive service and the beautiful decor – dark wood furniture, lush burgundy fabrics, rich draperies, and crisp white tablecloths.   Thus, for a top-tier dining experience in the city, The Dining Room was always reliable.

The first time I heard about Ron Siegel was in 1998, shortly after he became the first American to win on the now well-known Japanese television show "Iron Chef."   Siegel was generating rave reviews as Executive Chef at Charles Nob Hill, enough to prompt me to make a reservation at the restaurant just to find out what all of the buzz was about.   I was impressed.   Siegel's California-French cuisine had a number of standout items, and his refined approach to cooking reflected his earlier tenure as the opening Sous Chef at The French Laundry.   I returned to Charles Nob Hill a few more times while Siegel was still there, and when he left for Masa's in 2001, I felt compelled to give that restaurant another look as well.
There, too, Siegel's menu continued to improve and evolve, and it became apparent that this was one chef to watch in the coming years.

You might imagine my reaction, then, when in June 2004, it was announced that Ron Siegel would be taking over the kitchen at The Dining Room.   I made plans to return to the restaurant just a few weeks after Siegel's start date, so that I could get a better sense of what he had been up to and a clearer picture of the changes that he planned to implement in his new kitchen.   Once again, I was not disappointed.   Whereas my last dinner at Masa's had been excellent, this meal had a few courses that were spectacular.   And over the course of additional visits peppered throughout the following year, I found Siegel's already-excellent cuisine to improve steadily and continuously.   It was against this backdrop that I joined a friend for dinner at The Dining Room back in mid-July.
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There's more...


We began the evening with a favorite selection from the restaurant's champagne cart, a glass each of the Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé.   After looking over the menu, my friend and I both resolved to go with the Chef's Nine Course Tasting Menu.   Over the course of the next two hours, the kitchen would send out three amuse bouche items plus eighteen distinct courses – nine unique dishes for each of us.   And although we both sampled everything presented to our table that evening, what follows is a course description of the specific menu that was served to me.
The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton:
At A Glance
ChefRon Siegel
Pastry ChefAlexander Espiritu
Address600 Stockton St.
San Francisco, CA 94108
Restaurant Website

The first amuse bouche was a demitasse of Cauliflower Soup (Taste: 9.5 / Presentation: 9.5) (Ratings Explained), a rich, creamy and delicious concoction that seemed to have almost as much of a butter undercurrent as it did cauliflower flavor.   The combination was excellent, the result decadent.   Next up was the Sashimi of Kampachi (T:6.5 / P:9.0), a small piece of very mild fish sprinkled with cracked pepper and tiny pieces of perfectly julienned radish.   The overall flavor here was dominated a bit too much by the pepper, but the dish nevertheless offered a nice contrast between the soft mildness of the fish and the firm texture provided by the radish.   The final amuse bouche was Ayu (T:8.5 / P:9.5), a sweet white fish served with onion, cherry gelee, and fennel foam in a remarkable presentation.   An incredibly thin, circular disk of deep red cherry gel sat directly on the surface of the plate and a bright green fennel foam right beside it, with the fish then gently placed on top.   The natural sweetness of the ayu and onions was picked up by the gelee, and the fennel foam added a wonderful herbal element to the composition.

A chilled Corn Soup (T:10.0 / P:9.5), with Miyagi oysters and golden Osetra caviar, was the first full course.   In some ways, this was very reminiscent of Thomas Keller’s "Oysters and Pearls." Both dishes pair oysters with caviar and play them off of a creamy base, but Keller uses a pearl tapioca sabayon whereas Siegel uses a sweet corn soup.   Siegel's creation was fantastic.   The sweet, smooth coolness of the soup was wonderful enough by itself, but the briny oyster and salty caviar provided counterpoints to create the perfect harmony.   Even if Siegel's inspiration for this came from his former mentor, he took the original to a very different – and very pleasing – conclusion. This dish was visually appealing to be sure, but its taste is what clearly deserves a perfect 10.

