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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Blog Day 2005

You might read the logo at left and conclude that today is 310 grams day, but it actually is not.   No, today is , and a closer examination of the logo - from just the right distance, with one eye half closed, and perhaps a hand covering the other eye - reveals both the word "blog" and the numerical sequence "3108," as in today's date the way most of the planet abbreviates it.   The idea behind this grand event is for bloggers the world over to identify five blogs that are relatively new (or new to them), and then to post a short description of each on their own blogs.   So, without further ado, here are five great blogs that I have recently discovered:

In Praise of Sardines:   Brett is a culinary school graduate and former professional cook who started his outstanding Bay-Area-based blog just a few months ago.   Brett's writing is crisp and interesting, and his blog covers a variety of topics including great recipes, the best local food purveyors and farmers, restaurants worth checking out, and food-related adventures he had on a recent trip to Spain and New York.   Brett's unique mix of formal training, professional experience, and industry relationships makes him an invaluable voice in the food blogging community.

Small Farms:   Tana Butler, who lives in Santa Cruz County, has a deep appreciation for farms, farmers, sustainable agriculture, fresh produce, farmers' markets, and good food, and her excellent blog immediately imparts her devotion and passion to everybody who stops by.   Indeed, there's a fantastic quote on her front page that all who enjoy fine dining would be wise to heed:   "behind every great chef is at least one great farmer."   And immediately below that quote is a picture of the renowned Harold McGee rapt with attention at something Tana is saying, proving that you should be too!

Nosh:   This blog out of Germany has actually been around for quite some time, but I regrettably did not discover it until just recently.   Mia provides enticing recipes with beautiful pictures, typically weaving in a story or two about how the dish or its ingredients relate to past memories or present experiences.   Nicely-written, informative, and distinctive - what more can one ask for?

Zarzamora:   Steve Cooper is the gentleman behind this well-designed blog out of London, and he explains the basic premise right at the top of his front page:   "is it possible to learn how to cook simply by being married to a cook and loitering in the kitchen?"   Steve's writing style is excellent and entertaining, and he conveys information in such a way as to keep the interest of beginners and more experienced cooks alike.   He offers up wonderful recipes, great pictures, and even background information regarding dishes - all with a healthy dose of humor.

The Novato Experiment:   Jennifer started this unique blog just this past summer, when she left her Presidio Heights apartment in San Francisco for a brand new life 30 miles north in Novato.   In addition to chronicling her efforts to figure out where people eat in her new town, Jennifer writes in real-time about the various lifestyle adjustments she is undertaking as a consequence of her move.   From strip mall sushi to life without Rechiutti chocolates, Jennifer's posts are amusing, wistful, or both - making for a great blog.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention four favorite blogs that I would have included in the above list but for the fact that I have known about them for quite some time:   Becks & Posh, Gastronomie, Food Musings, and The Delicious Life.   Sam, Fatemeh, Catherine and Sarah, respectively, are generating some of the best food writing around today.

I encourage you to check out all of the above blogs as soon as you get the chance!

Food & Wine Magazine: Charles Phan Article and Recipes

The September issue of Food & Wine Magazine contains a nice feature on Charles Phan, chef and owner of The Slanted Door.   The premise of the article, entitled "Vietnam A La Cart," is to have Phan put together Vietnamese dishes using only ingredients available at your typical Safeway grocery store.   Not only is this intended to demonstrate the extent to which Asian ingredients have found their way into American culture at large, but it also provides useful recipes for those living in places without ready access to Asian grocery stores.

The article contains some interesting information about Phan and his remarkable story.   On April 30, 1975, the day that Saigon fell, Phan and his family left Vietnam by ship - leaving all of their possessions behind.   Only 12 at the time, Phan spent the next three months in transit and at sea, and the following 18 months in Guam.   The family eventually migrated to the Tenderloin district of San Francisco in 1977, and Phan finished his high school years at Mission High.   After studying architecture at the University of California, Berkeley and working in the field in New York, Phan returned to California and started toying with the idea of opening a "Vietnamese restaurant with ambience."   He found an empty storefront on Valencia Street in 1994, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The article includes recipes for the numerous dishes that Phan was able to put together, a list of which is set forth below in order to help you decide whether you want to purchase the magazine.   (Links to the recipes on the magazine's website are also included here, but these will work only for current subscribers to Food & Wine.)

I have always believed that Phan is an excellent chef, so I suspect that the above recipes are quite likely to yield good results.   And it's always nice to see a local chef get positive press at the national level, particularly when it's somebody like Phan who has overcome the odds to achieve such incredible success.   So, check out the magazine if you get a chance, and please do let me know if you try your hand at any of the recipes!

Monday, August 29, 2005

On the Cutting Edge: Two New Restaurants Offer Something Different

San Francisco is a pretty adventurous town when it comes to dining, so it's not uncommon for restaurateurs and chefs to introduce new concepts, techniques, or cuisines into the local market and for Bay Area diners to embrace them.   Every so often, however, a restaurant comes along that significantly pushes or obliterates existing boundaries, offering up something that has previously gone unseen in the city.   This is one of those times, with not just one but two novel restaurants making their debuts this fall.

The first is Medicine, a Japanese vegetarian restaurant that opened August 10 in the Crocker Galleria at 161 Sutter Street.   Medicine features a modernized version of Shojin cooking, the 500-year old cuisine of Zen Buddhist temples and monasteries that excludes dairy, meat, fish, and – interestingly – onions, scallions, garlic, leeks and shallots.   The restaurant's name comes from an old Zen belief, namely that "food should be taken simply as medicine for the health of the body."

