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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Supperclub: Opening Night Photos and Observations


Alright, I'll admit it:   even though the new and extra hip restaurant Supperclub is not the type of place to which I would ordinarily be drawn, I have felt compelled to check it out ever since writing about it here several weeks ago.   So, when I found myself with the opportunity to make reservations for the restaurant's opening night, I decided to take it.   What follows is not intended to be a "review" of my experience at Supperclub this past Tuesday evening;   after all, drawing any definitive conclusions after a single visit on opening night would hardly be fair.   Rather, this post is merely intended to be a preliminary description - of what we experienced, what worked well, what needs some tweaking, and what seemingly needs more significant attention.

Background


The first Supperclub opened in Amsterdam in the early 1990's, and it remains a resounding success right up to this day.   The basic concept behind the restaurant is that diners lounge around on beds while enjoying a prix fixe menu, as a collection of artists and interesting characters circulate throughout the room and engage in various pieces of performance art.   The original Supperclub was eventually joined by a second location in Rome, and the third site that opened this week in San Francisco is the company's first foray in the United States.   Plans are already underway for Supperclubs in London, Singapore and New York.

The exterior of the Supperclub San Francisco is rather unassuming;   indeed, you might not even notice it against the drab backdrop of Harrison Street, were it not for the two valets standing right outside the entrance.   Immediately inside the front door is an area surrounded by dark curtains, and a small oval table at which a man in drag sits with a printout containing the evening's reservations.   After checking in, diners are asked to proceed into the next room - a dark, somewhat sultry, red lounge in the middle of which sits a large circular bar.   Small tables are distributed around the perimeter of the room, and a short hallway on one end leads to another waiting area that appears to change colors periodically through the use of lighting.   Supperclub has only one seating each evening, so diners are required to wait in the lounge area until the hosts and hostesses are ready to lead parties - one at a time - to their "beds."

The main dining area is a relatively large room that's painted white, and it's located behind a set of doors directly off of the red lounge.   The seating (i.e., bedding) on the ground level is arranged in the shape of a giant "U," with a large nearly-continuous mattress running along three of the four walls of the room (the only break being for the entrance).   An exhibition kitchen can be found where the fourth wall would be, and the center of the room contains both an open area for performances and a spot for the DJ.   A second level is reached by either one of two staircases, and the seating up on top mimics - and lies directly over - that on the ground level.   A large wall that hangs over the exhibition kitchen displays silent video of all sorts, and a "VJ" booth is located on the second level as well.   Large speakers and relatively loud music give off
the feel of being in a club, and the lighting in the room changes randomly and sometimes starkly over time - bathing the room in deep blue one moment, and bright red the next.   The relatively firm beds are outfitted with crisp white sheets, large soft pillows in white pillowcases, and a small square metallic table for holding drinks.   Diners are encouraged/requested to remove their shoes before climbing onto the bed.   The seating areas on the communal mattress are actually quite close together, such that diners may feel a bit crowded if the restaurant is at full capacity (which it was not on opening night).
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There's more...

Food:   Initial Impressions


The food on my visit was, on balance, mixed.   Executive Chef Jerry McGinnis offers a $60 prix fixe 5-course tasting menu in either non-vegetarian or vegetarian variants, and nothing else other than a small container of truffled popcorn before the meal starts.   A Pumpkin Salad with Honey Cinnamon Vinaigrette and Goat Cheese was truly fantastic, the sweetness of the pumpkin augmented perfectly with the honey and cinnamon in the dressing.   Meanwhile, cool and tangy goat cheese, crunchy pine nuts, and slightly bitter greens provided wonderful contrasts in temperature, texture and flavor.   A Shiitake Mushroom Hot and Sour Soup with Duck was good, the flavorful broth having just a little kick and the duck serving to keep the soup interesting.   Tuna Tartare served with thin firm beets was fine, but there are so many excellent renditions of this dish out there that McGinnis' version seemed somewhat unremarkable.   Halibut with Tomato Sauce and Saffron Risotto was pedestrian in concept and awful in execution.   The risotto, to be fair, was actually excellent - buttery, rich, and infused with the distinctive flavor of saffron.   The halibut, however, was of questionable quality, and the problem was compounded by the fact that the fish was cooked only long enough to sear it.   The raw center of the filet accordingly had an unpleasant odor and an absolutely terrible taste, so much so that I could not even bring myself to eat more than one bite.   The sweet tomato sauce on the bottom of the plate bore no apparent relationship to the fish, and the caviar on top again raised questions regarding quality.   I am all for being forgiving on a restaurant's first night in business, but this dish should not have been served anywhere or anytime - opening night or not.   Dessert consisted of an simple Apple Crumble with whipped cream, a decent but unextraordinary offering.






