review: olio…

Local Sardines

I wanted to catch up with two friends whom I hadn’t seen in a while.

Anticipating that I wouldn’t be particularly peckish (there was a whole lot of eating going on those few days in San Francisco), I was more fixated on my good company than the venue.

They suggested Luce, the newly Michelin-starred restaurant at the Hotel Inter-Continental.  And so, we went.

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*     *     *

Though it may gleam with a shinier finish, the sprawling interior of Luce has just about as much personality as the next hotel restaurant. It could be Las Vegas, or Houston, or a rather uninteresting patch of SoMa in San Francisco, as it was.  By day, it looks nothing like the photo on the restaurant’s website, thanks to big-picture windows that flood the room with natural light.

Is it more charming at night?  I hope so.

Dominique Crenn is the chef here. A French-Moroccan, she has been in and around San Francisco for the better part of two decades, with a year spent cooking in each Indonesia and Los Angeles in between.

She did quite well on a past season of the Next Iron Chef, one of my friends informed me. And I now see that her Michelin star was recently renewed for the first time. But that is all neither here nor there, especially since her sardines were fishy tasting. Given that everything else on that plate was delicious – especially the chermoula-spiced chickpeas – that was unfortunate.

Her food is beautiful, though.  And thanks to the abundant amount of light, the photos from this meal were unusually well-lit.  Here is what we ordered.

*    *    *

First Courses

Baby Farm Beets
Black Olive Soil /Truffle Tremor/Verjus/Yellow Beet Sorbet. ($12)

David Little Farm Potato Soup
Forest Wild Mushrooms/Parsnip. ($9)

Local Sardines
Potato Confit/Frisée/Crème Fraîche/Chermoula/Chick Peas. ($12)

Artisan Cured Meats
Cornichons/Pickled Baby Onions. ($14)

Main Course

Mollusk and Seafood/Lobster – Saffron Jus. ($21)

Arctic Char
Couscous “Pearl”/Salsify/Shiso and Mint. ($19 a la carte)

Braised Pork Belly “Vietnamese Sandwich
Cilantro/Mint/Jalapeño. ($14)


Earl Grey Panna Cotta
Lemon Gelee

*   *   *

Arctic Char

I wasn’t surprised that Crenn’s lunch menu was less exciting than I had hoped. Chefs are often forced to dilute their lunch menus to keep pace with the average diner.  At a hotel restaurant, especially, where the tourist footprint is larger, chefs have to cut back their creativity and offer more accessible dishes.  Even the hotel-bound star chef can’t escape this. You’ll find a mixed greens salad with asparagus on the lunch menu at Jean Georges, for example.  (I don’t know that Crenn’s lunch menu was watered down, it just seemed so.)

More troubling, however, was that her menu seemed a bit scatter-minded, a hodgepodge of flavors that I assume, given Crenn’s background, credited the parts of the world that influenced her as a chef.  Some of it worked, some of it didn’t.

I can’t fault the execution though. Most of what we had was well-cooked. And the ingredients were generally top-shelf.  The food, however, just needed a little focus.

My favorite dish of the meal was the simplest – a warm potato soup with parsnips and wild mushrooms.  That was great.

Portions tended to be over-sized.

The “Bouillabaisse,” for example, was as colorful as it was large – two fillets of fish, plus a platoon of squid and shrimp, and mussels the size of a small fist. The seafood was magnificently prepared, more warm than cooked. But I thought the lobster-saffron broth (poured tableside) was wimpy; it tasted more like watery carrot broth. True to the scare quotes that hugged this dish’s title, this wasn’t really bouillabaisse.

One of my friends ordered the Market Menu, a three-course prix fixe for $20.10, with limited options.   The maftoul (i.e. Israeli cous cous) on his main course, which included two beautifully roasted fillets of Arctic char, was a bit firm for my taste. The accompanying salsify, however, was tender and delicious.  But couldn’t I get a similar dish at many other restaurants around the country?  I think I could.

The Baby Farm Beets – a rainbow of them – were especially great, dragged through and coated with crunchy black olive “soil.” But the beet sorbet was too sweet, too strange.

The barbecue pork belly in the “Vietnamese Sandwich” was also inexplicably sweet. Imagine Chinese char sui colliding with Kansas City barbecue sauce, minus the smoke and spice. Flavor aside, the pork belly was incredibly soft. Finely chopped, it all but melted away in my mouth. The pickled vegetables were excellent (they were also the highlight on a platter of artisan cured meat, which included some pretty tasty duck prosciutto).

I don’t know what’s going on with the pastry program here.  The four lunch desserts seemed incredibly unimaginative, even for a lunch menu.

My friend, who ordered the three-course Market Menu, was entitled to pleasure himself with a pick. He chose the Earl Grey Panna Cotta, which tasted much more like green tea than earl grey. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great.

And neither was the service, which was a little clueless at times.

Though the lunch menu seemed slightly simplified, I do appreciate the fact that the kitchen didn’t compromise the quality of the cooking or the ingredients.

However, hope that Crenn has more to offer at night.  I’d be interesting to return to Luce for dinner to compare the two experiences.

Hotel Inter-Continental
888 Howard Street
San Francisco, California 94103

* Michelin

~ by ulterior epicure on November 29, 2010.

One Response to “review: olio…”

  1. I wish I could tell you that dinner was better, but your lunch seems to be indicative of the cooking here. Which is too bad – I really wanted to like Luce.

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