The menu consists of five different "sets," each of which is a combination comprised of a distinct main dish coupled with soup, tofu, and/or pickled vegetables.   Various side dishes are also available, as are several sakes.   Medicine's dining room is comprised entirely of long communal tables – apparently to mimic the setting in which Buddhist monks typically eat.   The restaurant serves lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, and lunch only on Saturday.   Reservations are not accepted, and a 17% gratuity is automatically added to every bill.

There is one other aspect of Medicine that is particularly distinctive, and that is the institutional vision that is set forth prominently on its website.   Here are some of the pertinent quotes:

"The core-value of Medicine is maitri – or 'loving-kindness' – which we define as a will to extend ourselves for the growth and well-being of those around us.   Loving-kindness is a will that arises inevitably from the most basic realizations of our existence:   that no matter how we may appear on the outside – whatever our backgrounds, endowments, beliefs or behaviors – we are all essentially human at heart, sharing the same joys and sorrows, the same feelings of confusion and awe in our lives – and that in a profound sense, we are all a part of each other.

Our Mission:   Within the context of a rational and well-run business, to cultivate a diverse community that inspires its members to become deeper, better people through an ethic of ego-less service to others, based on the Buddhist idea of maitri, or loving-kindness."

I admire the restaurant's ambitious mission statement and even concur in the stated sentiments, but how Medicine plans to facilitate these goals – and what the relationship is between them and Shojin cuisine – remain entirely unclear to me.   Furthermore, while I cannot yet comment on the quality of the food coming out of the Medicine kitchen, I will say this:   the manner in which the restaurant is marketing and positioning itself seems likely to guarantee a real uphill battle for the establishment.   Thinking of food "simply as medicine" may make perfect sense for monks who are striving to lead an ascetic lifestyle, but it's hardly a view that diners looking for a nice meal out are readily going to adopt.   And why in the world go with a restaurant name that instantly turns people off, rather than a name more in line with the owners' personal philosophy such as, oh I don't know, maybe Maitri?!
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There's more...
Next up is Supperclub, currently scheduled to open its doors on September 20 at 657 Harrison Street.   The original Supperclub was launched in Amsterdam in the early 1990's, and it was so successful that it eventually spawned a second location in Rome.   The property about to open here represents the restaurant's first venture into the United States, and it certainly promises to be unique if nothing else.   Take a look at this description from the Supperclub website:

"You enter supperclub san francisco through an understated door on Harrison street and are greeted by an outrageous hostess with leopard-painted eyes.   After a drink in the cheekily swank Bar Rouge, the hostess takes you to your 'bed.'   You find yourself lounging comfortably against pillows, sipping coolly from your favorite drink.   After several sumptuous, surprisingly delicious courses served by a friendly and unusual wait staff, your bellies are content but not stuffed . . . one in your party is getting a Thai massage, another has glitter dragonflies painted on her temples.   As the DJ changes the melody, some eyes lift to see an aerial dancer covered in seaweed hanging from a ring in the center of the room."

Yes, as hard as it is to imagine, diners will eat their meals on a large shared bed – of standard length, but enormous width – rather than at tables.   And as they sit there trying to get comfortable with eating in a semi-supine position, their senses will be overwhelmed with "drag queens with Victorian bouffants, circus-style aerial dancers, contortionists, and visual artists creating new works."

The open kitchen will be led by Executive Chef Jerry McGinnis, who will offer only two choices on the prix fixe Latin-Asian fusion menu – vegetarian or non-vegetarian.   After making that selection, diners will receive five "light" courses of the chef's choosing, reportedly for $60 per person.   The restaurant will be closed every Monday, and it will have only one dinner seating on the remaining evenings – 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday, and 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.   The bar and lounge will be open Tuesday through Sunday from 6:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m.

My first reaction upon hearing about Supperclub was that it sounds like it has the potential to be more gimmick than substance.   It's true that the Amsterdam and Rome locations have been quite successful, and that San Francisco is one of the 2-3 cities in this country in which the concept could theoretically work.   But the long-term viability of Bay Area restaurants is almost always determined by the quality of the food more than anything else, so it's critical that McGinnis be able to keep diners coming back long after the initial novelty of the place has worn off.   And in that regard, the price point at which Supperclub has positioned itself is notable.   A $60 prix fixe menu that is mandatory for everybody means a per person tab of at least $90 when drinks, tax and tip are considered – a bit steep for younger diners who might naturally be attracted to the concept of the restaurant.   Meanwhile, older and more affluent diners would probably pick a quiet evening enjoying a three-course dinner at La Folie ($60), Manresa ($63), The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton ($68), or Fleur de Lys ($70) before they would enlist for a night of massages and contortionists on a communal mattress.   So, is there enough of a demographic in the middle that can be kept interested, such that Supperclub can be sustained for the long haul?   We will soon find out.

Whatever ultimately happens with Medicine and Supperclub, I give both establishments a lot of credit for taking big risks and moving well beyond the ordinary.   It is only through efforts like these that our restaurant scene continues to reinvent itself over time and remains perpetually vibrant.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Ten Reasons Why San Francisco Is A Great Restaurant City

I recently suggested that the editors of Bon Appetit Magazine, in identifying San Francisco as one of the nation's Top 5 Restaurant Cities, made a mistake.   Not in including our city on the list, of course, but rather in supporting their conclusion by pointing to the Ferry Building Marketplace – a destination that may demonstrate that San Francisco is a great food town, but does little to prove why it's a great restaurant city as well.

