Note: Charles Nob Hill closed in 2004. Chef Perello is now at Fifth Floor and the space has been converted into a high-end steakhouse
I first thought about trying Charles Nob Hill last year when my father visited for his birthday. I nixed that because of time constraints, but I added it to my list of restaurants to try *some day*. Then, a few months ago, I saw a great review of the restaurant (probably in the Chronicle, although I can't find it now in their archives) that really made me want to go. I was therefore surprised not to find Charles Nob Hill in this year's list of the "top 100 Bay Area Restaurants" put out by the Chronicle. I imagine the reason for the omission is that Charles Nob Hill had a change of chef's last January. Gone is their famous "Iron-Chef" winner chef, Ron Siegel, who found greener pastures at Masa's; taking his place is Melissa Perello, his former sous chef and disciple, a 24-year old wonder-girl and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.
At first, I was a little bit hesitant about going to Charles Nob Hill when their new chef is so young and relatively inexperienced - especially when for the same amount of money I could go to Masa's or the French Laundry (if I could have gotten reservations) and have real masters of their craft cook for me. Furthermore, I had read reviews that said that while the food at Charles Nob Hill was good, it lacked pizzazz. But then I thought that there is something to be said for a chef who is young and likely to be excited about what she's doing. I imagine that chefs, just like everyone else, get jaded after a while. I also thought that as Ms. Perello is trying to establish her reputation as a chef, she was more likely to be involved in the actual preparing of the dishes than many of the other "celebrity" chefs at local restaurants. So we decided to go.
It was a good decision. Dinner at Charles Nob Hill was delightful, the food was consistently delicious and interesting, the service was superb, and we had a very lovely evening. While the quality of the experience is still one-notch down from that of our all-time favorite restaurant, the French Laundry, this was probably the best dining experience we've had at a San Francisco restaurant. We would definitely go back, though given how expensive it is, I doubt we can do it anytime soon.
I am not sure if it is because of the economy, the change of chefs or the mere fact that Charles Nob Hill is not currently "fashionable", but getting a reservation at Charles Nob Hill for 7 PM on a Friday night was not particularly difficult. I called the preceding Tuesday, left a message, and they promptly called me back with the reservation.
We arrived a little bit early (traffic from the East Bay was a breeze, and we even had time to stop for a little bit at Treasure Island and see the fog settle over the city) and got seated right away. The restaurant, which only seats about 50 people, was half-empty at that hour, and it never really filled up. That of course made the experience more pleasant as it kept the noise level down. I don't know if the empty tables reflected a lack of interest in the restaurant, or a policy of letting tables sit empty for a while rather than making guests with prime-time reservations wait while earlier diners lounge around.
The restaurant is located at a downtown apartment building, and is divided into 2 medium-size rooms, with an old-fashioned bar in the middle. It's often described as looking like an old gentlemen's club, and while that is true of the bar area and to some degree the dining room directly connected to it, where large mirrors certainly harken to bygone years and styles, the dining room where we were seated was pretty spartan and austere. We were seated next to a wall that could really have used a painting or something to liven it up. The candle light was nice, but I would also have liked some flowers or some other type of color. The tables by the window might be better, though they lacked the privacy that ours had and the view did not seem to be that good anyway.
Most of the patrons were nicely, though casually dressed. Jackets and ties are not required. The clientele seemed to be quite diverse; we saw several young couples as well as groups of older people.
Service was very good. Our waiters were friendly and attentive. They replaced glasses, plates and silverware after each course with amazing efficiency. All dishes were described in detail, water (mineral, but fortunately for Mike, not too mineraly) was replenished frequently and there were no mishaps whatsoever. Our main waiter was particularly affable and very helpful in having our culinary tastes accommodated. The different courses were well-spaced, and the bread and butter served (two types of sourdough, fig bread and raisin bread) were very good. Our only complaint is that once we had finished the meal it took too long before the check arrived, as by then we were very tired and ready to go home.
The food, however, is the real star at Charles Nob Hill. It was simply superb. Dishes are available a la carte from a rather brief menu (appetizers $15-20, main dishes $32-$46, desserts $9), in a fixed 6-course menu ($70) or in a 9-course menu where everyone at the table gets a different dish selected by the chef ($100). As we love trying new things, we decided on the 9-course menu. The chef will accommodate special tastes, in my case by not serving me any dishes with vegetables. She can also make all-vegetarian courses or accommodate other food phobias.
Given how many courses we were served, I don't remember the exact ingredients in all of them - but pretty much everything we had was delicious. They were also very nicely presented, though perhaps not as creatively as in other restaurants of this kind. The courses were all very small, providing 3 or 4 bites of each dish. Good enough for tasting and even sharing, though a bit disappointing when a dish was really enjoyable. By the end of the meal we were satisfied, though not full; I think we could have accommodated another course, but I should say we both were very hungry when we arrived at the restaurant.
The meal started with a complimentary cup of corn chowder. I'm not a corn chowder fan so I predictably did not like it, but Mike didn't think it was that great either. My first "official" course was, I think, a squab consomme (though it could have been another small bird) with a couple of small pieces of foie gras and a poached quail egg. The consomme was very good and extremely flavorful, the foie gras very buttery, I enjoyed the dish very much. Mike had a Manhattan clam chowder, which he also liked a lot.
