Summary: Imaginative food with the best service we ever experienced. Our second best dining experience after the French Laundry.
Mike and I have now gone to several five star restaurants - including the famous French Laundry, which we loved. Our experience with them has been mixed; we loved our dinner at the now defunct Charles Nob Hill, were slightly less impressed with Masa's, missed innovation at Gary Danko, and felt that Fleur de Lys and Manresa were quite flawed. Therefore we were a little bit apprehensive when we decided to drop several hundred dollars on a meal to celebrate Mike's 40th birthday. Still, it was a big day and I wanted to do something grand.
I chose to take him to the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton after consultation, looking at reviews (some of which were mixed) and exploring the menu (which seemed more to my taste than Michael Mina's, my second choice). It turned out to be absolutely the right decision. We had a meal worthy of a king, and the most amazing service imaginable. I don't think Mike could have had a better birthday celebration.
The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton looks quite old fashioned, with subdued walls decorated with large off-beat paintings, comfortable upholstered chairs and large flower arrangements at the bigger tables. The waiters - and they are all male - are all impeccably dressed in suits. And yet, the room manages to not be stuffy, but comfortable. The wait staff makes the most effort to make you feel like you belong, and it's easy to go with the flow. Once again, let me remark on the service. It wasn't only flawless - as soon as our water glasses were half-way empty they were refilled, our dirty plates were taken away immediately, and dishes kept coming one after the other - but it was friendly and cordial, without any snottiness whatsoever. We chatted amicably with the maitre d' and the waiters about food, wine, the chef (Ron Siegel, of Charles Nob Hill, Masa's and Iron Chef fame, whom they said was in the kitchen that night) and even some of their personal history. It was nice.
The food, however, is what really matters, and I was very impressed by it. It was classical, yet innovative, with nice combinations of Japanese and French flavors. When I pay so much for a dinner, I want to taste things I've never had before, and the Dining Room definitely fit that bill. This is not to say that all dishes were successful or to my liking, but there was enough that was simply out of this world to make up for the rest. I highly recommend the experience.
We had the 9-course menu ($120) and I think it was the right choice, not only because it let us sample so many of the chef's creations, but because it allowed us each to have our own different dish. If you add the three or four little dishes with which we started the meal, and the candies at the end, we each got to taste twenty different dishes (we didn't share everything). Given the enormity of our tasting experience, I cannot possibly recall everything we had, especially as most of it was off menu. In particular, I can't recall what the main component was served with and which special accompaniments it had. You will just have to take my word that the experience was amazing.
The evening started with the maitre d' bringing the champagne cart to our table. They have four choices, one domestic and three French, and of course I don't recall the actual names or varietals. He did say that one of the French ones, a favorite of the French, was particularly challenging for those with an underdeveloped palate (we decided against it). Instead, I had the domestic champagne ($13), which had a beautiful golden color, hints of sweetness, and little complexity. It was very refreshing, and a great way to start a meal. Mike chose the rosé ($22), which like most roses was perfectly nice, easy to drink and flavorful, but completely lacking in complexity - if I can be so sexist, a woman's wine. Perhaps it wasn't the best choice for him - I liked it.
Our first amuse bouche was a spinach filled pastry; it was good but not extraordinary. It was served with three flavored flat sticks, in cinnamon, cauliflower and mushroom. I can't say I fell in love with the flavors - they were somewhat subdued - but I loved the originality of it all. I think we may have had another amuse bouche after this, but I can't recall it. What I do remember is a small dish of a softly poached quail egg served over cedar smoke. The quail egg was beautiful, somewhat sweet, and the smokiness of the cedar gave it a great taste. The presentation was equally spectacular. The egg came over what looked like a gravy boat, covered in plastic with one hole. As you tapped or rubbed the plastic with the spoon, the smoke would come out and infuse the egg. Very nice.
There might have been yet another course after this, but again I don't remember. A salad of cucumber, nuts and radishes that came next. I seem to remember tiny cubes of citrus gelatine, but that might have been another dish. It wasn't amazing, but it was quite refreshing. It had a nice presentation in a martini glass. Also served in a martini glass was Mike's sea urchin cream. Alas, this dish completely failed to impress him. He found it odd and not particularly appetizing.