So, let me offer ten distinct reasons why I think the San Francisco region is worthy of inclusion on Bon Appetit's annual list, any one of which I would have cited well before the Ferry Building.   The first five entries on my list are general characteristics of the Bay Area that make it particularly conducive to a vibrant restaurant community;   the second five are current trends that make this an exciting time in our local dining scene.   First, the general characteristics:

  1. Proximity to a Wide Range of Produce and Artisanal Products:   One need only look at the local farmers' markets to realize what an incredible variety of fresh produce is grown right here in Northern California, and the number of artisanal food purveyors that are based here is equally impressive.   This gives Bay Area chefs an enviable palette of foods with which to work, which correlates directly to the breadth and quality of our restaurants' offerings.

  2. Diverse Population:   San Francisco is obviously an "international" city, with nearly every ethnic group on the planet represented at least to some degree.   And because that same diversity is reflected amongst our chefs, we have been continually introduced to exciting, enticing and enriching foods from around the world.   From Pathama Parikanont at Thep Phanom, to Charles Phan at The Slanted Door, to Martin Castillo at Limon, the infusion of different cuisines into the local restaurant market has played a central role in making this a special place.

  3. Innovation:   I usually bristle at the cliched descriptions of California as being a "frontier" or as having an "innovative spirit," but I think there's an element of truth to this in the instant case.   Whether it's cooking seasonally, eating locally, or farming sustainably, the Bay Area has been an early adopter – and sometimes the originator - of many of the nation's dining trends.   This not only attracts chefs who are predisposed toward casting off old approaches, it gives all chefs in the area some license to push boundaries.

  4. Adventurous Diners:   Having innovative chefs with diverse influences is relevant, of course, only if the dining public is willing to expand its gastronomical horizons, and Bay Area residents fortunately are.   This is at least partially attributable, I would submit, to the diversity in the populace;   after all, it's hard to stay insulated in one's own food comfort zone when surrounded by such a rich variety of distinctive cultures and gustatory opportunities.

  5. Tourist Destination:   San Francisco remains one of the nation's top tourist destinations, the importance of which cannot be overlooked in considering the reasons behind our impressive restaurant selection.   After all, many of these establishments are vying with each other for a share of tourist dollars, and they all exist within a region that intrinsically understands the hospitality business – providing both the motivation and the means to excel.

  6. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    There's more...
    Now for some of the current trends that are lending excitement to the Bay Area dining scene:

  7. Pizza, Pizza, and More Pizza:   A pizza explosion has recently swept across the Bay Area, with several new contenders poised to present formidable challenges to the old guard.   These include A16, Pizzeria Delfina, Pizzaiolo, Little Star Pizza, and Pizzeria Picco.   Time will tell whether this is a fad that fades, or the beginning of a fundamental shift in local tastes.

  8. Sous Chefs Strike Out on Their Own:   During the past couple of years, a number of sous chefs from prominent restaurants have left their mentors behind to assume starring roles of their own.   Michael Tusk (formerly sous chef at Chez Panisse and Oliveto) opened Quince, and Sean O’Brien (formerly at Gary Danko) took the helm at Myth – both of which currently rank amongst the hottest restaurants in town.   Meanwhile, Douglas Keane – once a sous chef at Jardiniere and Gary Danko – launched Cyrus, an ambitious undertaking that is already being compared by some with The French Laundry.   Finally, keep an eye out for Mamacita, a forthcoming Mexican restaurant in the Marina that will be headed up by Sam Josi (formerly sous chef at The Slanted Door).

  9. The Mission Continues to Morph:   The Mission District of San Francisco has always been known as a place for restaurants to establish themselves, and the tradition appears to be alive and well.   Several new establishments have recently sprung up in the neighborhood, including Maverick, Range, Pizzeria Delfina, La Provence, and Last Supper Club (which, though in existence for some time, recently acquired a new owner, chef, and menu).   And the site where Chef Johnny Alamilla’s Nuevo Latino restaurant, Alma, once sat will not be idle for long;   the people behind Café Bastille plan to open a French bistro on that property.

  10. The Building of Empires:   One of the interesting trends that the city has witnessed recently is a surge in restaurateurs and chefs expanding their holdings to encompass multiple establishments.   The Aqua Development Corporation, already behind established eateries including Aqua, Pisces, and C&L, is taking over Café de La Presse.   Michael Mina, chef/owner of Arcadia in San Jose, launched Michael Mina restaurant in San Francisco last summer.   And Fresca, Home and Roti all have added new locations.   But nothing can compare to the prolific rate at which two Frenchmen – Pascal Rigo and Jocelyn Bulow – appear to be "battling" it out to see who can build the biggest empire.   Rigo is behind several boulangeries and restaurants including Rigolo, Cortez, Chez Nous, Americano and Le Petit Robert.   Bulow has a stake in Plouf, Baraka, La Suite, Chez Papa, and Chez Maman, and he has already announced plans to open three more Chez Maman locations in the next few months!

  11. Rumblings in the Top-Tier:   After the restaurant boom of the late '90's, the identity and relative positioning of the restaurants in the top-tier remained more or less fixed for a number of years.   That is no longer the case.   The French Laundry – long considered by many to be at the pinnacle – may well be in decline and is suddenly starting to look vulnerable.   The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton and Fifth Floor, meanwhile, are ascending rapidly under the skilled kitchens of Ron Siegel and Melissa Perello, respectively.   David Kinch and Douglas Keane have created restaurants – Manresa in the case of the former, Cyrus in the latter – that are competing very well with the best of the best.   And established talents like Michael Mina and the duo of Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani are expanding further into the high-end – with, respectively, Michael Mina restaurant and the forthcoming Ame.   Whatever else may be said, the one thing that's clear is that major shifts are already underway.
So, there they are, my thoughts on just some of the things that make the San Francisco area one of the best restaurant regions in the country.   The above list is not intended, of course, to be exhaustive, and I'm sure that others can think of additional characteristics and trends that are just as significant as the ones set forth here.   But in the face of all of these factors that make our city's restaurant scene so exciting, why the editors of Bon Appetit magazine focused on the Ferry Building remains, to me, a real mystery.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Bon Appétit Magazine: America's Top 5 Restaurant Cities

