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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Restaurant Review: Navio

Update:   Peter Rudolph, the Chef de Cuisine at Navio at the time of the below review, has since left the restaurant in order to take over as Executive Chef at Campton Place.   Aaron Zimmer is now in charge of Navio's kitchen, but I have not yet had an opportunity to sample Zimmer's menu.

There’s an old adage that says that any restaurant that offers diners an outstanding view will necessarily have mediocre food.   Such establishments can easily attract customers, the theory goes, so they have little incentive to concern themselves with what is actually being put on the table.   So, what happens when an elegant hotel chain known for outstanding cuisine sets up a location on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean?   Is the adage finally disproved, or is it merely confirmed once more?   That is what I hoped to find out on a recent visit to Navio, the flagship restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.

The kitchen at Navio is led by Chef de Cuisine Peter Rudolph, a 33-year old graduate of the California Culinary Academy who has been with the restaurant since July 2002. Rudolph spent the early years of his career training within the Ritz-Carlton system, completing stints at the hotel’s properties in Marina del Rey and Atlanta.   Since arriving at Navio, however, Rudolph has focused his attention on what is billed as "coastal cuisine" – dishes in which locally-caught seafood, artisanal products, and coastside produce are all featured prominently.   Under Rudolph’s tenure, the restaurant has earned a 3 star rating from The San Francisco Chronicle.

My recent visit to Navio was not, strictly speaking, my first; I had been there a handful of times before, namely once for lunch and three times for breakfast.   But I have always believed that the true measure of a restaurant is in the quality of its dinner service, so I was anxious to see what Navio – and Rudolph – would be able to do in that regard.   And so, on a recent Saturday evening, I met a group of friends for dinner in Half Moon Bay.
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Appetizers and Main Courses

Our entire table was served one of the chef’s tasting menus, giving us a good opportunity to experience the breadth of Rudolph’s culinary compositions.   We began with the Seared Pacific Salmon Sashimi (Taste: 4.5 / Presentation: 5.5) (Ratings Explained) – a paper thin slice of fish having crisp baby green beans and a tiny dice of cucumber distributed across its surface, with a small scoop of horseradish ice cream off to one side.   The salmon itself had a good flavor, and the familiar concept of pairing it with horseradish worked well (as it almost always does).   But it was Rudolph’s use of ice cream as the delivery vehicle that was particularly clever, as it had the effect of softening the attack of the horseradish while also providing a cold, creamy contrast to the texture of the fish.   The green beans and cucumber, on the other hand, were misguided; neither one of the ingredients was particularly obtrusive, but neither seemed to have any purpose on the plate either.   The dish as a whole was also undersalted – a problem exacerbated by the lack of salt shakers on the table.

Next up was the Maine Lobster Tail (T:7.0 / P:8.0), served on a bed of parsnips with pine nuts, Meyer lemon and burnt honey cognac sauce.   This was easily the best course of the evening, with the sweetness of the well-cooked lobster played wonderfully against the deep, complex richness of the foamy burnt honey cognac.   The parsnips added a nice mild undercurrent, but the pine nuts seemed like an unusual – and unnecessary – addition.   The flavor of Meyer lemon, meanwhile, was not properly incorporated into the dish; my last two bites contained a surprising burst of brightness that the first several did not.   That the kitchen would allow such a well-conceived dish to be marred by such a careless mistake obviously reflects poorly on its attention to detail.

The third course was the Organic Free-Range Chicken with Sweetbreads (T:3.0 / P:4.5), a dish that sent my taste buds plummeting after the heights reached by the lobster.   The small medallions of chicken were admittedly quite moist,
Navio: At A Glance
ChefPeter Rudolph
1 Miramontes Point Rd
Half Moon Bay, CA 94019
Restaurant Website
but the extremely fatty skin that was left attached was more befitting of a bad airplane meal than a gourmet dinner.   The accompanying sweetbreads were flat and unremarkable, and the brown sauce smeared onto the plate was thick and ordinary.   In short, this dish was uninspired, and the menu as a whole would have been better without it.

The Boneless Rack of Colorado Lamb (T:5.0 / P:7.0) was the final savory course, and it – not surprisingly – fared better than the chicken.   A tender piece of meat, cooked nicely to medium-rare, sat in the middle of a large plate, surrounded by smoked eggplant, English peas, fava beans and fresh garbanzos.   The component ingredients here, for the most part, were very good when tasted alone.   The lamb was moist and flavorful, and the English peas, favas and garbanzos were all fresh and nicely prepared.   Only the eggplant had an unpleasant taste, with burned overtones suggesting that the attempt to smoke it had gone too far.   But the fundamental problem with this dish was the lack of any cohesion between its various parts.   What do English peas or fava beans have to do with garbanzo beans or eggplant?   And what exactly is the relationship between lamb and any one of these?   I, for one, do not know, and the combination ended up tasting like a cacophony of musical notes, all from different keys.