Service:   Initial Impressions


As might be expected, we did experience some service issues on our visit that can probably be chalked up as early kinks to be worked out.   The biggest problem that we saw in this regard was in connection with the timing of the courses.   Even though everybody in the room was seated by around 7:30, the salad was not served until 9:00 p.m.   From there, the restaurant averaged one course every 30-45 minutes, meaning that we did not finish our dessert until nearly midnight - five hours after we arrived.   There were, of course, some brief entertainment sequences spread throughout the evening - a lip-synced song here, a performance art piece there, a roving masseur.   But the slow pacing of the dinner was driven entirely by the kitchen, and we found it quite frustrating both early in the meal when we were starving, and later in the meal when we were exhausted.   The quality of the service delivered by the waitstaff was also sometimes unreliable, again likely due to inexperience and/or a need to work out some of the issues that do not become clear until after a place is up and running.

Other problems, however, cannot be excused as readily, as they are more indicative of poor advance planning than anything else.   For instance, when I tried to place an order off the wine list at the very beginning of the evening, our server immediately said "I'm not entirely sure that we have that bottle in stock, so what's your second choice just in case?"   How in the world is it possible for a restaurant - at the first seating on opening night - to already be out of one of the eight bottles of white wine that are set forth right on its printed wine list?!   Another bit of poor planning - the kitchen frequently found itself unable to serve a particular course to the entire dining room using the same dishware.   For instance, one person in our group received the crumble in a large bowl, while the rest of us received it in a small coffee cup.   We were told that the portion sizes were the same, but they clearly were not.   Given that the dining room was not even at capacity, I would have expected the kitchen to be able to plate each course identically for all diners.

An example of poor design was revealed in the waitstaff's struggle to figure out how to serve food to those of us seated on the second level.   At the beginning of the night, each server would grab two plates from the kitchen, walk across the room to the bottom of the stairs, climb the stairs, and then walk across the upper level to deliver the plates to a particular group.   He/she would then have to reverse course and walk all the way back downstairs to the kitchen, grab two more plates, and repeat the process.   The servers quickly realized that this was excruciatingly slow, so their first experiment was to arrange a chain of servers from the kitchen to the top of the stairs, and to pass the plates along like an assembly line.   This did not work all that well either, so somebody then had the brilliant realization that a person standing on top of a counter in the kitchen area could readily hand plates up to a second individual standing near the top of the stairs, effectively cutting out several middlemen.   This was the method used for the remainder of the evening, and the image of a waiter standing on the very place were food was being assembled, plated and prepared for service was rather disconcerting, as was the spectacle of seeing the staff trying to figure out a way to get food to diners efficiently.   Would it have been that hard for the designers of the restaurant to install a large dumbwaiter or other platform that could be elevated electronically to the upper level?

Atmosphere:   Initial Impressions


I have to confess that I was unexpectedly impressed by the atmosphere at Supperclub.   The biggest surprise for me came in how easy it was to eat while sitting on a mattress, and how quickly everybody acclimated to the notion of completely sprawling out between courses.   I was certain going in that asking diners to sit on a bed would virtually guarantee discomfort, but clearly I was wrong.   The entertainment was probably a bit "out there" for some, but it was never dull and it was certainly enough to hold one's attention.   The music was frequently too loud for my tastes, making it hard to have a conversation with others in your party.   Still, the music was an important component that added to a somewhat festive, club-like feel that a younger crowd would likely find quite appealing.   Finally, the decor is nicely done and certainly very distinctive; you won't find anything else like it here in San Francisco.

Closing Thoughts


Recognizing again that my sole experience was during the restaurant's first night of operation, I think that both the food and the service will eventually need to be elevated to a consistently higher level in order for Supperclub to survive.   There can be little question that McGinnis has talent, as some of his offerings on Tuesday evening amply demonstrated.   Now, he just needs to ensure that all five courses reach the heights of his Pumpkin Salad, and that the execution is carried out by his staff without error.   If he can achieve this, diners will undoubtedly return to the restaurant time and again to partake in what will be a very good deal at $60.   On the service front, the waitstaff really needs to figure out how best to serve diners - particularly those seated on the upper level - more efficiently and more professionally.   Better organization in the front of the house, including with regard to the reservations line and the website, would probably be a good idea as well.

So, with all of that said, will I return to Supperclub?   Well, if I were looking for a $60 prix fixe menu, I would probably be more inclined to invite a few friends to join me for a quiet dinner at La Folie.   Nevertheless, another visit to Supperclub when things have settled down a bit is something that I am not yet prepared to write off.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Ratings Attained by Bay Area Chefs: Five-Year Trend Lines


In my last post, I examined the ratings that The San Francisco Chronicle and its lead food critic, Michael Bauer, have awarded to upper-end restaurants over the course of the past five years.   I also presented trend lines for the ratings given to each establishment, and offered some thoughts about how these restaurants may fare going forward.   I would now like to focus on the individuals who, perhaps more than anybody, drive the ratings that Bauer hands out: the chefs who head up the Bay Area's best kitchens.

As anybody who has tried to keep abreast of such matters can attest, the interaction between chefs and restaurants here in the Bay Area often resembles a game of musical chairs – with positions being passed from one person to the next in a dizzying sequence, and the occasional individual leaving the Bay Area altogether.   This relative lack of stability means that the quality of the corresponding restaurants is often in a state of flux;   after all, the abilities of the executive chef are what define the upper limit on how successful a given establishment's food can really be.

