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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Dining Notes: The Slanted Door

Ever since the The Slanted Door moved into its current location in the San Francisco Ferry Building, I seem to dine at the restaurant much less frequently.   Reservations are virtually impossible to get without significant advance planning, service is sometimes less than fully attentive, and the host staff frequently gives off the impression that they're doing diners a personal favor.   Now, don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge Chef-Owner Charles Phan the enormous success that he has achieved, and it's been fascinating to watch the restaurant evolve from its humble beginnings on Valencia Street to the juggernaut that it is today.   But any notion I have of dining at the restaurant is immediately accompanied by thoughts of the sheer hassle of it all, and that is usually enough to dissuade me from actually doing so.
The Slanted Door:
At A Glance
ChefCharles Phan
Pastry ChefMutsumi Takehara
Address1 Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111
ParkingAdjacent Lot
Restaurant Website

Yet, there's one time each year when I work up the motivation to "brave the elements," and that's when my parents come to town each Thanksgiving.   The first time I took them to The Slanted Door was back when it was still in the Mission, and they have been hooked ever since.   Indeed, it now goes without saying that this is the one restaurant sure to be on their "must-visit" list whenever they make the trek from Michigan to San Francisco.   This year was no different, and so it was that we found ourselves at The Slanted Door for an early lunch last Saturday.

Notwithstanding whatever other critiques I may have about the current incarnation of the restaurant, the one thing that has always been beyond reproach is the quality of the food.   The ingredients are consistently fresh, the preparations well-executed, and the flavor combinations excellent.   Yet, even against this backdrop, the meal that we had on Saturday just blew me away.   Put simply, every dish we ordered seemed to be a cut above the usual, whether it was an old familiar standard or an entree that we were trying for the first time.

We began with the Slanted Door Spring Rolls and the Crispy Vegetarian Imperial Rolls, both of which were tasty and satisfying.   But it was the entrees that made the greatest impression.   The Shaking Beef and the Chicken Claypot, dishes that I have ordered on every visit I have ever made to the restaurant, were even more delicious than I remembered.   The former consists of tender cubes of filet mignon sparked alive with a peppery lime juice, while the latter offers an incredible caramel sauce that can hardly be described in words.   We also enjoyed the Cellophane Noodles with Dungeness Crab, the simplicity of which conceals its remarkable flavor, along with an order of a "new" entree for us -- the Lemongrass Chicken.   Sauteed with onions, jalapenos and chili paste, this spectacular chicken was quickly declared by several at the table to be their new favorite.   Rounding out our lunch were Spicy Japanese Eggplant, nicely cooked with coconut milk and green onions, and Stir-Fried Alaskan Black Cod -- with delicate fish that, though mildly flavored when compared to the other dishes, was very tasty nonetheless.

As the plates were being cleared, I found myself marveling at what we had just experienced.   When I wondered out loud whether I had merely imagined an uptick since our last visit, both my sister and Rhonda confirmed that they shared in that assessment.   Even the aspects that I have found to be wanting on other occasions were not an issue;   the host staff were pleasant and welcoming, the service was generally attentive, and the noise level in the restaurant was actually pleasant (although this was likely due to the restaurant being only half full, since we were dining relatively early).   So, has the restaurant actually stepped things up?   I'm not sure, but for the first time in a long time, I suspect that I'll be returning well before my parents come back to town.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

"Inside the Kitchen" At The Ritz: A Rising Star Emerges

Most of the people who attended the Four Star Grand Cru Wine Dinner at the "Inside the Kitchen" event last weekend were prepared to be impressed.   After all, the headliners -- Ron Siegel, David Kinch, Hubert Keller and Roland Passot -- are all four-star chefs, and their restaurants are the creme de la creme in the Bay Area and beyond.   Against this backdrop, however, something unexpected happened:   a young pastry chef, perhaps accustomed to toiling away out of the spotlight as he builds his career, stunned the crowd with his innovative, delicious, and utterly satisfying desserts.   This seemed to be the culinary equivalent of the walk-on actor who almost steals the show, a forceful exclamation point demanding that we sit up and take notice.   So, who was this mysterious talent?   His name is William Werner, and he's the Pastry Chef for both the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay and its flagship restaurant Navio.

Now, I have never studied the confectionary arts, nor am I an expert in the field as are some of my favorite bloggers.   What I can tell you, however, is that I can't remember the last time I was so excited by the flavor combinations that a pastry chef incorporated into his or her desserts, and so impressed by the creativity that he or she displayed in doing so.   Indeed, nothing that Werner served that night was ordinary, and everything tasted fantastic.   If Werner keeps this up, I guarantee you that he will end up leaving a lasting mark on the art of making desserts.