Cheese and Dessert Courses

At this point, the meal moved into the cheese course – Fresh Robiola with Macerated Organic Strawberries (T:3.5 / P:3.0).   The Robiola had a soft, billowy texture and an exceedingly mild flavor – so mild, in fact, that it was dangerously close to being washed out entirely by the accompanying strawberries.   The strawberries, meanwhile, were themselves rather uninteresting; thin slices macerated in something with virtually no detectable flavor were simply placed in the middle of the plate.   The final element here was a large slice of grilled thin bread – the same bread, apparently, as that found in the bread basket.   Overall, this course struck me as pedestrian and unimaginative.   There seemed to be little thought put into the interplay among the flavors, and even the presentation looked lackadaisical.   It was almost as though the kitchen had forgotten to plan a cheese course, so the staff scrounged around the pantry in order to throw something together at the last minute.

Desserts were markedly better.   The Roasted Banana Crème Brulee with Coffee Financier and Mocha Ice Cream (T:7.0 / P:7.0) was excellent, with a miniature custard on the left side of the plate and a small cake with ice cream on the right.   The crème brulee had a pure and delicious banana flavor, while the coffee in the financier was echoed by the mocha ice cream.   My only criticism here is that the dish seemed more like two separate desserts sharing a single plate than an integrated whole.   In place of the customary post-dessert petit fours and truffles, the pastry chef served each of us with a set of five thin wafers (T: 7.0 / P:8.0) – dark chocolate with ancho chili, caramel, white chocolate with pistachio and curry, caramel tuile with saffron, and milk chocolate.   These were all delicious, innovative and nicely presented – exhibiting the kind of creativity and forethought that was sorely lacking from many of the earlier courses.

Service, Atmosphere and Value

The service at Navio is good, though not quite as polished as that found at top-tier establishments in the Bay Area.
The host staff and floor manager were courteous and accommodating; the wait staff was attentive and responsive.
Where Navio misses the mark, however, is in some of the finer points.   During our meal, the waiters tried to coordinate and synchronize the placement of food before us, but they did not consistently serve and clear plates from the same side.   When I asked a waiter at the end of the evening for a copy of the menu that had been served to us, he returned with one that I was informed was “pretty close.”   The only water options presented were sparkling or still (each over $7 per bottle), leaving it up to us to ask specifically for tap water.   These may not be big things, but a truly outstanding restaurant does even the little things correctly.

The atmosphere at Navio reflects a tension between two competing desires – to be an elegant Ritz-Carlton restaurant on the one hand, and to be a more casual “coastal” setting on the other.   Thus, white tablecloths, quality stemware and fine china can be found fused with relatively casual furniture in a room designed to resemble the hold of a ship.   The result is incongruous and dissonant.   The views, of course, are simply stunning.   The restaurant sits at the northwest corner of the hotel, and the Pacific Ocean is visible from every table in the room through a bank of tall windows that runs across its entire length.   On those rare nights when the fog stays away, the view of the sun setting over the Pacific must be amazing.

I must add one final note here, and that is regarding value.   The fact that Navio is not hitting the highest levels in terms of food, service or atmosphere is not, in and of itself, all that troubling.   After all, the Bay Area has a wide range of restaurants at different price points, and lower-priced establishments make no pretense about trying to compete with those in the upper-tier.   No, what makes Navio’s performance so disturbing is that it actually has tried to position itself – in terms of price – right beside some of the region’s most outstanding restaurants.   For example, it recently raised its corkage fee to $50 per bottle – a level so outrageously high, that the only other restaurant in the entire Bay Area that feels it can get away with imposing this amount is The French Laundry.
Likewise, Navio’s six-course chef’s tasting menu costs $85 per person – placing it in roughly the same range as places like Gary Danko, Fleur de Lys, La Folie, and the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco.   Judged against this company, Navio falls woefully short on all fronts.

There should be no mistake that Navio has potential: the chef has the talent, the wait staff has the skills, and the restaurant has the perfect location.   But unless the restaurant is ready to abandon all claims of competing in the big leagues, it desperately needs to do two things: make a real commitment to consistent excellence on all fronts, and redouble its efforts to achieve that goal.   Until that happens, I’m sorry to say that the old adage referenced at the outset of this review will remain entirely valid.

Food Taste4.54.5

Food Presentation5.5
Number of Visits: 1
Ratings Explained


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