Now, I have previously pointed out that even when a restaurant has undergone a change at the top of the kitchen, the ratings history for the establishment can be suggestive of future performance.   This is true because prior assessments reveal useful information about the owners' commitment to recruiting top talent, while also shedding some light on the preconceptions that Bauer may have in mind as he approaches the establishment for a new review.   But there is another metric that is equally useful, and that is how the new chef has performed at his/her prior positions.   It is relatively rare that a chef will attain one rating while at a first restaurant, and then move to a second restaurant and suddenly start performing at a wildly different level.   Furthermore, the evaluation that Bauer gives a particular chef today will undoubtedly carry some weight in his mind when he sits down a year from now to review a different restaurant to which the chef has moved.

So, let's take a look now at how some of the top-tier chefs in the Bay Area have performed over time, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.   I will start again with Bauer's conclusions from November 2000, when he conducted one of his periodic reviews of the Bay Area's fine dining scene.   That time around, the chefs that earned 4 stars for their restaurants were as follows:

The Chronicle's Four-Star Chefs
as of November 2000
(Restaurant/Executive Chef)
The French LaundryThomas Keller
Fleur de LysHubert Keller
La FolieRoland Passot
Chez PanisseAlice Waters
Charles Nob HillRon Siegel
Fifth FloorGeorge Morrone
AquaMichael Mina

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There's more...
The first four chefs on this list have remained at their restaurants right up through the present, and Bauer just recently reaffirmed each of their 4-star ratings.   The remaining three chefs, however, all departed from their restaurants to pursue other opportunities.   Ron Siegel left Charles Nob Hill for Masa's in late 2000, and he then moved to The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in July 2004.   Although Siegel never managed to secure more than 3.5 stars from Bauer during his tenure at Masa's, he was just recently awarded 4 stars for his efforts at The Dining Room.   George Morrone resigned from Fifth Floor in 2001 to join Michael Mina and the Aqua Development Corporation in launching the ill-fated Redwood Park, which Bauer would ultimately conclude merited 3.5 stars.   Morrone was terminated from his position as executive chef in late 2002, and he then left the Bay Area to help launch a restaurant in Australia.   He returned to San Francisco in July 2004 with Tartare, which garnered only 2 stars from Bauer before finally closing just a few weeks ago.   Morrone's future is now unclear, as his original plans to transform Tartare into a different concept are suddenly up in the air.   Michael Mina left Aqua and the Aqua Development Corporation in late 2002, with plans to launch his own restaurant empire.   He opened Arcadia in San Jose in April 2003, and he reentered the San Francisco market in July 2004 with Michael Mina restaurant.   The former has never earned more than 3 stars, while the latter was awarded 3.5 stars.

The following table sets forth the ratings that various chefs were able to attain for restaurants in, or near, the top tier over the course of the past five years.   Next to each chef's name are three columns:   the left column contains the overall rating for the restaurant at which the individual was executive chef in November 2000, the column on the far right contains the overall rating for the chef's current restaurant, and the middle column contains any intervening ratings awarded by Bauer.   If a chef has been at the same restaurant throughout the entire period, the restaurant name appears below his/her name;   if the chef has moved, the restaurant names appear next to the individual ratings.

Selected Chefs and Restaurant Ratings Attained
from The San Francisco Chronicle
November 2000 - September 2005
ChefNov. 2000
Rating
Interim
Rating(s)
Sep. 2005
Rating
Thomas Keller
(The French Laundry)
4.0--4.0
Hubert Keller
(Fleur de Lys)
4.04.04.0
Roland Passot
(La Folie)
4.04.04.0
Alice Waters
(Chez Panisse)
4.0--4.0
Daniel Humm--3.5 (Campton Place)4.0 (Campton Place)
Ron Siegel4.0 (Charles Nob Hill)3.5 (Masa's)
3.5 (The Dining Room)
4.0 (The Dining Room)
David Kinch3.0 (Sent Sovi)3.0 (Manresa)4.0 (Manresa)
Laurent Manrique2.5 (Campton Place)3.0 (Campton Place)
3.5 (Aqua)
3.5 (Aqua)
Suzette Gresham
(Acquerello)
2.53.53.5
Adrian Hoffman--3.5 (One Market)3.5 (One Market)
Gary Danko
(Gary Danko)
3.5--3.5
Traci des Jardins
(Jardiniere)
3.53.53.5
Mark Franz
(Farallon)
3.5--3.5
Hiro Sone
(Terra)
3.5--3.5
Michael Mina4.03.0 (Arcadia)
3.5 (Michael Mina)
3.0 (Arcadia)
3.5 (Michael Mina)
Melissa Perello--3.5 (Charles Nob Hill)3.0 (Fifth Floor)
George Morrone4.0 (Fifth Floor)3.5 (Redwood Park)2.0 (Tartare)


A review of the data in the above table reveals several interesting developments and trends.   At the top are the four chefs who have continuously maintained 4-star ratings for their restaurants from November 2000 through today – i.e., Thomas Keller, Hubert Keller, Roland Passot, and Alice Waters.   As I have noted before, Hubert Keller and Roland Passot significantly revised their menus during the relevant timeframe, so their ability to sustain 4-star status is especially notable.   Ron Siegel started out the period with 4 stars, but he stumbled down to 3.5 stars at Masa's before finally rejoining the 4-star ranks this year as Executive Chef of The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton.   Daniel Humm made a splashy 3.5-star entrance when he arrived at Campton Place in 2003, and he climbed to the top a mere two years later – at the incredibly young age of 28.   And David Kinch spent the entire five years generating considerable buzz – but only 3 stars – at Sent Sovi and then Manresa, before finally getting a well-deserved promotion to 4 stars this year.