The first dessert for the Four Star Dinner was French Butter Pear Nage with Pain D'Epice Ice Cream and Creme Fraiche.   With the richness of butter, the distinctive taste of pear, and a smooth ice cream having the perfect amount of gingerbread flavor, how could this not be spectacular?   I also liked the fact that Werner was mindful of texture, combining ice cream, foam, nage and a crispy sugar wafer to wonderful effect.   The presentation for this dessert was beautifully done, the thin wafer perched on top of the ice cream and a frothy foam and creamy sauce lying on the surface of the plate below.   The second dessert was equally satisfying, a Smoked Chocolate Plaque with Vanilla, Coconut and Aged Rum Pearls.   A small brick of dense chocolate sat offset atop a rectangle of moist cake, a quenelle of vanilla bean-specked cream and a smoky chocolate wafer off to one side.   At two locations on the plate, Werner placed a tiny mound of translucent tapioca pearls -- a clever visual reference back to the caviar in the Ron Siegel dish that kicked off the meal a few hours earlier.   Here again, the flavors were wonderful.   The deep chocolate was punctuated by unexpected bursts of salt, while its decadent richness was cut by the bright and airy cream on the side.   The tapioca pearls provided another surprise, delivering a potent punch of rum -- and yet another texture -- to the overall mix.  Simply put, both of Werner's dessert dishes were spectacular.

At this point in the meal, the kitchen usually sends out a parade of mignardise -- tiny tartlets, financiers, macarons, and marshmallows.   Yet, even here, Werner's innovative streak shined through.   We were treated to crunchy chocolate cones with a small scoop of coffee ice cream, mango cream bonbons, chocolate caramel cookie rings spiked with hot chili pepper, and small chocolate cylinders with a eucalyptus-infused filling.   As you can see, there was none of the tired fare that even the best restaurants trot out after the "real" desserts, and every last item had been the subject of great care and attention.

I mentioned in my last post that I hope to revisit Navio soon, given that Chef de Cuisine Aaron Zimmer contributed an outstanding cheese course to the Four Star Dinner menu and has also has been generating some buzz.   But even putting those factors aside, the opportunity to experience William Werner's magnificent creations once more is reason enough for me make the trek down to Half Moon Bay.

Note: For purposes of full disclosure, I attended certain events during the "Inside the Kitchen" weekend on a media pass that gave me free access.   With regard to the dinner referenced above, however, I paid full price for my ticket using my own funds.   Please see the end of this post for additional details.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

"Inside the Kitchen" At The Ritz: A Closer Look At The Four Star Dinner

As you know, I spent the entirety of last weekend in Half Moon Bay attending the second annual "Inside the Kitchen" at the Ritz-Carlton.   The result was an enormous mountain of work waiting for me at the office upon my return Monday morning, which took me until late yesterday to finally clear off of my desk.   Now that that's out of the way, however, let me turn back to more important matters -- like sharing some additional observations about last weekend's event.

As I mentioned in my last post, the Four Star Grand Cru Wine Dinner held on Saturday evening was a fantastic event.   Headlining the night were the four four-star chefs -- i.e., Ron Siegel, David Kinch, Hubert Keller and Roland Passot -- each of whom contributed one dish to the six-course meal that we were served.   The cheese course, meanwhile, was provided by Navio Chef de Cuisine Aaron Zimmer, and the desserts were prepared by William Werner, the Pastry Chef for the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.   I asked Hubert Keller how the collaboration was done, and he indicated that Xavier Salomon -- Executive Chef for the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay -- coordinated and orchestrated everything.   He was the one who contacted the four chefs, asked them each to submit a few ideas for their respective courses, and then conferred with all of them to arrive at an overall menu that made sense.

Here is the menu that we were served:

Tuna Sashimi, Golden Osetra Caviar, Geoduck Lemon Terrine
Chef Ron Siegel, The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco
2000 Trimbach "Cuvee Frederic-Emile" Riesling, Alsace, France
Monterey Bay Abalone in its own Bouillon, Foie Gras
Chef David Kinch, Manresa, Los Gatos
2004 Domaine Christian Moreau "Les Clos," Chablis, France
Butter Poached Lobster wtih a Fricassee of Fall Vegetables
in a Mini Pumpkin with Sea Urchin Broth

Chef Roland Passot, La Folie, San Francisco
2003 Jacques Gagnard-Delagrange Batard Montrachet, Burgundy, France
Roasted Colorado Lamb Loin and Braised Lamb Cheek Cannellonis
Chef Hubert Keller, Fleur de Lys, San Francisco
2002 Chateau Haut Brion, Graves, France
Bleu D'Auvergne with Endive, Dried Pears and Spiced Walnuts
Chef Aaron Zimmer, Navio at The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay
1994 Chateau D'Yquem Sauternes, Bordeaux, France
French Butter Pear Nage
Pain d'Epice Ice Cream, Creme Fraiche