For the past twelve years, the September installment of Bon Appetit Magazine has been dubbed the "restaurant issue" – giving the editors a chance to cover various restaurant trends, standouts and scenes from across the United States.    This year's issue is now out, and the cover story identifies the magazine's picks for the top five restaurant cities in the country.    Here they are:

New York
San Francisco
New Orleans
Las Vegas

No attempt is made to rank order the five, but Editor-in-Chief Barbara Fairchild does note the following:
"With regard to the first four cities, so much as been written about the restaurants there that it was very important to us to make the point about what aspect of these locales is special right now.    These four don't only endure; they continually morph (deliciously), reinvent themselves, and satisfy unconditionally."
And regarding Las Vegas, Fairchild observes that the city is now undergoing its second wave of a "celebrity chef invasion" that started back in the early '90's.    Several pages in the magazine are devoted to each of the five cities, with brief profiles of specific restaurants and recipes provided as well.

The section on San Francisco – entitled "San Francisco Foodie Central" - begins as follows:
"In this highly opinionated, food-crazed city, there's one place everyone can agree on – the Ferry Building Marketplace.   It's the nexus of all things delicious, whether you're shopping for cheese, chocolates, or pastries, or simply grabbing a bite to eat."
From there, the story goes on to feature eight specific Ferry Building food vendors, offering one recipe from each.    The places covered are listed below, along with a description of the corresponding recipe (just in case this information will help you determine whether you want to go out and buy the magazine):

Food VendorRecipe
Tsar Nicoulai Caviar CaféTruffled Scrambled Eggs with Crème Fraiche and Caviar
The Slanted DoorAnise-Scented Beef Pho
Lulu PetiteBrownies with Caramel, Fig, and Dried Cherry Jam
Taylor's Automatic RefresherAhi Tuna Burgers with Ginger Wasabi Mayonnaise
Delica rf-1Japanese-Style Potato Salad with Daikon and Cucumber
Rose PistolaMaple Syrup French Toast with Brandied-Pear and Currant Compote
Boulette's LarderApple Crostata with Cinnamon-Almond Topping
MijitaBeer-Battered Mahi-mahi Soft Tacos with Coleslaw and Avocado Sauce

Now, I should say right up front that I am a big fan of the Ferry Building Marketplace, particularly in light of the fact that it – in combination with the Farmers' Market held there each Saturday – truly offers one-stop shopping for an incredible array of the freshest and highest-quality ingredients.    And there can be no question that this amazing destination is just one of the many reasons that make San Francisco such a food-lover's paradise.    For all of these reasons, I am happy to see the Ferry Building get recognition for being the unique place that it is, and I am equally pleased that the eight featured food vendors are getting some positive national exposure.

That said, if I were going to write an article on what makes San Francisco such an outstanding restaurant city – as the Bon Appetit editors were purportedly trying to do – I would hardly focus on the Ferry Building.   After all, other than The Slanted Door, there really are no restaurants there that have served to define – or that have even played an important part in – our overall dining scene.    Sure, there are some great places to grab a bite while shopping; Tsar Nicoulai and Hog Island Oyster Company come to mind.    But do these places actually prove the assertion that we live in a great restaurant town?    I don't believe so.

So, what does demonstrate why San Francisco deserves a spot in Bon Appetit's Top 5 for 2005?    Well, I can think of several reasons left wholly unmentioned by the magazine, but I will have to save that for a separate post.    For now, I guess we'll have to take comfort in the old adage that there's no such thing as bad press – even if it's good press for the wrong reasons.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

A Brief Note of Welcome and Thanks

I just wanted to take a moment to welcome all of you who may be stopping by after reading Sam Breach's kind mention of my humble site on Becks & Posh.   I hope that you find something informative, useful or interesting here, and that you will let me know if you have any comments, questions or suggestions.   I can be reached at sf_gourmet@yahoo.com.

I also want to offer my sincerest thanks to Sam Breach, whose generosity, thoughtfulness and tireless work have been invaluable to me personally and have been indispensable in fostering a real sense of community amongst food bloggers everywhere.   Not only does she somehow manage to generate witty, well-written and entertaining posts on a daily basis for Becks & Posh, but she is also the founder and administrator of the Food Blog S'cool site - a place where bloggers of all stripes congregate regularly to help each other out in a myriad of ways.   And Sam's efforts to publicize the lesser-known blogs of others are truly second to none.   Seemingly within hours of first learning about this site, for example, she modified her sidebar to add a link here.   And now she has bestowed upon me the ultimate honor of a mention on her front page, just as she has done for so many others.   So, thank you, Sam - I am forever in your debt!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Bay Area Restaurant News

There have been several interesting news items lately regarding the Bay Area restaurant scene.   Here are just a few of the stories that caught my attention:

Asia de Cuba:   Chef David Yeo, formerly with the company behind Straits Café, has taken over as executive chef at Asia de Cuba, the fusion restaurant located in the Clift Hotel.   He has already started modifying the menu, which includes such items as Cuban Chicken with Avocado Fruit Salsa and Tamarind Sauce and Asian Spiced Pork Spare Ribs with Roasted Corn.   I have dined at the restaurant a few times over the years, and I have never been all that impressed – either with the food or with the atmosphere.   I'll be curious to see whether Yeo is able to bring the food, at least, up a notch.