Laurent Manrique took Campton Place from 2.5 stars to 3.0 stars, before passing the baton to Daniel Humm to take the restaurant into the top-tier.   Manrique continued to improve as well, earning 3.5 stars for his work at Aqua.   Suzette Gresham, who has been at the helm of Acquerello's kitchen for over 15 years, raised the restaurant from 2.5 stars in 2000 to 3.5 stars today.   And Adrian Hoffman has been stuck at 3.5 stars since early 2001, while Gary Danko, Traci des Jardins, Mark Franz, and Hiro Sone have been mired at the same level for the entire five-year period and then some.

Michael Mina had 4 stars in November 2000, but his first Bay Area venture after he left Aqua – i.e., Arcadia in San Jose – emerged from Bauer's review with an undoubtedly disappointing 3 stars.   And after a very high-profile 2004 debut that elicited gushing praise from Bauer, Michael Mina restaurant found itself unable to move beyond 3.5-star status.   Melissa Perello earned an impressive 3.5 stars in her first ever stint as an executive chef, but she slipped down to 3 stars when she moved from Charles Nob Hill to Fifth Floor.   Finally, George Morrone began the period with 4 stars, but his fortunes have since dropped off precipitously.   In particular, he went from 3.5 stars at Redwood Park to 2 stars at Tartare, and both restaurants closed roughly within one year of opening.

The following table separates the chefs listed above into those with upward momentum, those that are holding relatively steady, and those with downward momentum:

Trend Lines in Restaurant Ratings
Attained by Chefs
Upward MomentumDaniel Humm
David Kinch
Laurent Manrique
Suzette Gresham
Holding SteadyThomas Keler
Hubert Keller
Roland Passot
Alice Waters
Ron Siegel
Gary Danko
Traci des Jardins
Mark Franz
Hiro Sone
Adrian Hoffman
Downward MomentumGeorge Morrone
Michael Mina
Melissa Perello


Bauer obviously has no question about Thomas Keller, Hubert Keller, Roland Passot and Alice Waters, and he has now given Ron Siegel the top score two different times at two different restaurants.   Accordingly, the 4-star ratings of these five chefs appear to be relatively safe – at least as long as they remain at their current restaurants and continue along their present paths.   The same can probably be said with regard to Daniel Humm and David Kinch, albeit for different reasons.   Kinch earned his 4 stars only after toiling away at 3 stars for over a decade, suggesting that Bauer does not view him as a mere flash in the pan whose rating should be easily revoked.   And few chefs seem to have inspired more effusive praise from Bauer than Humm, indicating that Bauer's favorable impressions of him run especially deep and are unlikely to reverse course anytime soon.

Both Laurent Manrique and Suzette Gresham climbed to 3.5 stars during the relevant time period, but the key question now is whether either of them will be able to take the final step up to 4 stars.   My suspicion is that both will remain where they are for some time to come, but only Manrique appears to have the potential to actually be elevated by Bauer.   Of the 3.5-star stalwarts – Gary Danko, Traci des Jardins, Mark Franz, Hiro Sone, and Adrian Hoffman – I would guess that all but Hoffman and Sone are virtually guaranteed to stay put.   Hoffman has some chance of getting bumped up down the road because he is young enough and has not been entrenched at his restaurant as long as the others;   Sone, meanwhile, might generate some excitement when he opens his new establishment in San Francisco later this year, giving him a fresh shot at the top tier.   Finally, Melissa Perello's slip from 3.5 stars to 3 stars is obviously not a good development, but she is still young enough and talented enough to turn things around provided that the owners of Fifth Floor stand behind her.

And that leaves the two chefs who may be more disappointed than anybody else about how they have fared under Bauer over the past five years:   Michael Mina and George Morrone.   Morrone first rocketed to fame when he and his chef de cuisine, Michael Mina, opened Aqua in 1992 and put the restaurant on the map by earning it 4 stars.   Morrone left Aqua in 1994 and eventually landed at Fifth Floor, where he again attained 4 stars – becoming the first chef in the Bay Area to get The Chronicle's top rating at two different restaurants.   Meanwhile, Mina took over the kitchen at Aqua, and he, too, ended up with 4 stars.   So, with all of these top-tier ratings between the two of them, Mina and Morrone cannot be too happy about having opened up a string of restaurants that have drawn only 3.5, 3 and even 2-star ratings.   Mina, at least, is still in the hunt; his eponymous restaurant presently sits at 3.5 stars and theoretically could, with some modifications, be granted 4 stars by Bauer at some point in the future.   Morrone, on the other hand, has suffered a greater fall from grace in Bauer's book, and he obviously needs to regroup and focus on finding a platform that will enable him to showcase his considerable talents.

