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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Restaurant News: Peter Rudolph Taking Helm At Campton Place

I received an email from a reader yesterday afternoon repeating a rumor that I'd been hearing for the past couple of days, namely that Peter Rudolph - Chef de Cuisine at Navio in the The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay - was taking over the kitchen at Campton Place.   Well, I called over to the restaurant today to get the full story, and I can now confirm the veracity of the rumor - Rudolph is already onsite and is heading up the kitchen.   Notably, however, a decision has not yet been made as to whether Rudolph's appointment will be a permanent one, or whether he will merely serve in a transitional capacity instead.   Thus, while Campton Place personnel did not say this in so many words, the arrangement appears to be one in which Rudolph has basically been hired for a prolonged "audition."

To be perfectly honest, I was actually quite surprised to hear that Rudolph was being considered for the position at Campton Place at all.   Daniel Humm - the chef who took Campton Place to four-star status before announcing last month that he would be departing for New York - was absolutely brilliant, and it would be difficult for anybody to fill his shoes.   But Rudolph's cuisine at Navio has always struck me as being in a completely different league than Humm's, and the review I posted here about my first dinner at Navio reflects the ways in which some of Rudolph's dishes fell short.   In light of this, it's my suspicion that Rudolph is going to have to stretch himself and really rise to the occasion in order to thrive and survive at Campton Place over the longer term.

All of that said, I really do hope that Rudolph is able to achieve great success in his new position.   It's always rewarding to watch young chefs advance their skill sets and develop their talents over time, and it would be great to see Rudolph move his cuisine to a higher plane and achieve wider recognition for his talents.   I look forward to seeing what Rudolph will do at Campton Place.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Ame: Some Early Observations And Initial Thoughts

One of the most highly anticipated Bay Area restaurant openings of 2005 occurred back in November, when Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani opened Ame in the new St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco.   For nearly 18 years, Sone and Doumani have owned and operated Terra - a beautiful, rustic restaurant in St. Helena offering a menu infused with Asian, European and California influences.   The accolades that Terra has generated over the years have been positively glowing at times, with some even characterizing the establishment as second only to The French Laundry in terms of wine country destinations.   On my sole visit to the restaurant a couple of years ago, however, I found a bit of a mixed bag;   some of the dishes were truly spectacular, but others were good but unremarkable.   Still, I saw enough signs of promise that evening that I was very interested when plans for Ame were first announced in the middle of 2005.

I visited Ame on its third night in business, early enough in the restaurant's lifespan that I feel it would be more fair to offer only preliminary thoughts and observations at this point rather than a full review.   The menu at Ame is very reminiscent of that at Terra, with a comparable range of dishes, a nearly identical combination of influences, and a few dishes that have been copied verbatim.   In fact, it would be hard to tell the two menus apart were it not for the one distinguishing factor - a sashimi bar section on the Ame menu that finds no counterpart on Terra's menu.   On the night that I dined at Ame, there were several sashimi selections that looked intriguing, but the one that immediately caught our eye was the "Poke" with Ogo Seaweed, Hawaiian Sea Salt and Green Onions.   A mixture of different types of fish is rolled "maki style" in rice and nori, after which it is coated in a light tempura batter, deep fried, and then cut into bite-sized pieces.   A seaweed salad bursting with a bright citrus dressing is served alongside.   This dish was, in a word, outstanding.   The fish was amazingly fresh, the accompanying sauce was incredibly flavorful, and the wonderful salad helped the entire plate come alive.
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The appetizer section of Ame's menu offers a number of possibilities, including Burrata Cheese, White Bean Soup, or Fricassee of Miyagi Oysters.   My dining companion and I, however, decided to try both of that evening's appetizer specials.   First up was a Mixed Green Salad with Radicchio and Sweetbreads.   The various flavors here - bitter radicchio, nutty and sweet parmesan, lemony mustard vinaigrette, black pepper - came together nicely, and the crispy sweetbreads further contributed toward making this a very satisfying dish.   The second appetizer was a Wagyu Beef and Foie Gras Wonton.   Now, one might be tempted to surmise - as did I - that any dish combining American "Kobe" beef with foie gras would necessarily be sublime.   Yet, this appetizer fell woefully short;   the foie gras was barely detectable, the beef likewise did not fully register on the palate, and the accompanying veal broth and chestnuts seemed like rather odd choices.   In short, nothing really came together and nothing harmonized - a real disappointment for a dish that started out with such promising and luxurious ingredients.