Tra Vigne:   This once-glorious wine country restaurant seems to have fallen off a bit in recent years, with what some might say is poor attention to detail and a lack of focus.   Perhaps in an effort to rectify this, the restaurant has just recently named a new executive chef – Eric Torralba.   Torralba earned positive reviews during his tenure some time ago at Domaine Chandon, but reactions to his now-closed Sausalito restaurant Antidote were more mixed.   There, Torralba pushed boundaries by serving soup in test tubes, oysters with an eye dropper filled with blue vodka to be squirted into the mouth, and other dishes with aromatic powders on the side that were meant to be sensed but not eaten – demonstrating why he has been described as a disciple of cutting-edge food innovators such as Ferran Adria of Spain's El Bulli.   It will be interesting to see whether Torralba is able to inject some of his creativity into the well-worn formula of Tra Vigne, or whether he will have to keep those impulses locked away for the time being.

Thomas Keller:   The legendary chef who reached incredible heights with The French Laundry and then subsequently expanded into three more restaurants, a line of porcelain, and a line of knives is taking on yet another project.   Thomas Keller has inked a multi-million dollar deal with Vintage Estate Hotels, owner of the Vintage Inn and Villagio Inn & Spa in the Napa Valley.   Keller will be "overseeing" the catering for all on-site special events at the hotels, for which menus will be constructed from the cuisine of Jeffrey Cerciello – the executive chef at Keller's Bouchon restaurant in Yountville.   Although it sounds like Keller's day-to-day responsibilities for this new venture will not be that great, anything that further dilutes his ability to focus on the finer points of The French Laundry cannot be good for its future.   Time will tell.

Tartare:   As noted in a recent post, Tartare chef and owner George Morrone is planning to relaunch his financial district restaurant soon with a new name and a revamped menu.   His famous Ahi Tartare will remain on the new menu, and I am glad to report – after a conversation with Morrone himself at the restaurant yesterday evening – that he also plans to retain the Truffled Foie Gras Pasta, a personal favorite.   So the plate a friend and I shared last night thankfully will not be our last!

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

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Changes On Tap At Tartare

As recently reported by the Chronicle's Grace Ann Walden, Tartare is about to undergo a bit of an overhaul.
Apparently, the restaurant is not doing as well as Owner and Chef George Morrone would like, and there's a concern that some in the dining public are staying away because they think the establishment serves nothing but tartares.   I don't doubt that this is true; I remember briefly having the same impression the first time that I heard about the restaurant.   When I eventually got around to visiting Tartare, however, I found a lot to like – both raw and cooked.

The new incarnation of the restaurant will be called George, and Morrone is promising to deliver "edgy" dishes inspired by his recent trip to France and Spain.   Morrone likens the new menu to the food he once served at Fifth Floor – an interesting twist, given that Tartare was intended to be a deliberate step away from that type of "artfully complex" cuisine in favor of a more "mature sensibility and minimalist vision."   I suppose that Morrone, having achieved wild success and four stars at Fifth Floor, figures that it can't hurt to take a step back in that general direction.

One of my two favorite dishes at the current restaurant – George's Ahi Tuna Tartare – will survive the transition and remain on the menu.   Unfortunately, the fate of my absolute favorite – the Truffled Foie Gras Pasta – is not as clear; a call to the restaurant earlier today yielded no definitive answer.   This item, which also made my list of Ten Favorite Dishes from Bay Area Restaurants, is truly outstanding, and I urge you to try it if you get the chance.

George is not set to open until mid-September, although Tartare will presumably need to shutter its doors sometime before that date in order to allow for an orderly transition.   Until then, you'll know where to find me: enjoying a large plate of Tartare's Truffled Foie Gras Pasta – just in case it ends up vanishing with the restaurant.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A Bay Area Rarity: An All-Female Team Leads a Top-Tier Restaurant

It's no secret that the restaurant industry, like far too many others for far too long, has been dominated by men holding most of the positions of power.   If you look across the Bay Area's restaurant community, you will find disproportionately low percentages of female executive chefs, female sommeliers, and females heading up the front of the house – notwithstanding the availability of plenty of qualified and talented candidates.   And when you examine the higher-end establishments - well, the numbers there get even worse.

That is why I was particularly excited to read about an outstanding and, in my view, momentous development over at the Hotel Palomar.   Sara Berman has recently been hired as the new maitre d' for the hotel's flagship restaurant, making Fifth Floor the only top-tier Bay Area restaurant – and quite possibly the only local restaurant in any class – with women holding all four of the key positions.   Specifically, Melissa Perello continues to serve as Executive Chef, Marika Doob as Pastry Chef, and Emily Wines as Sommelier.

Incidentally, Melissa Perello herself is an amazing success story and a real talent to keep an eye on in the coming years.   She was named Executive Chef at Charles Nob Hill in 2001 at the tender age of 24, she was identified as one of the Chronicle's Rising Star Chefs for 2002, and she was selected as one of Food & Wine Magazine's Best New Chefs for 2004.   The James Beard Foundation also nominated Perello for its Rising Star Chef of the Year award for three consecutive years – 2003, 2004, and 2005.   Perello's menu at Charles Nob Hill was already very good, but she is now doing even more remarkable things at Fifth Floor.