It's anybody's guess whether the trend lines reflected here for chef's ratings - coupled with those identified in my last post for restaurant ratings - will, in fact, accurately forecast the assessments that Michael Bauer will make down the road. Yet, because Bauer's tastes and sensibilities do not seem to shift dramatically over time, these historical results are probably the best predictors we have as to what the future holds.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Trend Lines in The Chronicle's Ratings of Bay Area Restaurants


As I explained in a recent post, the lead food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle – Michael Bauer – periodically undertakes a comprehensive review of the Bay Area's best restaurants in order to determine which of them deserve a 4-star rating.   Bauer recently announced the results of his most recent reevaluation, and the restaurants that came out on top were The French Laundry, Fleur de Lys, La Folie, Chez Panisse, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa, and Campton Place.   I thought that it might be interesting now to take a look at some trend lines to see how the restaurants in, or near, the top-tier have fared under Bauer.   Keep in mind that I do not necessarily agree with all of Bauer's conclusions, but I do believe it is worth considering his views given the influence that he has on the local market.

A logical place to start the analysis is November 2000, which is the last time that Bauer conducted one of his fine dining reviews.   That time around, the restaurants that emerged with 4 stars were as follows:

The Chronicle's Four-Star Restaurants
as of November 2000
(Restaurant/Executive Chef)
The French LaundryThomas Keller
Fleur de LysHubert Keller
La FolieRoland Passot
Chez PanisseAlice Waters
Charles Nob HillRon Siegel
Fifth FloorGeorge Morrone
AquaMichael Mina


The first four entrants on this list obviously survived with their 4-star ratings in tact right up to, and through, Bauer's most recent review.   The remaining three, however, underwent significant changes after November 2000 and ended up losing their 4-star ratings along the way.   Ron Siegel left Charles Nob Hill for Masa's in late 2000, and his replacement – Melissa Perello – received only 3.5 stars from The Chronicle.   Shortly after she announced her departure from the restaurant in late 2004, Charles Nob Hill closed for good and was subsequently reincarnated as the steakhouse C&L.   George Morrone resigned from Fifth Floor in 2001 and was replaced by Laurent Gras, who garnered only 3 stars from Bauer.   Melissa Perello took over when Gras departed late last year, but she, too, was recently given the same rating.   And when Michael Mina left Aqua in late 2002, Laurent Manrique assumed lead duties in the kitchen and eventually earned a 3.5 star rating.

Now, given the frequency with which Bay Area restaurants change executive chefs, one might be tempted to ask whether it makes sense to analyze trend lines for restaurant ratings at all.   After all, can any conclusion really be drawn from pointing out that Bauer gave a particular establishment three steadily increasing ratings, if this occurred under three different chefs?   The answer, I believe, is yes.   Even when changes at the top of the kitchen have occurred, the ratings history for a restaurant is instructive for two reasons.   First, it reflects useful information about the establishment's owners.   For example, if a restaurant has gone through a succession of chefs but has steadily received higher and higher ratings, this almost certainly indicates a firm commitment by the owners to invest the time - and the money - to attract top talent.   Second, a trend line shows Bauer's predisposition toward a given restaurant.   If Bauer issues a series of increasingly glowing reviews about a restaurant which then subsequently changes chefs, chances are that he will go into his next meal inclined to believe that the owners have hired an equally talented new chef.   Thus, for both of these reasons, trend lines can be at least suggestive of future ratings - even if the chef is ultimately replaced.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There's more...
The following table shows the performance over time of restaurants in or near the top-tier, as determined by Bauer.   Next to each restaurant name are three columns;   the left column contains the rating that the restaurant had as of November 2000, the column on the far right identifies the rating the restaurant has today, and the middle column identifies any ratings that Bauer issued for the restaurant in the intervening time period.

Selected Restaurant Ratings from The San Francisco Chronicle
November 2000 - September 2005
RestaurantNov. 2000
Rating
Interim
Rating(s)
Sep. 2005
Rating
The French Laundry4.0--4.0
Fleur de Lys4.04.04.0
La Folie4.04.04.0
Chez Panisse4.0--4.0
Campton Place2.53.0     3.54.0
The Dining Room
at the Ritz-Carlton
3.53.54.0
Manresa--3.04.0
Masa's2.53.5     3.53.5
Acquerello2.53.53.5
One Market3.03.53.5
Gary Danko3.5--3.5
Jardiniere3.53.53.5
Farallon3.5--3.5
Terra3.5--3.5
Michael Mina--3.53.5
Aqua4.03.53.5
Fifth Floor4.03.03.0
Charles Nob Hill4.03.5closed


A review of the above data reveals a number of interesting groupings and trends.   At the top are the four restaurants that have maintained a 4-star rating continuously from November 2000 up through the present - The French Laundry, Fleur de Lys, La Folie and Chez Panisse.   It's worth noting that among the four, only Fleur de Lys and La Folie were awarded the top rating three distinct times during the relevant period – a particularly impressive feat given that both Hubert Keller and Roland Passot significantly overhauled their menus.   Next up are the three newest inductees into the 4-star class – The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa and Campton Place.   The Dining Room was stalled at 3.5 stars for several years, until Ron Siegel came along and finally elevated the restaurant into the top tier.   Manresa has the distinction of making the biggest single-review leap, from 3 to 4 stars.   But the award for most remarkable feat goes to Campton Place, which moved from 2.5 stars to 4 stars – in 0.5-star increments – over the course of four consecutive reviews.

