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What I Ate: March 21, 2009 (China Stix, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton)

Posted 22 March, 2009 at 1:02am by Michael Chu
(Filed under: Food, What I Ate)

My friend Ian phoned this morning and invited us to join his, his wife Winnie, and his son Ethan for a dim sum lunch at China Stix (2110 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA‎ - (408) 244-1684‎). The company and conversation was good, but the food ranged from so-so to just plain bad (the chicken feet were bland and the shaobing with beef were too sweet from plum sauce, and after the taste of cucumbers passed it was flavorless).
China Stix - Dim Sum

For dinner, we continued on our fine dining "death march" with The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton (600 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA‎ - (415) 773-6168‎). Before receiving the menus, an amuse bouche of fried agnolloti stuffed with a white bean puree arrived.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Fried White Bean Agnolloti

After we downed the tasty, bite sized pasta bits, we reviewed the menu. Our choices were to select two main courses for a three course dinner ($74) or the nine course tasting menu ($125). The tasting menu at The Dining Room is unique because if you eat as a couple, each diner gets a different dish for each course which gives you a total of eighteen different dishes. Tina and I were both concerned with the three course dinner - what if we don't like what we ordered? Obviously, we'd send it back, but there's still a good chance that we'd get bored. Plus, tasting eighteen dishes (twenty-one including the amuses) would give us a real feel for the restaurant. I ordered the Hildon sparkling water and the tasting menus and the evening began. It turns out the Hildon Natural Mineral Water was excellent - crisp, lightly effervescent, and barely acidic.

Our first amuse bouche (that is, the first one after that first one before we got the menus), was the New Caldonia Prawn sunchoke purée, orange reduction, shiso oil. The shrimp was borderline overcooked with the tails definitely a little tough (almost chewy). They were flavorful and paired well with the tangy orange sauce.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - New Caldonia Prawn

The second amuse was the 64° Quail Egg golden osetra caviar, cedar smoke which we felt was a little gimmicky. The smoke was contained within the acrylic bowl which was sealed with plastic wrap. There was a small hole in the plastic wrap covered by a spoon. When the spoon is lifted, the smoke escapes causing whatever you eat to taste like it's been smoked. It's a pretty good idea, but still gimmicky. The quail egg was cooked in its shell in an immersion circulator until 64°C - the temperature when the yolk just begins to solidify. The egg was excellent with an almost perfectly uniform custard texture and tasty osetra caviar gave the egg a great flavor.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - 64 Degree Quail Egg

Our nine course tasting menu began at this point with Chilled Asparagus Soup oyster, golden osetra caviar. A taste of lime was present in this cold soup. It was cool, refreshing and crisp. The oyster was sweet, fresh, and pretty much perfect. Occasional spoonfuls held some caviar which changed the flavor of that particular spoonful (making it like two excellent soups in one). I enjoyed the complexity of this soup.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Chilled Asparagus Soup

Winter Carrot Soup brown butter chantilly, abalone slivers. It took me a minute to get to photograph this, so the chantilly was melting in the warm carrot soup. The abalone pieces were a little chewy and didn't contribute much flavor to the heavy taste of the carrot soup. The soup itself was pleasant and was a fine soup, but, although it was comforting, it didn't feel sophisticated enough for a meal of this price range.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Winter Carrot Soup

Abalone blood orange, hibiscus scented pineapple. The Monterey abalone was a little chewy, but very flavorful.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Abalone

Big Eye Tuna Sashimi live spot prawn, yuzu gelée. The highlight of this dish for me was the real wasabi which was grated from the wasabi root at the table. I'm not sure I can go back to the food colored horseradish stuff again. The wasabi had layers of flavors that I wasn't used to tasting - a slight sweetness, radish, clean spiciness, and a pleasant aftertaste. The tuna was really good - sweet with excellent texture (resistant to the teeth, but once you bite down, it parts easily as if your teeth are razor sharp). The raw shrimp was just as excellent. This was one of the two dishes that I really, really liked.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Big Eye Tuna Sashimi