In many ways, it is disheartening that – in this day and age – it is still actually newsworthy when an all-female team such as Fifth Floor's happens to come along.   Yet, at the same time, I feel some sense of satisfaction upon witnessing this all-too-rare occurrence, and some sense of hope that the day will come when it will be commonplace and unremarkable.   For now, I simply commend Fifth Floor and the Hotel Palomar for assembling such an impressive team.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Ten Favorite Dishes From Bay Area Restaurants

A good friend of mine recently posed an interesting challenge, which was to identify my ten favorite dishes served in Bay Area restaurants.   After thinking about it for a few minutes, I felt the need to impose a few additional constraints:    (1) non-dessert items only (because comparing desserts and non-desserts is really comparing apples and oranges);    (2) no entries from what I consider to be top-tier establishments (to prevent such restaurants from dominating the list);   and (3) only one entry from any given restaurant (just to keep things interesting and to showcase a broader array of excellent food).

Even with the above conditions, I still had some difficulty limiting myself to just ten items.   But after considerable effort, I finally managed to come up with the requested list of my absolute favorite dishes - at least as of right now.
So here they are, organized alphabetically by restaurant name and with a verbatim description of each item from the relevant restaurant’s menu, followed by a few comments of my own:

AzizaKumquat Enriched Niman Ranch Lamb Shank
Bergamot infused dried fruits, cranberry couscous, grilled green onion

Tender lamb, fluffy couscous and a sweet sauce coalesce to achieve an excellent, and distinctive, result.   Best of all is the fact that this is a fairly generous serving, making it quite possible that you will have leftovers to savor the next day.

BetelnutSzechuan Green Beans

After trying green bean dishes at virtually every Asian restaurant in town, I can honestly say that none of them even comes close to the one served at Betelnut.   A delicious soy-garlic sauce clings to beans with just the right amount of "bite"left in them, easily earning this menu item a spot in my top ten.

Bistro JeantyCoq Au Vin
Chicken, mushrooms, bacon red wine stew

Chicken that literally falls off the bone sits in a sauce with such incredible depth that it will shock your tastebuds.
The bacon and red wine play their parts well, but the secret and nontraditional ingredient here is, surprisingly, cocoa.   For some reason, the version served at Yountville’s Bistro Jeanty always seems to be better than that found at San Francisco’s Jeanty at Jack’s.

EvviaHoriatiki "Classic Greek salad"
Tomatoes, cucumbers, green pepper, red onion, oregano, olives and feta

This is an item that always transports me back to my last visit to Greece, as it is one of the few truly authentic renditions of a Greek salad found in the Bay Area.   Crisp cucumbers, fresh tomatoes, crunchy green peppers and slivers of red onion are tossed in a simple olive-oil-oregano dressing and then punctuated by the tanginess of crumbled feta cheese.   And, most importantly, no lettuce – just like the real thing.   A fantastic salad.

Fiesta Del MarCamarones Alex
Jumbo shrimp sautéed in chipotle chili sauce (smoked jalapeno), onion, fresh garlic, olive oil, and a hint of sour cream

I sometimes wonder if I ever even tasted Mexican food before a friend turned me on to Fiesta del Mar.   In place of the tired, myriad permutations of tortilla, beans, beef, cheese, and vegetables, this restaurant serves a wide array of rich, well-conceived and novel dishes.   Camarones Alex is one such offering, with plump shrimp in a complex, spicy and slightly smoky sauce.   A simply outstanding dish.

New DelhiChicken Korma
Succulent pieces of chicken cooked in coconut milk and very mildly spiced

I enjoy spicy Indian food just as much as anybody, but there is something particularly decadent and luxurious about New Delhi’s mildly-spiced Chicken Korma.   A thick, flavorful, creamy sauce with tender pieces of chicken and slivers of almond makes this one of my longest-standing favorites.

The Slanted DoorChicken Claypot
With caramel sauce, chilies and fresh ginger

It only took one taste of Chef Charles Phan’s Chicken Claypot to get me hooked.   Small cubes of white and dark meat chicken in an sauce comprised of soy sauce, fish sauce, chilies and brown sugar.   The sweet, spicy, and ever-so-slightly pungent result is nothing short of spectacular.

Sushi RanLemongrass Broiled Butterfish

Tender pieces of perfectly-cooked butterfish are coated with a paste that hits the palate with all of the impact of wonderful Thai curry.   Served on a bed of baby green beans and paired with a side of white rice, this dish is one that cannot be missed.

TartareTruffled Foie Gras Pasta

Butter, cream, foie gras, truffle, and fresh fettuccini – the ingredients of this phenomenal dish say more than any other words could possibly do to describe it.   This is one of those menu items that, with each bite, almost instinctively causes my eyes to close.   It’s that good.

Thep PhanomKaeng Karee Gai
Sliced chicken in mild yellow curry paste with onions and potatoes

Based on tastings done far and wide, I have no qualms about saying that Thep Phanom serves the best yellow curry chicken in the Bay Area.   A fragrant, flavor-packed sauce of coconut milk and yellow curry paste surrounds pieces of white meat chicken, slivers of onions, and boiled potatoes.   An amazing dish, and another long-standing favorite.

Each of the items on my list is enough, by itself, to lure me into the pertinent restaurant.   And if I happen to be in one of the identified restaurants already, I have a hard time not ordering the associated dish.   So, if you ever have the opportunity to try any of the above, I would certainly suggest that you do so – and then let me know what you think!

Friday, August 05, 2005

San Francisco Magazine: 2005 Readers' Poll Results

The August 2005 issue of San Francisco Magazine contains the results of the annual readers' poll on Bay Area restaurants, based on over 8000 responses received by the publication.   The editors set out the top three vote-getters in each of 25 different categories, from Best Restaurant to Best Teahouse.   I will not attempt to relate all of the results here, but I thought that it might be interesting to take a look at a few of the categories and winners.