Turning next to the restaurants that presently sit at 3.5 stars, one can readily see three subcategories.   The first are those that have risen to this level during the past five years, namely Masa's and Acquerello (both of which started at 2.5 stars) and One Market (which started at 3 stars).   Momentum alone suggests that these restaurants may be elevated to Bauer’s top rating at some point down the road, and Masa's, in particular, seems like a prime candidate based upon what Bauer has written.   The second group is comprised of restaurants that have been "stuck" at 3.5 stars for some time.   Gary Danko, Jardiniere, Farallon and Terra have been there for five years, while Michael Mina has been at 3.5 stars since it opened just over a year ago.   While it's theoretically possible that Bauer could raise any one of these establishments to 4 stars at some future date, my guess is that the only ones with a realistic shot in Bauer's book are Michael Mina and possibly Terra.   Finally, Aqua, Fifth Floor and the now-defunct Charles Nob Hill all saw ratings drop off with the departure of a prominent chef - i.e., Michael Mina, George Morrone and Ron Siegel, respectively.   Interestingly, two of these three restaurants – Aqua and Charles Nob Hill – are properties belonging to the Aqua Development Corporation.

The following table shows the same data from a slightly different angle, by grouping the restaurants into those with upward momentum, those that are holding relatively steady, and those with downward momentum:

Trend Lines in The Chronicle's Restaurant Ratings
Upward MomentumManresa
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton
Campton Place
Masa's
One Market
Acquerello
Holding SteadyThe French Laundry
Fleur de Lys
La Folie
Chez Panisse
Gary Danko
Jardiniere
Farallon
Terra
Michael Mina
Downward MomentumAqua
Fifth Floor
Charles Nob Hill


The French Laundry, Fleur de Lys, La Folie and Chez Panisse have obviously attained stability with Bauer, no doubt aided by the fact that each of these restaurants has had the same executive chef for many years.   So, the real question now is whether The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa and Campton Place will be able to hold on to their 4-star ratings going forward, and whether Masa's, One Market or Acquerello will be able to ride existing momentum to break into the top tier.   My guess is that Masa's will be the only one that is able to make the leap.   Michael Mina has a chance of being elevated at some point down the road as well, as Mr. Mina's history and accomplishments here in the Bay Area demonstrate that he is talented.   But I suspect that Mina will have to shake things up a bit at the restaurant in order to get Bauer to change his assessment.   And Terra – though it has been at 3.5 stars for many years – may well enjoy renewed interest and life when executive chef Hiro Sone opens Ame in the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco later this year, perhaps giving Terra another chance to attain 4-star status.   Finally, only time will tell whether Aqua and Fifth Floor can turn things around and recapture some of their past glory.   While I believe that Aqua may end up plateauing at its current 3.5-star rating for some time to come, Fifth Floor should be able to rebound, as executive chef Melissa Perello is too talented to remain at 3 stars.

Next time, I'll take a look at how selected Bay Area chefs have fared under Bauer, this time examining trend lines in the ratings that each of them has attained while working in restaurants in or near the top tier.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Initial Thoughts Regarding The Chronicle's Four-Star Ratings


The San Francisco Chronicle's lead food critic, Michael Bauer, recently announced the seven establishments that came out with a 4-star rating in his periodic review of the Bay Area's best restaurants.   So, what can be said about the results?   Well, before even turning to the particulars, one preliminary point worth noting is the limiting nature of a 4-star system of the type used by The Chronicle.   As I have previously suggested, a 4-star system tends to compress a number of restaurants of disparate quality into the same rating, because there simply aren't enough discrete levels to properly reflect the full range of establishments.   The implication for present purposes is that two restaurants may both deserve a 4-star rating, even though one is noticeably better than the other.   With that in mind, here are some of my initial thoughts:
The French Laundry:
At A Glance
ChefThomas Keller
Address6640 Washington St.
Yountville, CA 94599
Phone707.944.2380
ParkingStreet
Restaurant Website

The French Laundry:   Although I have written here about my concerns that the restaurant is slipping from where it once stood, there is no question that The French Laundry remains one of the Bay Area's best dining establishments.   The food is excellent, the presentations are amazingly artistic, and the wine country setting is simply beautiful.   On a 4-star scale that measures only qualitative performance, the restaurant clearly deserves 4 stars.   Yet, I feel compelled to note that if value is also considered, The French Laundry does not fare nearly as well.   At $175 per person, Thomas Keller is charging substantially more than his competitors, but without providing a concomitantly more satisfying experience.   Put it this way:   if I were asked to choose between one dinner at The French Laundry or – for $20 more – two dinners at Manresa, my answer would be clear.