Next up was the Chilled Maine Crab (T:10.0 / P:10.0), a visually stunning timbale of lump crabmeat, champagne mango, and red onion that was topped with microgreens and surrounded by drops of shiso oil.   The flavor here was spectacular, with the pure and delicious flavor of crab accentuated with precisely the right amount of mango and red onion.   Indeed, it was as though Siegel had taken the amount of the latter two ingredients to its one and only acceptable value; any more would have made them too obtrusive, and any less would have made them unnoticeable.   The microgreens supplied a nice texture, while the shiso oil provided a grounding herbal element.   A truly perfect dish.

The third course was comprised of King Salmon (T:8.0 / P:9.0), with sugar snap peas, pea puree, and a carrot reduction sauce.
The small filet had an incredibly crisp skin and a meltingly tender interior – so much so, in fact, that I had to remind myself that this was the same fish I had tasted countless times before.
The carrot reduction added the right amount of sweetness, while the pea puree provided a surprisingly complementary flavor.
Indeed, it didn't hit me until after I had finished: Siegel had managed to make me like the flavor of peas and carrots together, a combination that I had sworn off as a child after too many school lunches in which lifeless, boiled facsimiles of the two vegetables had been thrown together.   Overall, an excellent dish.

The Roasted Maine Lobster (T:9.0 / P:9.5) arrived next, and it was served with morel mushrooms, sweet and sour sauce, and – of all things – pork belly.   I reacted to the waiter's description of the dish with a healthy dose of skepticism; sweet and sour sauce?   Pork belly with lobster?   But Siegel somehow pulled it off.   The sauce was not, of course, the Chinese takeout rendition that might initially come to mind.   Rather, it was a rich, complex, spicy version that, while emphasizing the sweetness of the lobster surprisingly well, also paired successfully with the pork belly.   The sauce thus served as a link of sorts between the pork and the lobster, with the earthy morels contributing a much-needed contrast to the other elements on the plate.   To my mind, this was the one course of the evening that definitively proved Siegel's proficiency in fusing seemingly disparate ingredients into a cohesive and outstanding whole.

The fifth course was one for which I had been waiting for almost a year, the Pan Seared Artisan Foie Gras (T:10.0 / P:10.0).   This amazing dish was included on the tasting menu that I ordered on my first visit to The Dining Room after Siegel had taken the helm in 2004, and it was instantly clear that it would join my short list of paradigm-shifting food items that I have tasted over the years.
Siegel sets a beautifully-cooked lobe of foie atop a buttery brioche "crouton," and then serves it with bing cherries and an indescribably delicious reduction sauce of peach juice and Tahitian vanilla butter.   The fragrance of fresh summer peach combined with exotic vanilla hits you the moment the plate is set down, and its intoxicating effect is surpassed only by the unbelievable flavor of the sauce and the manner in which it so perfectly complements the rich liver.   For many, many years, I was firmly convinced that Gary Danko offers the best foie gras preparation in the entire Bay Area.   Not anymore.   Ron Siegel's version is absolutely brilliant, and it easily earns a perfect 10 for both taste and presentation.

The next course was the Poularde Breast (T:6.5 / P:7.0), presented with turnips, carrots, and sour grapes in a chicken reduction sauce.   The chicken itself was admirably moist, and the reduction imparted a deep rich flavor.   The small sour grapes, however, added an unusual – and almost out of place – twist to the mix.   Maybe the grapes were too sour or perhaps there were just too many of them, but they seemed to compete with the other ingredients on the plate rather than coalesce with them.   The overall dish was good, but certainly not stellar like many of the other entries on the menu.

The final savory course for the evening was the Beef Rib-Eye (T:8.5 / P:8.5), served with bone marrow, Nicoise olive risotto and Bordelaise sauce.   The meat here was cooked to a perfect medium-rare, with a nicely-browned crust and a very tender pink interior.
The Bordelaise sauce was intensely packed with flavor, and the risotto and bone marrow served as good complements to round out the dish.   And although the distinct flavor of olives permeated the dish, it combined well with the flavor of the sauce.   In short, this was well-conceived and well-executed.