It is worth pointing out up front that this poll is actually a very poor vehicle for accurately assessing the quality of our local restaurants.   To begin with, the survey relies entirely on readers to decide whether or not to fill out and submit a ballot.   Accordingly, only those who feel most enthusiastic about participating will even bother to respond, thereby immediately skewing the results.   Second, because the survey is not scientific, the demographic distribution of the respondents is not representative of Bay Area diners.   If 90% of the respondents happen to be college students, for instance, places that offer inexpensive food will probably score much more highly than they would otherwise.   Finally, there is no way to determine the breadth of the dining experience that respondents have.   So, for example, even if thousands of people voted for Boulevard as "Best Restaurant," that is completely meaningless if none of these individuals have ever dined at other top-tier establishments such as The French Laundry, Gary Danko, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, and so on.   In other words, the poll is an especially poor mechanism for evaluating one restaurant against another.

With all of these major caveats in mind, let's take a look at some of the winners:

Best Restaurant
1.   Gary Danko
2.   Boulevard
3.   The Slanted Door

One need look no further than the results in this category to see some of the poll's shortcomings.   Gary Danko probably deserves to be in the top three, though not at number one.   Boulevard, in my opinion, is one of the most overrated and underwhelming restaurants in the Bay Area.   Yet, because the restaurant has a very vocal fan base, it always seems to get catapulted to the top of public opinion polls such as this one.   As far as I'm concerned, however, Boulevard does not deserve to be anywhere near the top three.   The Slanted Door continues to serve good food, but everything else about the place has slipped over the years.   And in any event, it hardly qualifies as one of the three best establishments in the entire Bay Area.   Other restaurants having a better claim to being in the top three include The French Laundry, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa, Fleur de Lys, and La Folie.
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There's more...

Best New Restaurant
1.   Michael Mina
2.   Sauce
3.   Myth

Michael Mina may well deserve the top spot here, and Myth's appearance at number three is consistent with the great things that I have been hearing about the restaurant for some time.   Sauce coming in at number two, however, surprises me; I think the spot should probably have gone to A16 - of which I personally am not the most zealous fan, but which does what it does very well and has obviously found great favor amongst Bay Area diners.

Best Restaurant For a Splurge
1.   Gary Danko
2.   Boulevard
3.   The French Laundry

Maybe it's just me, but the term "splurge" brings to mind the concept of saving up some money and then spending it on an outstanding, once-in-a-long-while meal.   In other words, it necessarily requires excellent food that is also a good value.   Under this criterion, none of the three winners here belong on the list as far as I'm concerned.   Gary Danko is very good, but at $79 for a 5-course tasting menu, it's a bit too pricey when compared against its competitors.   The French Laundry is still one of the best, but $175 per person and quality that has declined preclude it from being a good value.   And Boulevard, in my book, is neither a good value nor good.   In terms of value and excellence, I would place Manresa, Fleur de Lys and The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in the top three.   If money were no object and value were irrelevant, my top three would probably be The French Laundry, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton and Manresa.

Best Pizza
1.   Zachary’s
2.   North Beach Pizza
3.   Amici's

These are interesting results, particularly in light of the veritable pizza revolution that has recently swept the Bay Area.   I wouldn't be surprised to see North Beach and Amici's replaced in next year's survey by Pizzeria Delfina, Little Star Pizza, Pizzaiola or A16, and Zachary's could very well be dethroned from its top spot as well.

Best Indian Restaurant
1.   Indian Oven
2.   Naan 'N Curry
3.   Shalimar

Indian Oven definitely deserves a seat at the table, but Shalimar?   Naan 'N Curry?!   Come on.   Both provide decent food for bargain basement prices, undoubtedly making them popular among students.   But neither qualifies as one of the three best Indian restaurants in the Bay Area.   I would put New Delhi, Gaylord's (in Ghirardelli Square), India Clay Oven, Amber India (Mountain View) and Roti all well ahead of Shalimar and Naan 'N Curry.   And even in terms of cheap places, Chaat Café easily outperforms Naan 'N Curry, if not Shalimar as well.

Best French Restaurant
1.   Fleur de Lys
2.   La Folie
3.   Chapeau

This is one category in which the poll results seem more or less aligned with my opinion, but only if the "California-ized" French cuisine of the three winners deserves a separate category from the French-inspired California cuisine of The French Laundry, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, and Gary Danko.

Best Waitstaff
1.   Gary Danko
2.   Delfina
3.   Michael Mina

Delfina's waitstaff is good, but better than the waitstaff at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton?   I don't think so.
And The French Laundry's servers – though no longer what they once were – are probably still worthy of being in the top three.

So, there you have it, some of my reactions to a few of the winners in this year's San Francisco Magazine readers' poll.   Some of what I consider to be unexpected outcomes are undoubtedly due to shortcomings in the survey's methodology, while others may well be attributable to peculiarities in my own personal preferences.   In any event, check out the August issue of the magazine, and see what you think.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Book Review: "Dining Out" by Dornenburg & Page

Over the course of a recent vacation, I finally had a chance to read several books that had been collecting dust on my shelf for far too long.   One of these was Dining Out by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, the third in a series of books about the restaurant industry written by the same authors.   (Their first two are Becoming a Chef and Culinary Artistry.)   In Dining Out, Dornenburg and Page examine the role of the restaurant critic, interviewing dozens of leading chefs, restaurateurs and critics from around the country in order to gain their perspectives on the techniques, qualifications, power and value of the modern restaurant reviewer.   The book also ventures into subjects such as the definition of a great restaurant and the evolving role of the diner.