Fleur de Lys:
At A Glance
ChefHubert Keller
Address777 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone415.673.7779
ParkingValet
Restaurant Website
Fleur de Lys:   Hubert Keller is a very talented chef who serves excellent French cuisine in one of the Bay Area’s most beautiful dining rooms.   A fire in the restaurant a few years ago forced a renovation of the physical premises, and Keller took that opportunity to completely retool his menu as well.   While Keller’s dishes are intrinsically satisfying, his cuisine is not as meticulously constructed or presented as that of Thomas Keller or Ron Siegel.   Moreover, the service at Fleur de Lys is sometimes less than professional or out of sync with the quality of the food, lagging significantly behind that found at establishments such as The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton.   Thus, while Fleur de Lys deserves the top score on a 4-star scale, it probably trails behind some of the other 4-star restaurants.
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There's more...
La Folie:
At A Glance
ChefRoland Passot
Address2316 Polk St.
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone415.776.5577
ParkingValet
Restaurant Website

La Folie:   Although the analogy is far from perfect, I have often thought of La Folie as a more casual version of Fleur de Lys.   Roland Passot has long done an outstanding job of marrying French cuisine with California ingredients, producing a menu that – in my opinion – is on par with Hubert Keller's.   Until just recently, however, Passot presented his food in a setting that felt more like a nice neighborhood spot than a 4-star establishment, due in part to a whimsical jester/clown motif that permeated the dining room.   And while that was redressed by a recent renovation that resulted in a significantly more elegant décor, La Folie’s service can often times be quite casual and unpolished – even more so than at Fleur de Lys.   Thus, like Fleur de Lys, La Folie deserves its 4-star rating, but it falls in the lower half of the top-tier.


Chez Panisse:
At A Glance
ChefAlice Waters
Address1517 Shattuck Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94709
Phone510.548.5525
ParkingStreet
Restaurant Website
Chez Panisse:   I tend to take Michael Bauer's reviews of Chez Panisse with a large grain of salt, ever since I read an article in San Francisco Magazine a few years ago suggesting that Bauer's close friendship with Alice Waters has compromised his ability to evaluate the restaurant objectively.   So, putting aside all sentimentality arising out of the historical significance of the restaurant, does Chez Panisse really deserve a spot on Bauer's list?   My own experience does not permit me to answer in the affirmative, as the breadth, depth and consistency of the menu do not – in my view – compare favorably with the menus of other top-tier establishments.   Yet, I also feel that it would be unfair for me to opine that Chez Panisse definitively does not deserve a 4-star rating – at least not until I have had a greater number of more recent experiences at the restaurant.   So, for now, I will remain agnostic.   I should, however, point out that although Bauer ultimately puts the restaurant on his list, even he appears to have some question about whether it really belongs there, noting "[e]ach time I survey the four-star restaurants, I feel that I need to justify why Chez Panisse should be among them."

The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton:
At A Glance
ChefRon Siegel
Address600 Stockton St.
San Francisco, CA 94108
Phone415.773.6168
ParkingValet
Restaurant Website

The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton:   Anybody who has read my review of this restaurant will probably be able to predict my reaction to its induction into the 4-star ranks.   To put it simply, this is a well-deserved honor for both The Dining Room and Ron Siegel.   Bauer actually gave Siegel a 4-star rating once before, back in 2000 when Siegel was in charge of the kitchen at Charles Nob Hill.   When Siegel moved to Masa's a few months later, Bauer awarded him 3.5 stars - and that rating remained in place right up through the time that Siegel left the restaurant in 2004.   Bauer's unwillingness to grant 4 stars to Masa's was seemingly based not on the food, but rather on criticisms he had regarding table utensils and the location of the restroom.   Given that the restroom was in the same spot when Bauer gave an earlier Masa's chef (Julian Serrano) 4 stars – and considering that Siegel himself had previously earned 4 stars from Bauer – this 3.5-star conclusion seemed arbitrary.   Siegel was unhappy and spoke out, ultimately being quoted in the above-mentioned San Francisco Magazine article about Bauer.   I have wondered ever since whether Bauer would forever relegate Siegel to 3.5-star status, so I was pleased to see that this was not the case.   Siegel becomes only the second chef in the Bay Area to attain 4 stars from Bauer at two different restaurants, the first being George Morrone.


Manresa:
At A Glance
ChefDavid Kinch
Address320 Village Lane
Los Gatos, CA 95030
Phone408.354.4330
ParkingStreet
Restaurant Website
Manresa:   In many ways, this Los Gatos restaurant stands apart from the other establishments on Bauer's list.   Where some strive for formal opulence, Manresa goes for casual elegance.   While other chefs focus exclusively on constructing elaborate dishes with a myriad of ingredients, David Kinch is equally proficient at using fewer components to yield results that are just as outstanding.   And though all of the chefs acknowledge the influence of French cooking, only Kinch brings a Catalan influence to the table as well.   Whether it's in spite of these differences or because of them, there can be no doubt that Manresa deserves a place on Bauer's list, as Kinch is consistently turning out some of the most innovative and spectacular food in the region.   What's more, he is doing so at relatively affordable prices;   his 10-course tasting menu – typically preceded by as many as five amuse bouche selections – comes in at $98 per person.   The service at Manresa occasionally falls short of that offered elsewhere, and it seems incongruous with the quality of Kinch's creations.   Nevertheless, the restaurant clearly belongs on any list of the Bay Area's best.

