Sunday, March 26, 2006

Putting on the Ritz

600 Stockton Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
Chef Ron Siegel (formerly Masa's)
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday

Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton on Urbanspoon

Update: May 2007
On a return visit, service was flawless and well-coordinated, even with a large dining party with special requests. With Siegel's always-sublime cuisine and Stephane LaCroix's personal attention to wine-pairing, this last visit was close to perfection.

Last tried: March 2006
I have been a fan of Chef Ron Siegel since his days at the now defunct Charles Nob Hill, and he seems to be getting better and better all the time. As the Ritz Carlton Dining Room is always crowded, I am hardly in the minority in that opinion. The Dining Room is so packed that the service does not seem to be able to keep up with the level and pace of the kitchen. At times, it seemed our server did not feel he even needed to try to keep up, given that people were clamoring to dine there anyway.

The service issue was apparent from the moment we were seated. After a haughty inquiry dripping with sarcasm, "Is this table acceptable?" (I had asked to be moved as the first table was directly underneath the air conditioning vents; I noticed that the party subsequently seated at our rejected table asked for their overcoats back from the hostess and kept them on during their entire meal), our server proceeded to ignore us for over ten minutes before asking whether we would like to order a pre-dinner drink. He then ignored us for another fifteen minutes before bringing over the menus.

All that was needed to alleviate this problem was a quick and simple "Sorry we will get to you as soon as we can; we are very busy tonight," but instead we were left just sitting and waiting as our server walked past our table repeatedly, avoiding eye contact. By the time he finally decided to take our order, we had drained our drinks and the remaining ice had melted. To cap it off, when one member of our party requested no cheese for the tasting menu, the server raised an eyebrow and jeeringly asked, "What about cheesecake?" I doubt he was trying to determine whether the request was based on a dietary restriction since cheesecake was not part of any menu option. Rather, he seemed merely to be poking at the fact that cheese and cheesecake were both dairy products, even though no one had stated that the request was due to any allergy. Whatever his underlying motivation, the approach and attitude were bothersome.

As the delectable amuses began to arrive, my building annoyance with the service momentarily subsided. The chilled asparagus soup, sprinkled with dried, powdered candycat mushrooms, was delicate and refreshing, with the mild curry and maple flavors of the powdered mushrooms highlighting the sweetness of the fresh pureed asparagus. Even better was the glistening slice of raw kampachi, decorated with a dark maroon miniature square of ponzu gelee and julienned red-white tiger stripe patterned watermelon radish matchsticks, creating an incredible mouthful of creamy, sweet, and tart flavors. The sea urchin panna cotta topped with a morsel of tempura-fried lobster and drizzled with vanilla bean olive oil was the only amuse that was not quite as spectacular. While I loved the concept of these intriguing flavor combinations, the vanilla bean olive oil was so strong that I could not smell or taste anything but vanilla, and the slick oil fought with the delicate texture of the panna cotta custard. The rich and crispy perfection of the last amuse, deep fried oxtail and chanterelle mushroom ravioli, was disrupted only by the fact that it arrived while we were still enjoying the previous amuse. Having kept us waiting for such an inordinately long time in the beginning, the dishes were now lapping one another.

Timing continued to be an issue as the different courses of the tasting menu were served. The wine service was not coordinated with the delivery of the courses such that they often arrived on top of each other, resulting in either the wine not being identified before pouring or the contents of the dish not being explained before the server rushed off. On more than one occasion, dishes were unceremoniously dumped off with no description of any kind provided. Fortunately, the server's assistant who cleared the plates and replaced the flatware between courses was quite knowledgeable and answered questions from the table when this occurred. (I was, however, quite happy to see used napkins being replaced with fresh ones when diners left the table to use the restroom, instead of getting soiled napkins refolded.)

Siegel's creations are so sublime that my awareness of the service discrepancies dissipated as I got lost in the flavors of each course. The chilled salsify veloute enveloping a single fresh oyster and topped with a scoop of salty, briny osetra caviar was a perfect symphony of creamy and subtle tastes. The white asparagus soup was just as delightful, although the chewiness of the somewhat fishy-tasting icefish pieces at the bottom was a little disquieting. The 1999 Engelgarten, a white wine blend from Alsace by Marcel Deiss, might have been great with these dishes if it were not slightly oxidized. On the other hand, the 2003 Hirtzberger Gruner Veltliner, served with the raw seafood course that followed, was pure enchantment. The crisp fruit balanced by mineral and stone was an ideal match for both the meltingly thin, translucent slices of spiny lobster carpaccio, dressed with tiny sweet orange segments and a tangle of seaweed salad, and the pink-red bluefin tuna sashimi topped with deep-fried shreds of yuba and a tiny but pungent cube of clear shiso gelee.