The big eye tuna also came with a fried spot prawns preparation served with two sauces that are mixed at the table. One tasted like lime juice to me and the other tasted like salty lime. Another "gimmicky" plating. It did look fancy and I was suitably impressed when the fine powdered Japanese salt dissolved in the liquid, but I didn't find the sauces added much to the taste. The fried spot prawns were salty and were fine on their own.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Fried Spot Prawns

Salmon baby onions, black trumpet mushrooms, carrot sauce, curry oil. I really like the trumpet mushrooms, but the salmon was not special in any particular way (except that it wasn't overcooked).
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Salmon

Halibut prawn and thyme foam. The halibut was overcooked (tough and stringy) and fairly flavorless. The foam was too mild for the overcooked fish. I sent it back to the kitchen and received an apology in return.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Halibut

Underneath the halibut plate (which was set in a bowl) was a surprise - a spot prawn ravioli with fennel. Both were tasty (but straight forward and simplistic).
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Spot Prawn Ravioli

Lobster chicken oysters, hearts of palm, carrots, hollandaise. Both lobster dishes were fairly heavy with heavy tasting sauces. I wasn't really ready for it after the previous uninspired and low key fish course. The hollandaise sauce was excellent - buttery with just the right amount of acidity. Sometimes hollandaise tastes really sour - like it's mostly lemon juice - and that just isn't a well balanced sauce. The chicken oyster (the little bit of thigh meat from the hip bone of a chicken) was tough and chewy.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Lobster

Lobster salsify, black truffle sauce. The black truffle slices were really mild in comparison to the truffle sauce and the lobster.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Lobster

Seared Foie Gras pickled huckleberries, apple jus. The foie was excellently prepared. The flavors were excellent but not overwhelming or overly salty (as the foie gras preparations I've had recently tended to be). It was served on a small crispy round of toasted brioche that was soaking in huckleberry and apple juice (and yet was still crispy!). I've always like the taste of foie gras with apple juice and the addition of huckleberries was great.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Seared Foie Gras

Chilled Foie Gras poached in port, toasted brioche. This foie gras was every bit as good as the seared foie gras. Again, the flavor was perfectly balanced with the addition of the port coming in as a middle note after the initial taste. I didn't think the marconi almond crumble or quince puree was a great pairing in this dish since the quince was sweetened to almost a jam-like level. There wasn't much tartness left at all which would have been a good matching with the foie gras since it was already sweet from the port wine reduction. Also, when eaten together, the quince puree was so strong as to completely overwhelm the taste of the foie gras. Still, this and the other foie gras was my favorite course during this dinner. I have foie gras fairly often (when compared to most people) and I usually enjoy it, but this is one of the few times where I really felt like it was executed almost perfectly.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Chilled Foie Gras

Quail red cabbage, golden enoki mushrooms, madiera. The breast piece was a little chewy but flavorful. The thigh piece was tender but lacked flavor.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Quail

Poussin black rice, pineapple jus, kale rabe, macadamian nut. This is just dressed up chicken breast, and although the chicken was very tender, it was almost flavorless. The black rice was also unseasoned, so it was hard to figure out what in this dish was supposed to supply the flavor. When we asked one of our servers (did I forget to mention we had an army of servers?), he informed us that Chef liked to back down from the heavy dishes to let our palates relax a bit before another heavy dish, so he lightly seasons the fowl course. That may be the case, but both the quail and the chicken were too bland. (Tina also commented at this point that she didn't feel like the two dishes per course were of similar value…)
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Poussin

Beef Rib Eye butterball potatoes, bordelaise sauce. The piece I tasted was a bit low on flavor. Tina tasted that piece as well and told me the first piece she ate was a bit more flavorful. I did like the king mushroom and the butterball potato.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Beef Rib Eye

Kobe butter bean puree, black trumpet mushrooms, spinach, sancho pepper. The slice of Japanese wagyu rib eye that was served to me was amply marbled and tasted wonderfully of beef fat. Unfortunately, I felt that it was a little overcooked (it was cooked somewhere between medium-rare and medium). Had it been cooked rare, the beef would have fallen apart in my mouth, but as it was I was forced to chew more than that cut requires. I wasn't a big fan of the butter bean puree either.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Kobe

Lychee Sorbet hibiscus gel. The sorbet had great lychee flavor and pairing it with hibiscus is something I've not thought of before. I'm making a mental note to try that combination in the future - it really works quite well.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Lychee Sorbet

