The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton, San Francisco (August 2008)

When one thinks of a Ritz-Carlton, ostentation springs to mind posthaste, and it is certainly on display throughout the hotel. The dining room, however, does not embody the same pretense. In fact, the furnishings seem dated and could profit from a makeover.

Before dinner, I sat in the dining room’s vestibule–a tenebrous place analogous to John Malkovich’s poker room from Rounders. The bartender dashed over with a bar snack trio: cashews, olives, and potato chips. Of course, he was unaware of my pre-prandial fasting, which at that point hovered around 27 hours, and I knew it would only be a matter of minutes before I was luxuriating in a sublime meal. The salt and pepper tasting menu to be precise.

Commencing the meal with warm squash dumplings with their crisp, salty exterior and faintly sweet interior made for a good start.

Chef Siegel’s appreciation for Japan manifested early, beginning with the seared ayu (Japanese river fish), tomato gelée, wild basil seeds, basil oil, and heirloom tomato compote. The fish’s flavor was a bit too subtle to stand up to the accoutrements, and the utensils served along side were too large for the lilliputian contents.

Poaching the quail egg at 64 degrees and serving it with osetra and brioche made for a silky mouthfeel. This dish is just too clever to capture in a photo. When I lifted the spoon and lightly tapped the transparent film, the smell of a cedar smoke secreted from a tiny whole, delivering a campfire-like ambiance.
First course: Blue Fin Tuna and live spot prawn sashimi, pink peppercorns, crispy prawn heads, japanese sea salt, meyer lemon reduction, and three year old wasabi root. This seemingly unprepossessing sashimi dish might just be the most memorable for its sheer grandiosity; three servers delivered it–one holding the sashimi, one holding the crispy prawn heads, lemon reduction and salts, and one holding a shark skin grater with a three year old wasabi root. When I dipped the sashimi pieces into the concentrated lemon juice, citrus exploded on my palate.
Second course: abalone, gazpacho terrine, basil emulsion, lime salt, and alepepo pepper. The gazpacho terrine took center stage on this dish, overshadowing the prostrate abalone.

Third course: Foie gras, peach, pineapple jus, vanilla salt, and tellicherry peppercorn. Few things make me as happy as foie gras, but this one just cannot compare with the one served at La Folie. In addition, the duck liver was not thoroughly deveined, making it rather challenging to cut through what should have been a buttery texture. Before I go too far pilloring this dish, I should note that the pineapple jus was great, forcing me to violate my bread consumption rule so that I could sponge up every last ounce.

Fourth course: Maine lobster, crispy pork belly, baby fennel, pink pearl apple reduction, smoked sea salt, and tasmanian peppercorn. The lobster was good; the pork belly–cooked sous vide and then seared to give it a crispy crust–was tender enough to slice with the side of my fork.
Fifth course: poussin, pimento peppers, leeks, white corn purée, garlic salt, and sancho peppercorn. Sous vide cooking technique recrudesced with the chicken course. I really liked the viscous white corn purée; the peppers, though, were a bit harsh for my taste.

Sixth course: beef ribeye, cranberry bean purée, green beans, chanterelle mushrooms, Bolivian rock salt, and green peppercorn. This dish might just be good enough to convert a vegetarian. Think about it: unctuous bone marrow atop a perfectly cooked piece of ribeye.
Seventh course: plum sorbet, melon seltzer, melon sea salt, and white muntock peppercorn. I could have eaten three or fours of these piquant palate cleansers.
Eight course: white chocolate pavé, raspberries, milk chocolate cream, coconut foam, soy salt and pink peppercorn. My usual insouciance for chocolate receded upon tasting the velvety pavé.
Mignardises, delivered on a trolley of all things, made me want to genuflect to the pastry chef.

Chef Siegel has a wonderful establishment: a well developed theme inspired by Japanese ingredients, a devoutly authoritarian wait staff, and food bordering on perfection.


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