The next courses were cooked seafood. The soft, white poached turbot accompanied by a single braised baby carrot and a strand of perfectly cooked, bright green asparagus in a champagne reduction, accented with a few grey-gold pearls of caviar, was a remarkably harmonious combination of textures and flavors. The tender piece of snapper with salty, crackly skin was also very well executed. The coconut milk and kaffir lime sauce that was spooned on top was perfect for both the fish and the underlying crab ravioli whose pasta wrapper was pleasingly al dente and the dungeness crabmeat inside succulent and vibrantly fresh. Although I was less enamored of the somewhat flavorless artichoke heart and stringy braised leek accompanying the ravioli, the overall combination of tastes and dual-level presentation (fish on top plate; ravioli/artichoke/leek on bottom plate) were quite impressive. The round fruit and oakiness of the 2003 Chassagne-Montrachet by Michel Colin-Deleger made it a great choice for both fish dishes, matching with their divergent sauces and flavor combinations.

Although still delicious, I found it interesting that the lobster courses were not as well articulated as the rest of the tasting menu, especially given that Siegel and lobster are an infamous combination due to his victory on the Iron Chef television program a number of years ago. The first version was topped with a piece of pork belly and drizzled with a teriyaki-type sauce, and the second was on a bed of braised swiss chard with a vanilla-celery root sauce, accompanied by a caramelized piece of salsify. The 2001 Macon-Village by Jean Thevenet that Sommelier Stephane Lacroix paired with the lobster dishes worked well with these different elements, but the lobster was lost under all of these dominant flavors. Even more surprising, the lobster was a little tough and chewy.

The next course, variations of foie gras, was faultless. The seared foie gras, served with spicy pickled huckleberries in an apple juice/black pepper sauce, hit all of the right notes, particularly with the 1998 Auslese Riesling by Dorsheimer Pittermannchen that was paired with it. The creamy, pink terrine of chilled foie gras, presented with a dollop of magenta rhubarb jam, a stack of cubes of pinot gris gelee, and a cilantro microgreen salad with sweet, crunchy candied pecan pieces, was as tasty as it was pretty. The terrine was so well done, however, that you almost did not need any of the accompaniments to enjoy it, except maybe the grilled bread and of course the matching glass of 2000 Kiralyudvar Tokaji (Puttanyos 5).

The last two savory courses escalated from poultry to red meat. The poultry course consisted of crispy chicken with artichoke in a port reduction, and quail with chanterelle mushrooms and braised kale. The quail drumsticks were extremely tender, with the fragrant mushrooms further elevating the flavors of the dish. The chicken, while well prepared, was not as exciting, and I wished that the braised artichoke were sweeter. It also did not help that the 2001 Vosne-Romanee by Confuron-Cotetidot that was paired with this course was again oxidized.

The red meat course included beef tenderloin with gnocchi and asparagus in a Bordelaise sauce, and rare lamb loin topped with a piece of deep-fried sweetbread on a bed of mushroom risotto in a thyme jus. At this point in the tasting menu, I surmised that the chef must have retired for the evening as the gnocchi were dry on the outside and slightly mushy inside. As I continued eating, I found a piece of string left on the beef tenderloin. Although the beautifully cooked lamb loin was among the best lamb preparations I have tasted, the risotto had been overcooked and the fried sweetbread was somewhat soggy. To top it off, our server attempted to characterize the 2002 York Creek Cabernet that was paired with this course as a wine from "New York," when we reminded him of our preference to steer clear of California wines. Did he seriously think that would work? As expected, the cabernet was too alcoholic and extracted to work well with the food, and simply drowned out all flavors.

Following a refreshing palate cleanser of lychee sorbet with cubes of fresh mango and sweet beet sorbet with tangerine segments, we concluded the meal with cardamom panna cotta in pineapple soup, and chocolate caramel cake with milk chocolate ice cream. The sprinkling of maldon salt on the cake not only intensified the sweetness of the dessert, but its finely crushed crystalline texture mimicked the caramelized crunchy top layer of a well-made creme brulee.

While the service was lackluster on this visit, when I think about the Ritz Carlton Dining Room, what stands out in my mind are the precisely calculated tastes and original flavor combinations of Siegel's tasting menu. I cannot help being drawn back to try more and can only hope that service would eventually catch up.

1 comment:

Kat said...

I love Chef Siegel too! I'll go anywhere he goes. He's my favorite chef and creates the best dishes. He had me ever since I saw the Lobster battle on Iron Chef ^_^

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