My soup course consisted of what I think were foie gras ravioli (they had a French name that I can't recall right now) in a mushroom broth. The ravioli were wonderful, they had a great intense flavor that awed us. The broth itself was quite dark, but didn't really do much for me. Then again, I have no experience with mushroom broths in general. Mike was surprised at how much he liked his cold corn soup with lobster. It was very nicely balanced, not too sweet, and I also thought it was good.
I was less impressed with the Japanese white fish sashimi I got next. Then again, I don't like sashimi so I wouldn't be impressed to begin with. The presentation of Mike's dish was indeed impressive. He was served a raw shrimp, accompanied by two types of handmade salt, which the server mixed with lemon juice. The server also grated some real wasabi at the table - and this was the first time Mike had had the real thing. The combination of it all was very good, and Mike was very pleased.
I thought my next dish, a small piece of white fish perfectly grilled and accompanied by a cilantro sauce, was very good - until I tasted Mike's eel in barbeque sauce. Oh my god, it converted me to eel. I had seldom tasted something so rich and so delicious in my life. It had that full sense of umami that I so crave. Still, it was Mike's birthday dinner so I was happy he got it.
Things went down hill for me, with a gelatin of beef carpaccio that had absolutely no flavor. I don't know what the chef could be thinking. It came surrounded by a melon gelatin (only that it was much more solid than a gelatin) which had a very intense melon flavor. Of course, I didn't like it, as I don't like melon. But Mike thought it was very good, and he had it as a sort of dessert after his dish. His dish was lobster served with a pink pearl apple reduction sauce which was, once again, out of this world. I don't like lobster but I had a second helping just so I could taste that sauce again. Needless to say Mike ate every last bit.
On the next course, I got lucky and got the seared foie gras, served on a peach terrine composed a sweet jelly with a beautiful corn-cake like crust. Now there isn't much one can do to make foie gras less than sublime (though the cold foie gras at Manresa managed it), and this was incredibly good as well. The waiter joined us in mourning the day when foie gras would no longer be legal in California. Mike was served the foie gras mousse with plum jelly and toasted bread. It was quite good, I enjoyed it, though it wasn't exceptional. Even the waiters acknowledged that I had the superior dish. Still, it was his birthday, so I shared half with him.
Both of us liked our next selections. I had the quail and he had the duck, and they were both very nice. One of them, I don't remember which, was served with fresh huckleberries which went great with the meat.
I had never had kobe beef before, so I was excited when it appeared on my plate. Alas, it came with a ponzu essence which completely overwhelmed the meat. I tried to scrap it off, to taste the beef, but I couldn't find anything remarkable about it. The massages and beer had not made for a more flavorful or tender meat. Mike didn't think it was that special either. We both liked his veal tenderloin with crispy sweetbread better. The veal was tender and flavorful, and the sweetbread was just plain delicious. This is a gland I've learned to appreciate lately, and this take certainly brought me over.
Mike continued his luck for the evening with an amazing green apple sorbet. It was intense, semi-sweet and just plain delicious. I got a tomato sorbet with red tea granita. I didn't like the granita; I'm not one of those who believe everything needs to be infused with tea, though I found the tomato sorbet interesting. It wasn't my favorite thing in the world, but I'm glad I tried it.
It was time for dessert and I got a take on a pavlova with peach sorbet, a strawberry medley and a meringue stick. It was quite nice, though I'm not the biggest fan of peach. Still, the flavors were intense and went well with each other. I really loved the light and somewhat moist texture of the pavlova. Mike had the chocolate caramel cake, with a coffee ice cream. He wasn't as crazy for it as I was for it, probably because he doesn't like coffee, but I thought it was really good - albeit too small a serving. It wasn't bigger than a canapé.
The meal finished with several petit fours (most of them were very good) and a shot glass of some creamy concoction I don't recall now. I know I wasn't crazy for it.
We had the wine pairing with dinner ($68, I believe) and in general we thought it was successful. We liked all the wines but the Barbera, which we found sort of flat, with tannins that dissolved quickly leaving nothing much behind.
Our whole dinner took us 4 ˝ hours - even though dishes kept coming almost as quickly as we ate them. It was great, as it gave us a good opportunity to relax.
The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton
600 Stockton Street at California Street
San Francisco, CA