The entrees we ordered were also a study in contrasts, albeit to a lesser degree.   The Broiled Sake Marinated Alaskan Black Cod, one of Sone's signature creations from Terra, was absolutely spectacular.   The fish was cooked to perfection, its sweet and tender meat lent a wonderful depth by a rich and flavorful shiso broth.   Rounding out the plate were delicate shrimp dumplings so delicious that a lesser chef would have been tempted to put them in a starring role in a dish of their own.   To put it plainly, this proves that Sone's kitchen is capable of four-star cuisine.   The Spaghettini "Crabonara" with Dungeness Crab, on the other hand, did not reach quite the same heights.   The carbonara sauce struck me as slightly more "eggy" than it should have been, although it did have a very nice butter flavor.   But a more significant concern was that the entire dish was infused with a harsh and briny edge - the sort one might expect to find in the water in which the crab was boiled.   This may not particularly bother those of us who love crab, but a more refined approach - in which the overall flavor is well-rounded and smooth with the harsher edges removed - could readily have lifted this dish into the stratosphere.

Desserts were nicely executed and very satisfying.   The Warm Chocolate Cake with Hot Fudge Sauce was a solid rendition of the now-ubiquitous classic, but it was given a decidedly unusual twist by being paired with a delicious, bright red, sugar beet ice cream.   The Warm Bartlett Pear Crisp was also presented with creative flair, the customary sugar-butter-flour topping and accompanying vanilla ice cream replaced here with a pecan streusel topping and gingersnap ice cream.   The flavors melded together beautifully, the warm crisp and cool ice cream converging to create a comforting dessert on a wintery San Francisco evening.   If these two selections are any indication, I look forward to working my way through the remainder of pastry chef Marissa Churchill's dessert menu.

The service on the night that I visited was less than stellar, and in ways that cannot be entirely chalked up to opening week kinks.   To set the stage, the restaurant was no more than an eighth full when we arrived, and the only table that our server appeared to be handling at first was ours.   The evening thus began well enough, with the server providing good descriptions of the menu items and thoughtful recommendations regarding the wine list.   And the first several dishes were presented to us in a well-paced, efficient manner without incident.   But when a party of four was seated at an adjacent table midway through our meal, our server developed a rare form of amnesia in which all memory of our table ever being his responsibility was wiped from his consciousness.   As he doted on the other party while completely oblivious to our attempts to flag him down, we resorted to making our requests - for silverware, for another glass of wine, and so on - to the passing runners or busboys whose attention we occasionally managed to catch as they raced by our table.   And at the end of the meal, it was almost as though our server had decided that he would refuse to bring us our check unless I was moved to get up from the table, hunt him down clear across the room, grab him by the lapels, and shake him violently while demanding our check.   Luckily, it didn't come to that, but a few more seconds of making us wait on top of the twenty-plus minutes that we already had, and it very well might have.   Given that the restaurant at this point was still only a quarter full and our waiter was handling only 2-3 tables, there was absolutely no excuse for this ridiculous service.   On a more positive note, however, I must mention that the host staff were unfailingly gracious - from their response when we called to say that we were running a few minutes late, to their warm welcome when we arrived, to their kind sendoff when we departed.

The atmosphere and decor at Ame are modern, chic and sleek, the dark colors punctuated with colorful accents to provide some warmth and excitement to the room.   The L-shaped dining area is spacious and inviting, with tables spaced a comfortable distance from one another.   The overall feel is calm and refined, without undue formality.

In the end, my first visit to Ame left me with the same impression I had after dining at Terra:   some of the dishes were absolutely spectacular, but others were merely good without being particularly remarkable.   To be fair, you're not likely to find anything at Ame that could be described as affirmatively bad or poorly executed.   But given Ame's price point - $150+ for dinner for two - I think that it needs to hit the high notes a bit more consistently and frequently than it did on my first visit.   Maybe it's already doing so, now that the restaurant has been open for several months.   Or perhaps I just need to delve deeper into the menu to see more of Sone's brilliance.   Either way, I will definitely be returning to Ame for further exploration.