Two specific "fine-dining" questions
I'm moving to the Bay Area after five years away and have started fantasizing about where I will eat. Here are two questions I have.
1. One of the best meals I can remember was the dinner I had at Fleur de Lys maybe six years ago. I was pretty shocked to see it wasn't on Michael Bauer's Top 100 list. Is there general agreement that it is not as good as it used to be? Was there some specific change?
2. I can't imagine eating at a restaurant with the name "The Dining Room at The Ritz Carlton". It sounds like the antithesis of a Chowhound destination. I've never been in a Ritz Carlton, I don't think, but to me they're about exclusivity and fawning employees (who probably wouldn't fawn over me). I guess this isn't really a question, but I'd like people to tell me either: "I felt the same way, but the food there is creative and amazing" or "If you don't like uppity places, you should probably stay away".
Fleur de Lys - I ate dinner here for the first time last April and our dinner was spectacular. We ordered a Chef's tasting menu and all of the diners in my party agreed the dinner was outstanding. Personally it was one of the best meals I've had in the last year. That said, our experience may have been atypical (and as I have only eaten there once, I cannot really say one way or the other) for a few reasons. We were a large party celebrating a birthday and had a relatively late seating so we probably had a larger share of the staff's attention than is typical. We also spent a considerable amount of money. Marcus Garcia - the dining room manager and Sommelier - was our primary waiter; to his credit he was very helpful despite the fact that we mostly ordered in the lower mid-range of the wine list, and actually provided a bottle on the house in addition to the bottles we ordered because he felt it would offer a smoother transition to integrate it into the our menu. Also, I know for a fact that Hubert Keller was in the kitchen that night. Mr. Keller claims to split his time between only two restaurants - FdL Las Vegas and FdL San Francisco.
The Dining Room - I think it's great. It has been a few years since I was there but I had a great meal. I think whiner's description - "a little formal by SF standards" but "not snooty or stuffy at all" is apt.
Bauer knocked Fleur de Lys down from four stars to three in 2007. You can find reports from some disappointed former fans in the archive here.
Bauer explained on his blog that he left the Dining Room off his 2008 Top 100 because he bought the rumor that the chef was leaving to open his own place. In fact Siegel was only considering the option and the deal didn't happen. It's still one of the eight places he gives four stars.
Fleur De Lys
777 Sutter St., San Francisco, CA 94109
The Terrace at the Ritz-Carlton
600 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA 94108
I was lucky enough to eat a both FDL and The Dining Room last year, within a few months of each other. The Dining Room, despite being in a hotel and having a boring name, was the clear winner in every way imaginable: ambiance, dinner quality, ingredients used, service, price point, drinks, desserts, creativity, variety, and level of desire to return. TDR is no more fawning or exclusive than FDL. In fact, I would say that I feel more relaxed and comfortable at The Ritz than at FDL.
FDL used to be fabulous. I remember going there when I was younger for anniversaries, birthdays, special occassions, then I went a few years ago even before it was dropped off the 100 List and it was horrible. Some places just go down hill.
I can't say much about the Ritz because unfortunately I have never gone. Though a friend of mine works in the kitchen and it sounds like they are doing fabulous stuff. I have never really heard any major complaints of it being "snooty". I find more "snooty" front of the house staff in casual neighborhood joints or hip restaurants more so than fine dining restaurants who really want their 20% off of that average $200.00 tab so they work for it and are very helpful to first time customers.
I have not been to FDL in 3 years and have taken it on faith that it may be coasting a little due to various Chowhound reports. However, my two meals there were amonst the best I've had... one was the best meal I've had in the States.
The Dining Room is great. It is a little formal by SF standards -- more Manhattan-like than some others in town. But it is not snooty or stuffy at all. Highly reccomended.
1. Part of the answer is Bauer's very conscious of the weight of the "top 100" list. People use it as a checklist, restaurants (especially new joints trying to get over the 6 month hump) will be made by the list. It's Bauer's chance to get people out and eating something different, and putting FDL doesn't really further the cause of bay area dining - everyone knows what FDL does well, and whether its on or off the list doesn't change things much.
Another part of the answer is Bauer's been very good in recent years about covering the entire scene. He's heavy on glitzy places, but he's trying to get a spread of tastes and types and concepts. So the real question is NOT "is FLD better than Junoon in Palo Alto", but is "FLD, Masa, Ritz Carlton, pick two".
The other part of the answer is that Bauer's to be taken with a huge grain of salt. I don't trust his reviews - although I do try to read them, just so I can continue to have an opinion on his reviews. If I was going to give him a break, I think no single person can attempt to cover the entire bay area scene, from wine country to south san jose pho. OTOH, if I was king of the world I'd double the budget and hand it over to Ruth, Melanie, rworange, and Mr Lauriston. Occasional guest spots by others. Have each of them give one column per week. My idea of heaven right there.