Tangerine Orange champagne foam. Also a pretty decent sorbet. I preferred the lychee with hibiscus.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Tangerine Orange

Chocolate Manjari Cake caramel and sea salt, macadamian nut ice cream, cocoa nib crisp. This dessert had great textures going - crunchy (the cocoa crisp), soft (cake), and creamy (caramel and ice cream) - as well as flavor - bitter (from the chocolate), salty (salt crystals), sweet (caramel). We really enjoyed it.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Chocolate Manjari Cake

Yogurt Panna Cotta kiwi soup, strawberry. The panna cotta was slightly tangy which was a real change of pace from the panna cottas I've had in the past. The tart kiwi sauce it was served on really matched well with the yogurt flavor. It was also served with strawberry and a tangerine gel which provided their own acids. What was weird for me was the inclusion of a couple of small diced cubes of under-ripe cherimoya that didn't seem to carry much flavor.

Finally, we were done with our courses and they came with a cart full of magnardises - after dinner treats all made at The Dining Room. They loaded a small tray with all sorts of sweets ranging from a homemade marshmallow that dissolved into the most amazing passion fruit juice, a macaron, pistachio mini-cake, chocolate tart, a watermelon meringue, caramels, lollipops, and other stuff that I can't even remember.
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton - Mignardises

Overall, the meal was well executed, but nothing was really all that memorable except for the sashimi course and the foie gras preparations. If it wasn't for the number of dishes and the excellent service, I would say the meal was over priced. (If you're dining alone, then it's definitely over priced.) Would I go back to The Dining Room? I wouldn't choose to (but I'll go if someone else arranged to eat there and invited me) - there are better places in San Francisco to dine at this price range. Maybe I'll go back just for dessert (if I happened to be in the area). The pastry chef's creations were excellent.

4 comments to What I Ate: March 21, 2009 (China Stix, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton)

Scott, March 24th, 2009 at 3:22 pm:

  • The whole "chicken feet" thing is why I get creeped out by asian food that's too…"authentic." Give me my Americanized deep-fried General Tso's chicken and "Beijing Beef."

    Great posts on The Dining Room. That is more "classy" than even the nicest restaurants that I've been to (Probably Chez Panisse or Boulevard have so far been the upper echelon of my fine dining experience *laughs*)

    When you take a "tasting menu" like that…do you surrender yourself to the whim of the chef, or is it possible to request some framework? For instance "nothing raw, and no seafood" or something like that? Or, is a tasting menu just something you do when you have no qualms about anything that might be put in front of you? I understand that it could ruin the "adventure" but I'm allergic to almost all seafood, and I have had hospital-trip-ending "adventures" with raw/undercooked meat.

Nate, March 24th, 2009 at 8:30 pm:

  • Have you ever had smoked foie gras?

    That sashimi dish was the only one I'd pine over. Everything else…ehhh. Fancy food can get tiresome after a while.

    See you Saturday!

Michael Chu, March 24th, 2009 at 10:58 pm:

  • I have had smoked foie gras and it's a great flavor. (In general, I find foie gras to be pleasing, but the way they prepare it really makes a difference as to whether or not I can eat a lot of it. This is very important since Tina eats a little and then needs me to finish the rest, so when I'm faced with eating two people's worth of foie, I really hope it's the good stuff.)

Michael Chu, March 24th, 2009 at 11:06 pm:

  • I'm headed to Chez Panisse this Friday. It's the last stop on my list of restaurants to hit before I leave. I'm not sure I can handle much more fine dining - need a break.

    In general, when you order a tasting menu, you can establish some ground rules, especially if you have allergies or a dislike of certain dishes. Certainly, requesting no raw food and no seafood is fair (but unfortunate since a lot of skill and planning goes into transitioning your starting courses to the seafood courses and then into either a fowl or meat course - how the chef chooses to do this can really demonstrate his mastery of the art of cuisine). You should discuss your allergies with your server/captain who should be able to advise you on what the chef can accommodate and whether or not he feels that a tasting menu or ordering a la carte (or perhaps a 3-5 course menu) will work better for your dining experience.