On balance, I have to say that I found Dining Out to be only mildly interesting.   The main problem with the book is that most of the information that it contains will probably be known already by anybody who has a serious appreciation for dining out and who reads restaurant reviews regularly.   For example, the authors spend an inordinate amount of time on basic concepts such as the importance of anonymity for a critic, the limitations inherent in any system that awards "stars," and the hallmarks of good restaurant service.   Moreover, Dornenburg and Page do not do a particularly good job of synthesizing and organizing the results of their numerous interviews with food industry professionals.   Instead, the book comes across as little more than a series of snippets and quotes, only loosely bound together by transition phrases and headings supplied by the authors.

That said, Dining Out is not entirely without some interesting tidbits.   Here are a few of them:
  • For quite some time, Patricia Unterman has regularly written restaurant reviews for the San Francisco Examiner while simultaneously owning and running Hayes Street Grill.   In order to avoid the obvious conflict of interest, Unterman "recuses" herself from reviewing any restaurant that competes with her own – which she defines as any fish restaurant at all or any restaurant in the geographical neighborhood of Hayes Street Grill.   I have to say that, notwithstanding the "self-policing" arrangement, this setup strikes me as rather troubling – particularly when notice of Unterman's dual role is not, to my knowledge, clearly provided at the top of her reviews.

  • Alice Waters, chef and owner of Berkeley's Chez Panisse, offers her views on what makes a successful dish:
    "There's a lot that goes into the creation of a dish, and it begins in the ground.   First of all, it's what variety of vegetable you're going to be planting, or what strain of chicken you're going to be raising.   Then it's how you're going to be doing this, hopefully without herbicides and pesticides and in a way that naturally fertilizes the plants or feeds the animals.   It's when this is being picked, and then, ultimately, how quickly that gets to the table because, for me, food is about aliveness.   Cooking is a very small part of it."   While I wholeheartedly agree with Waters' emphasis on the value of fresh, organic ingredients, I think she grossly underestimates the importance of a chef's ability to treat the ingredients with care and respect and to coax out their flavors in the context of an integrated dish.

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    There's more...
  • Several chefs provide interesting information about the lengths to which they go in order to ensure personalized and outstanding service for their diners.   Daniel Boulud, chef and owner of Restaurant Daniel in New York, personally watches all of the action in his dining room through video monitors installed in the back, and he posts a copy of each evening's guest list at multiple locations throughout the kitchen.   Gray Kunz, formerly the executive chef at Lespinasse in New York, provided recipes for all of his dishes to his entire staff, so that he could sell them on the food before they went out and "sold" it to diners.
    Hubert Keller, chef and owner of Fleur de Lys in San Francisco, keeps a file for each of his regular customers, noting every dish that they have been served for the past 15 years so that he can be sure they never receive the same dish twice.   In my view, it is paying attention to these "little" things that separates the spectacular restaurants from the merely excellent ones.

  • Surprisingly, restaurateurs from around the country – including Hubert Keller – report that positive mentions in the New York Times have a greater impact on their businesses than do similarly positive reviews in their hometown papers.   Jeremiah Tower, former chef and owner of Stars in San Francisco, notes that a positive review in Gourmet magazine used to fill the dining room at Chez Panisse (where he once worked), and that the Pink Pages section of the San Francisco Chronicle – in which restaurant reviews used to appear – could make or break a place.   And Terrance Brennan, chef and owner of Picholine in New York, states that a positive New York Times review had a discernible effect for about three weeks, while a positive story in Gourmet magazine had an impact for six months.

  • Several critics note that a great review can just as easily kill a restaurant as a bad one, if the restaurant being reviewed is not prepared for a major influx of customers.   For this reason, critics are often somewhat cautious before they give a glowing review of smaller family-run establishments.
Finally, there were a few quotes in Dining Out that I thought were useful and/or insightful.   Here are some of them:
  • Some advice for chefs, from former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl:   "I take real exception with restaurants that won't cook food to a certain doneness.   I hate overcooked anything, but I really disapprove of chefs who insist on serving rare fish to people who find it offensive because you've got them sitting captive at that moment at your table.   So, if they want an overcooked piece of tuna, you ought to give it to them."   I couldn't agree more.   The chef should certainly advise the customer if a requested preparation is likely to be bad, but the diner should ultimately be permitted to make an educated mistake if that is what he/she wants to do.

  • Some advice for restaurateurs, from former Lespinasse Executive Chef Gray Kunz:   "I judge the restaurant on the critiques that we get, and I want to know what happened with anyone who is not satisfied.   With the unsatisfied customer, all they really want is to know that someone cares.   When I call, there is almost a 99.9 percent chance of turning them around.   Those criticisms are very often justified.   But even when they're not, they're still the customers.   I know it is more detrimental to have one unhappy customer walking out of here than it is beneficial to have fifty satisfied ones leaving.   Word travels fast." (emphasis added)   This, to me, is probably the best quote in the book.   A chef/restaurateur who takes the time to read complaints and then calls the customers himself will always have diners' respect, loyalty, and business.   And Kunz's statement about the adverse impact of even a single unhappy customer is a truism that far too few in the industry understand.

  • Some advice for diners, from Ruth Reichl:   "Smart diners find a few restaurants they like and cultivate them because the experience is so much nicer when you get to be known."   I think that this is excellent advice.   While it is always exciting to get out and try new restaurants, there is something even better about being warmly welcomed back to a place at which you have become a regular.
In the final analysis, Dining Out certainly imparts some interesting information - perhaps even enough to make it worth reading if you're thinking about becoming a critic, you're interested in hearing the specific thoughts of the particular professionals interviewed by the authors, or you're just beginning the process of learning the pleasures of dining out.   But for everybody else - especially those who are conversant in the restaurant experience and who have given even the slightest amount of thought to the concept of restaurant reviews - tbere are undoubtedly better ways to spend both your time and your money.