Smoked Chocolate Plaque
Vanilla, Coconut and Aged Rum Pearls

Petit Fours

Chef William Werner, The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay
1977 Dow's Port

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There's more...
First up was Ron Siegel's Tuna Sashimi, with Golden Osetra Caviar and Geoduck Lemon Terrine.   I must confess that I was initially disappointed when I learned that Siegel would be providing the first course, only because I've had such wonderful dishes from him at The Dining Room and was hoping to see a more prominent role for his cuisine on this menu.   Then again, I thought, Siegel is the youngest of the four featured chefs, and the later courses would certainly be left in good hands.   The tuna sashimi itself was excellent, the citrus and briny notes from the terrine serving to accentuate the flavorful fish.   The Osetra caviar provided an elegant finish, and the portion was just perfect to whet our appetites.   As I finished the dish, it occurred to me that this was classic Siegel -- precisely the type of satisfying opener that I expect whenever I sit down to a meal at The Dining Room.

David Kinch provided the next course, Monterey Bay Abalone with Foie Gras served in a Bouillon.   Over the years, I've come to regard Kinch's culinary approach as being best described as "restless."   By that I mean that while some chefs (like Passot and Keller) have plied their trade by predominantly exploring within French cuisine, and others (like Siegel) have traveled far down the road of infusing California-French concepts with Japanese influences, Kinch seems to be perpetually in search of interesting ideas -- no matter where in the world they may come from.   Thus, an evening at Manresa might offer up a classically French dish, a course with Catalan roots, and a creation with Asian undertones -- all in a single tasting menu.   Kinch's contribution to the Four Star Dinner menu was perfectly in line with this philosophy, and this time he took us on a gustatory journey to Thailand.   A slice of foie gras sat in a small bowl next to piece of abalone of roughly the same size, and both were almost fully submerged in a deep broth flavored with Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass.   The foie and abalone paired remarkably well with one another, the flavor and texture of each serving to amplify the flavor and texture of the other.   But it was the delicious bouillon that really took this dish to another level, showcasing Kinch's talent for bringing the unexpected to the table with real panache.

As we were waiting for the third course, Roland Passot's Butter Poached Lobster and Fricasee of Fall Vegetables in a Mini Pumpkin with Sea Urchin Broth, I excused myself from the table for a moment and stepped out into the hallway outside the dining area.   There, I discovered the elaborate staging area that the chefs had set up, with Roland Passot standing at the end of the line saucing and inspecting each plate before a server whisked it away to the dining room.   Immediately behind Passot, David Kinch put the finishing touches on the next batch of sauce, periodically handing Passot a full pot whenever the one his hand had been emptied.   Further up the line stood Ron Siegel, inconspicuously positioned among a sea of lesser-known chefs and performing the seemingly mundane task of adding a few component ingredients to each plate before sliding it on down the line.   Although I could have easily stood there for hours watching the scene without growing tired, I decided that I had better return to the table to rejoin my friends.

Passot's menu at La Folie always seems to include some form of butter-poached lobster, frequently served with a medley of vegetables alongside.   Thus, when I first read what Passot would be making for the Four Star Dinner, it made perfect sense.   When the plate was set down before me, I couldn't help but be impressed.   A miniature pumpkin was stuffed with carrots, onions and asparagus, creating a crown of sorts that rose above its surface to hold two succulent pieces of lobster.   An array of root vegetables sat on the plate next to the pumpkin, and every ingredient glistened from the buttery sea urchin sauce that Passot had spooned on top just moments earlier.   This dish was wonderful, the delicate taste of the tender lobster enhanced markedly by the decadent butter sauce in which it had been enrobed.   Another nice touch here was that the pumpkin had been cooked through, allowing us to savor its distinctive flavor in combination with the lobster -- a decidedly inspired pairing.   Finally, the nicely prepared vegetables in this course added some welcome balance.

The meat course for the evening, Roasted Colorado Lamb Loin with Braised Lamb Cheek Cannelonis, would be provided by Hubert Keller.   Having witnessed the impressive plating process for the lobster, I could not resist the temptation to pay another visit to the staging area.   Although I expected to see Keller firmly planted at the end of the line as Passot previously had been, he was instead constantly on the move.   First he was at the end of the line inspecting plates, then he was off to one side finishing a sauce, then he was on the other side of the table observing chefs on the line as they added components to the plate.   In short, Keller was an organized and efficient flurry of activity -- everywhere at once, making sure that the finished dish was assembled precisely to his exacting standards.   Passot and Kinch stood next to one another near the end of the line, Kinch patiently arranging on each plate a string of tiny carrot spheres and Passot spooning on top of them a rich brown sauce.   Siegel stood on the other side of the line, tirelessly stirring a pot of the same sauce and periodically switching the whisk from one hand to the other.