The first dessert item was Peach Sorbet with Blueberries (T:6.5 / P:8.0), which had a pleasant enough flavor, but not one that was discernibly and unmistakably peach.   Furthermore, the combination of peach with blueberries seemed remarkably unremarkable; the flavors did not clash in any way, but they seemed to have no synergy with each other either.   Overall, a decent – but not inspired – offering.

The primary dessert, and final course for the evening, was Honey Panna Cotta (T:8.5 / P:8.5) served with peach champagne soup and hibiscus gelee.   The panna cotta was smooth, creamy and flavorful, and the trio of custard, soup and gelee yielded a deliciously distinctive, bright, and floral flavor.   I also appreciated the fact that the dessert was refreshingly light, particularly coming as it did at the end of a relatively heavy meal.   The presentation on this dessert was very impressive as well.

With regard to the mignardise, rather than simply presenting diners with a pre-assembled plate like most restaurants do, The Dining Room brings an entire rolling cart to the table and lets guests pick their own confections.   We sampled a variety of items including miniature tartlets, homemade marshmallows, and miscellaneous petit-fours.   All were good, though fairly standard for a restaurant of this caliber.

Service and Decor

The service at The Dining Room is professional, attentive, responsive and gracious.   Shortly after we were seated, a waiter brought the champagne cart over to the table – a very nice way to start the evening.   And from there, the experience unfolded smoothly and efficiently.

Our server was well-versed in the menu, providing thorough descriptions and informative answers.   The menu substitution requests we made – and the few preferences that we noted – were agreed to by the waiter immediately, demonstrating that the staff is well-trained in what the kitchen is able and willing to do in that regard.   And the sommelier – Stephane Lacroix – is both very knowledgeable and exceedingly helpful.

Table service was excellent as well.   Utensils were replaced unobtrusively, consistency in the direction from which dishes were served and cleared was observed, and plates were put down simultaneously and removed promptly when we were finished.   And unlike a recent experience at The French Laundry, our server was very attentive to wine levels at the table throughout the meal.   Indeed, he approached us shortly before the foie gras course arrived and again before the beef course, to ask whether we would like to order a dessert wine or red wine, respectively, to enjoy with these dishes.   And this despite the fact that our wine glasses were already half full both times with other wines.

The décor and atmosphere of The Dining Room remain as inviting as ever.   The restaurant is accessed through the hotel lobby, which is utterly luxurious and which, in many ways, foreshadows the décor that diners will find in The Dining Room.   The overall feel is one of refined elegance, with beautiful classic furniture and plush fabrics in a relatively quiet and calming environment.   A harpist plays softly in the background on certain evenings, and the table accoutrements, art and light fixtures add nicely to the overall feel.   In short, with the possible exception of Fleur de Lys, no other restaurant in the Bay Area has as attractive a dining room in my opinion.


It is common these days for talented chefs to reach a certain level of proficiency, to attain a degree of fame and notoriety, and then to become complacent – ultimately settling in at a plateau at which they spend the rest of their careers.   To Siegel's credit, he has not done that.   His approaches to flavor composition, dish creation, and menu construction appear to be in a constant state of flux, and he seems to be moving ever closer to that elusive goal of having an entire menu that is composed of outstanding selections.   Indeed, as I have suggested in a separate post, I believe that Siegel's menu is now quickly closing in on that of Thomas Keller.   I look forward to seeing where Siegel's continuing evolution will ultimately take him.   In the meantime, The Dining Room at Ritz-Carlton remains a real gem in the Bay Area restaurant scene, a reliable destination for outstanding food and service in an outstanding atmosphere.

The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton
Food Taste9.59.5

Food Presentation9.0
Number of Visits: 5
Ratings Explained


Anonymous Fatemeh said...

I completely and utterly agree with you. I took my husband to the Dining Room for his 30th bday in March, and it was a phenomenal meal.