My second course consisted of a slice of fig, with a slab of Roquefort cheese and a very small scoop of (lemon?) sorbet, decorated with four drops of "100-year-old balsamic vinegar." I liked this simple dish very much, the mixture of flavors and textures was great and I am thinking of serving it (in larger portions) as an appetizer in some future dinner. Mike had a dish consisting of 3 or 4 kinds of different tomatoes (including green tomatoes!). Unfortunately he hates tomatoes, a fact he had neglected to tell the waiter. I gave him half of my dish and tried his, but I didn't enjoy it that much either. All the tomatoes really tasted of was, well, tomatoes. I guess it's really a dish for tomato afficionados.
No matter, it was soon time for our third course. I was served skate on steak with a cabernet sauce (probably a reduction sauce). It was extremely delicious. The sauce was very flavorful and it went great both with the tender beef and the fish. I loved it. Mike had the king salmon with a bean ragout, spring onions and white corn. He liked the dish very much as well (I didn't taste it as I don't eat salmon).
Our fourth course was identical, we both had the foie gras. The dish actually served foie gras three ways, grilled, stuffed in phyllo dough (both accompanied by a very savory cherry reduction sauce), and as mousse with small bites of pear. It was served in a rectangular dish and had a Japanese flair to it. I thought the grilled foie gras was very smooth but Mike found it chewy, we both liked the phyllo pastry and very much enjoyed the cherry sauce, even though we don't like cherries. The mousse was very creamy and tasty, but also very rich. I think I would have liked it better on top of some bread. After a couple of teaspoons, I found it too rich to eat by itself (though I did finish it up).
We had lobster for our fifth course. Mine was prepared with some lobster bisque, if I well remember, and Mike's was poached and came with a pink melon consomme, English cucumber and Pancetta. You will probably not be surprised to know that I don't like lobster either. I gave it a good try, but ultimately it was too chewy for my taste. The consomme was better, but still too fishy. Mike liked his lobster very much, however, and was happy to eat mine as well.
My next course was squab. I don't remember how it was prepared, but I remember liking it very much. Mike had duck breast with orange confit and port wine duck jus and it was delicious. I particularly liked the contrast of the bittersweet orange flavor to the hearty flavor of the sauce. This dish is served in their a la carte menu, and I would order it again.
Finally, I was served a veal tenderloin, with a rissole of sweetbread persille and lemon-scented risotto. I liked the tenderloin, and even enjoyed the sweetbread before realizing what it was, but I found the risotto pretty tasteless. Mike had the steak with potato gnocchis, chanterelle mushrooms, crunchy bone marrow, and sauce. I thought that was wonderful; I really liked the gnocchis, which I think were browned in butter after boiling, as they had a golden, crispy shell. This seems like a good way of serving gnocchi, and I will try making it in the future.
After the meal, as our 8th course, we were served sorbet. I got the mango sorbet with caramel sabayon and small bites of "tropical" fruits, and Mike had a watermelon sorbet. I am not too fond of mango, after almost OD'ing on it many years ago in Egypt, but I found the sorbet refreshing and not too sweet. Mike absolutely loved his watermelon sorbet, which came with chocolate shavings imitating watermelon seeds. He raved about it, and would have taken a pint home if it was available. I am not sure why he loved it so much, I tasted it and it just tasted like watermelon to me (of which I am not very fond either), but if you are a watermelon fan you should probably ask for it.
We were finally ready for our last course: dessert. I got some kind of chocolate concoction, I think it was a chocolate mouse, with tiny chocolate crepes, some fudge and perhaps something else. It was pretty good but nothing extraordinary. I liked Mike's dessert better. I don't remember exactly what it was, some type of spongy and yet gritty cake with fruits and a sweet sauce, but it was delicious. The cake reminded me of sweet corn bread, so perhaps that's what it was. In any case, I loved it. We got a few petit fois with the check, which were good though not exceptional.
We accompanied our dinner with wine. Charles Nob Hill has a very extensive wine list, with many wines from France, Italy and other regions in Europe, as well as South America and Australia. Both reds and white were well represented, and they started at about $40. This time, however, we decided to forgo a bottle of wine and instead go with the wine pairing (about $60). They way it works is that they bring you a new, different shaped, glass and half-fill it with some wine before the course with which it's to be paired. We ordered the wine pairing for one person and we both shared it. If you want to try the wine pairing, I'd recommend you do the same. 8-half glasses of wine are too much for any person - you are there to enjoy the food after all.
It's good that you can enjoy the food, because the wines in the wine pairing were not very good. They were mostly European and I don't remember their names, but we were in general quite disappointed with them. The champagne we were first served lacked fizz, and tasted like the champagne you can get for $8 at the supermarket. The white wine that we were then served was so smooth as to be completely tasteless. One white wine we had was good, smooth and oaky, but the others really disappointed us. A caveat is that we are not big white-wine drinkers to begin with.
The two reds we had, a Pinot Noir and a Shiraz, were better but not particularly great, I drank them but didn't really enjoy them. The sweet dessert wine we were served was not any better as it lacked all complexity. I would therefore advise you to skip the wine pairing and choose a bottle of wine that you might like.
Our whole dinner took about 3 hours, and we spent about $350, including tax, tip and valet parking. This is so far the most expensive meal we've ever had, but we think it was mostly worth it. Mostly, because our experience at the French Laundry was superior, though similarly priced, so we think you can get more value for your money at the latter restaurant - but there is much to be said for not having to make reservations two months in advance. All in all, we very much enjoyed out dinner at Charles Nob Hill and would recommend it.
Charles Nob Hill
1250 Jones Street
San Francisco, CA 94111