I made it back to my table just seconds before the arrival of the lamb dish, and it was certainly a sight to behold.   A juicy, pink-centered lamb loin sat in the middle of the plate, Kinch's ellipses of carrots positioned below it.   Off to one side sat a perfectly-cooked canneloni in a creamy sauce;   on the other side was a small ceramic box filled with lightly-dressed greens.   The rich brown sauce Passot had added to the plate was accompanied by a drizzle of vanilla oil that, at least at one point, Keller himself was adding to each plate.   This dish was absolutely spectacular.   The lamb was prepared beautifully, and its outstanding flavor was sent into the stratosphere by the rich, deep brown sauce and the fragrant, floral vanilla oil.   One bite of this and I was transported back to one of my favorite meals at Fleur de Lys, when Keller served up another brilliant meat dish using vanilla -- a beef filet with a Vanilla Pinot Noir reduction.   The canneloni on the side was outstanding as well, its soft shell yielding a creamy and utterly delicious interior.   Even the greens were nicely done.   I have to say that although all of the courses from the four-star chefs that night were truly excellent, Keller's dish gets my vote for being the first among equals.

I think it's safe to say that at this point in the meal, many people in the room – myself included – began to lower their expectations just a bit.   After all, we had just been treated to cuisine from four of the Bay Area's most successful and highly esteemed chefs, and the final two dishes would be supplied by chefs who have not yet reached the same level of prominence.   A cheese course from Navio Chef de Cuisine Aaron Zimmer was up first, a Bleu D'Auvergne with Endive, Dried Pears and Spiced Walnuts.   When I took my first bite of this, I was rendered speechless;   the components of the plate harmonized perfectly – the bitterness of the endive, the sweetness of the pear, and the pungency of the cheese all coalescing into a complex and brilliant taste sensation.   I had recently been hearing positive buzz about Zimmer, but this one dish – a cheese course, no less – instantly catapulted Navio to the top of my "must-try" list.   As for the dessert course, I'm going to save that for a separate post – so please see here.

Siegel, Kinch, Keller and Passot have climbed their way to the top of some of the country's top restaurants, earning plenty of accolades and critical acclaim along the way.   At an event like this, any one of them accordingly might have decided to limit his involvement to preparing and serving his own course, leaving the other three chefs to fend for themselves with respect to their own dishes.   After all, there were plenty of line chefs available to help out.   Yet, when it came time to plate the dishes, all four chefs were on the line – often performing the most common of tasks, but doing so with the most uncommon of attention.   Words cannot convey how focused David Kinch was as he arranged the five carrot spheres in a slight arc across each plate for Keller's lamb course, or how meticulous Siegel was as he placed the ingredients on the plate for Passot's lobster course.

Now, this was not merely a show done for public consumption;   indeed, the overwhelming majority of diners were at their tables engrossed in conversation, completely unaware that this was happening out in the hallway.   No, the reason the chefs threw themselves fully into the task at hand is simply because they care.   They care about the food itself, they care about the dish being sent out with their name behind it, and they care about what the diner thinks, feels and experiences upon receiving the dish.   And notably, they care about these things not only with regard to their own dishes, but with regard to each other's dishes as well.   Nobody in the dining room would have known if the carrot spheres on the plate were not in a perfect arc, but Kinch and Keller would have known, and that was reason enough for Kinch to devote the extra effort to get it just right.

It is that internal drive for perfection, that willingness and desire to care, that I believe results in such exquisite cuisine.   In fact, I would even go so far as to suggest that it's impossible to cook at four-star levels without it.   For one night, I had the opportunity to see for myself the passion, precision, and perfection that moves these brilliant chefs to prepare and serve such spectacular food.   For that, I will always be grateful.

I will close this post with some additional photos taken from the event.   Please visit Cooking With Amy for more photos from the evening, and Chez Pim for great shots from the kitchen itself.

The Four Star Chefs: Roland Passot, Hubert Keller, Ron Siegel, & David Kinch

Note: For purposes of full disclosure, I attended certain events during the "Inside the Kitchen" weekend on a media pass that gave me free access.   With regard to the dinner referenced above, however, I paid full price for my ticket using my own funds.   Please see the end of this post for additional details.