We had a question about a Sylvaner we were served with one of our courses, and M. Lacroix called me back within hours to give us the details and where we could find the wine at retail.

We've been considering heading back there for a summer tasting menu. Sounds like that would be an excellent idea. :-)

August 17, 2005 9:07 PM  
Blogger NS said...

Fatemeh: I had a very similar experience with Lacroix. Upon hearing me make a casual remark to a companion that I had had some difficulty in locating a Mure Gewurztraminer I had enjoyed on a prior visit to The Dining Room, he disappeared for a few minutes and then returned with the name, address and telephone number of his source - all without my even asking.

Obviously, I would certainly and strongly recommend a visit to The Dining Room while the summer produce is still in abundance. In fact, I hope to return once more before the summer ends myself!

August 17, 2005 10:05 PM  
Anonymous Catherine said...

Ever since a to-die-for meal at Masa's, I have been dying for more of Siegel's cooking. Good to know it will not disappoint!

August 19, 2005 4:08 PM  
Blogger NS said...

Catherine: I don't know what exactly Siegel has been doing to advance his skills so dramatically and rapidly, but he is obviously doing something right. If you were impressed with his food at Masa's, I think you'll really like what he's doing at The Dining Room.

August 19, 2005 10:19 PM  
Blogger Joy said...

Mmmmm...this looks so tasty. I want those petit fours for breakfast. NS, you put me to shame!

The Restaurant Whore

August 20, 2005 10:11 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Joy: Thanks for stopping by! The dessert cart at the Ritz is, indeed, impressive; I suppose that it might be even more so if diners weren't completely stuffed by the time it came around!

I've enjoyed reading your site and restaurant reviews, and I am particularly looking forward to your full report on Cyrus - where I myself will be going in just a few more weeks.

August 20, 2005 2:02 PM  
Blogger Joy said...

It's half written right now. Between the Rachael Ray post, the stupid people at Sprint and the school I teach at starting this week, I haven't been able to devote the necessary time to it. I have, however, curiously been able to read your blog.

August 22, 2005 5:03 PM  
Blogger t t said...

NS - Your mouthwatering review of TDRATRC prompted me to celebrate my 25th b-day with Siegel's tasting menu . . . and I was definitely not disappointed :D While working in Japan, I ate my way through many French Japanese restaurants in Ginza and Omotesando, and was impressed by Siegel's ability to so elegantly present the marriage of these two cuisines with dishes such as foie gras ravioli in matsutake mushroom broth accompanied by yuzu sorbet as a palate cleanser. Other dishes that impressed were more distinctly Japanese or French, including spotted prawn sashimi with freshly grated wasabi and lime juice with deep sea salt, and the best squab I've ever tasted, served with a scoop of squab liver mousse and kernels of wonderfully contrasting sweet white corn. My dining companions got into quite a lively debate over which was better, the hot or cold preparation of the foie gras, but in the end, the pinot noir gelee aided the cold preparation in edging out the white peach and huckleberry sauce that accompanied the seared foie gras ;) The dessert courses were the only ones that didn't impress greatly, but the staff gets bonus points for wrapping up our barely touched mignardise (we had fun choosing, but were too stuffed to actually eat them!) to take home. My only regret was having to ignore the tempting cheese cart, though 3 amuse bouche and 9 courses later, I'm going to be doing plenty of kickboxing tomorrow to work off all those delicious calories !!

September 25, 2005 12:01 AM  
Blogger NS said...

TT: Thanks very much for your comment -- I'm so pleased to hear that you enjoyed your meal at The Dining Room as much as I have enjoyed my experiences there. I agree with you that Siegel has done an outstanding job fusing Japanese influences with French concepts, and I look forward to seeing where his explorations will take him in the future. I must also concur in your assessment that the desserts - though quite good - fall short of the heights regularly reached by the rest of the meal. Nevertheless, I continue to believe that The Dining Room is performing at the top of the heap.

October 04, 2005 3:58 PM  

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