Campton Place:
At A Glance
ChefDaniel Humm
Address340 Stockton St.
San Francisco, CA 94108
Phone415.955.5555
ParkingGarage
Restaurant Website

Campton Place:   Daniel Humm took the helm at Campton Place in 2003, and the string of accolades he has received ever since is remarkable.   Bauer awarded Humm 3.5 stars four months after he started, describing the chef as both "a miracle worker" and a "shoo-in" for an eventual 4-star rating.   The San Francisco Chronicle identified Humm as a 2004 Rising Star Chef, The James Beard Foundation nominated him for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2004 and 2005, and Food & Wine Magazine named him one of its 10 Best New Chefs for 2005.   Humm's bold, innovative and excellent cuisine is served in an elegant room by a waitstaff that is professional, making the restaurant's promotion to 4 stars entirely logical.   Still, I will withhold further comment about Campton Place's new rating until after I have had a greater number of more recent meals there.   One final note – at 28, Humm is the youngest of Bauer's 4-star chefs, a full 11 years junior to the second youngest (Siegel).

So, there are my preliminary thoughts regarding Bauer's 2005 list of 4-star restaurants in the Bay Area.   While I have already reviewed two of the seven on this site, look for reviews on the remaining five in the coming months.

Monday, September 05, 2005

San Francisco Chronicle: The Bay Area's Seven Four-Star Restaurants


The restaurant review cycle used by Michael Bauer, lead food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, has always struck me as somewhat mysterious.   Sure, if a new restaurant opens up – or if an existing high-profile establishment hires a new chef or revamps its menu – Bauer will usually review it within a month or two.   But how does he decide that the time has come to revisit a previously-evaluated restaurant, even though the chef and menu remain the same?   I have no idea.

What is slightly more clear, however, is that Bauer has a separate schedule on which he periodically undertakes a comprehensive review of the Bay Area's fine dining scene.   In this process, Bauer revisits all of the restaurants that he believes to be in the upper-tier, including those to which he has previously awarded 4 stars (the highest rating in the Chronicle's system) and several to which he has given slightly fewer stars.   He then decides which of these restaurants should keep their existing 4-star ratings, which should lose them, and which should acquire 4 stars for the first time.   In the September 4, 2005 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Bauer presents the results of his latest reevaluation of our best restaurants.

Now, before proceeding any further, I should note – as I have in the past – that Michael Bauer and his restaurant reviews are never beyond critique.   Indeed, some have argued that he is known to play favorites and to be vindictive, that the criteria by which he evaluates a restaurant are not always consistent or rational, and that he makes very little effort to remain anonymous.   While I have no independent basis to evaluate the accuracy of most of these charges, I have certainly seen instances in which Bauer's overall rating of a given restaurant makes no sense in light of his earlier evaluations of that same establishment and/or its chef.   But the one thing that cannot be denied is that Bauer wields power, and his conclusions about a restaurant can play at least some role in determining whether it succeeds or fails.   And that alone makes Bauer's pronouncements worthy of mention, examination and discussion on this site – irrespective of their intrinsic merit.

Going into this year's reexamination, only four restaurants enjoyed 4-star status:   The French Laundry, Fleur de Lys, La Folie and Chez Panisse.   Bauer recently revisited not only these four establishments, but nine additional restaurants as well:   Aqua, Fifth Floor, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Gary Danko, Manresa, Acquerello, Campton Place, Michael Mina and Masa's.   Bauer's conclusion is that seven of the thirteen establishments that were considered are now deserving of 4-star ratings.   Here they are:

The Chronicle's Four-Star Restaurants
as of September 2005
(Restaurant/Executive Chef)
The French LaundryThomas Keller
Fleur de LysHubert Keller
La FolieRoland Passot
Chez PanisseAlice Waters
The Dining Room
at the Ritz-Carlton
Ron Siegel
ManresaDavid Kinch
Campton PlaceDaniel Humm


In short, the existing 4-star restaurants retain their positions, while The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa, and Campton Place join the elite club.

In posts later this week, I will share some of my initial thoughts about the restaurants that came out on top in Bauer's analysis, discuss some trend lines in his ratings of the top-tier restaurants and chefs, and examine how Bauer's conclusions compare to ratings from other sources.   For now, I will simply point out that the establishments on Bauer's 4-star list will undoubtedly benefit from being identified as the best in the Bay Area, especially those that are receiving the honor for the first time.   So, congratulations to all seven restaurants, and to Chefs Siegel, Kinch and Humm in particular!

Friday, September 02, 2005

A Non-Food Entreaty


The damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina has obviously been devastating, while the ineptitude and footdragging of our federal government -- which is only now starting to take action, five days after the hurricane destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives -- have been nothing short of absolutely appalling.   The American Red Cross has been on the scene all week, trying to provide assistance and services when government officials were too busy vacationing to do anything.   If you can, please donate to The Red Cross or to any other relief agency working to address this humanitarian crisis.   No amount is too small, and every dollar helps.   Thank you.