2. I've not eaten at TDRATRC, and I admit the name's part of the problem. But the fact is the chowhound ethic is the best food no matter where, and if that means the blind noodle master cooking over sterno in the polo grounds that's ok, but it also means if it's at a stuffy french restaurant, that has to be OK too.
3. Counter question: what about the michelin stars? There's a flawed list for you. I haven't been to Aqua recently, but everyone tells me to stay away - two stars? Really? They give Masa and FDL a toss-up at one star each.
Extremely well said and completely on. The only thing I would add is that it seems to make a huge difference whether Hubert Keller is cooking that night in the kitchen. If he is, my experience is that you're going to have a wonderful meal; if not, chances are you will be disappointed.
I've been to Aqua several times for lunch and several times for dinner, and I've tried both their business lunch tasting menu and fine dining dinner tasting menu. And without fail, I come out of the restaurant every single time wondering why it's held in such a high regard. The food is decent, but two Michelin stars??? No way.
Aw, shucks! Such a nice thing to say (and a nice idea!).
I forgot to mention that although it's been many years since I ate at either FdL or TDR@TRC (both predated my time on chowhound), I thought just in terms of service the latter was in a whole other category. The service at the Ritz was fawning in a good way, in the "just tell us what we can do so you have a fabulous time" way. I had hands down the worst fine dining service of my life at FdL (no need to beat that dead horse again, if you're curious, do a search), and over the years there have been numerous reports of snooty service there that make me think my experience wasn't a fluke. And as I said above, FdL is much more of a glittery "scene" than TDR, which is smaller, rather quiet and much more about the food.
re: Ruth Lafler
Actually, now that you mention it, I do recall the service being very bad at FDL. We were a party of six celebrating one of my friend's recent engagement and the waiter was sooo snooty to us that at the end my friend had to bring it to the attention of the manager. And it wasn't even like we weren't ordering lots of expensive wines and food! But the food was great and Hubert Keller was definitely cooking that night (we got a picture with him afterwards).
Good luck bringing it to the attention of anyone who cares. I just did that search I suggested, and found one post from more than five years ago where I remarked that there were enough complaints about the snooty service at FdL that they had to be aware it was an issue. I guess I feel the same way about FdL as I do about Oliveto: I had bad service; lots of other people have reported bad service; bad service is not acceptable at those prices (especially when you figure what the average tip is for meals at that level); the restaurants have known for years that their service is iffy at best and they haven't fixed it; conclusion: they don't care; conclusion: I'll take my limiting fine dollars elsewhere.
1. FL: I don't get the food there. It seems to me to be a mismashed of different taste on one plate. Services vary. Formal, but the "sophistication" isn't always delivered by all the waitstaff.
2. TDR: my favorite fine dining place in SF. composition of the food is very cohesion. service is formal at the same time comfortable.
I was at Fleur de Lys earlier this year (first time) and was not wowed in the least by the food. Things were relatively prepared well. But at that price point, people tend to expect more. I think if the restaurant charged more moderate prices for what they were offering, I would have been happier with the food. And their signature burger dessert was just not tasty at all. Brioche was really dry and nothing really sung to me. Sure, it was kind of cute. But I'd rather have a piece of "boring" perfect chocolate cake or perfect apple pie.
And I've only been to the Dining Room at the Ritz a few years ago and was really impressed by the tasting menu. It was certainly a food marathon. Problem was that our reservation was really late (as that was when our plane arrived). The first four courses were heaven. Then I think the main kitchen staff left as there were execution problems with the rest of our courses. But it was still delicious, creative, and had a "wow factor." DH ordered the wine pairing and they were super generous with the pours (full glass pours). We ended up having to take a cab to our hotel even though the hotel was just a few blocks away.
The bar has been raised a bit in Bay Area dining, and while FDL might be the same, other places have stepped up and offered new, better or different. So in that sense FDL might be coasting or staying the same but it doesn't mean it's not good...just that there's evolution around it (real or percieved).
Heck there are people saying the same thing about The French Laundry, hasn't changed, and they have a point. But why would you change much if you're 100% booked, year round and charging a hefty price? Does that make it bad?
I think within the past 6 years SF has become even more competitive and gone into a bit of the "what's new is good" mode, not that's bad at all. It many ways it's very good but the reviews (like the Top 100) follow this ethos since that's their job but it pushes out places that are still perfectly good. I take the Top 100 and Bauer with a huge pile of salt. You still might like FDL. There's plenty of places that fell off the Top 100 list that are still good or excellent.
1. I don't know why Bauer left it out, but there has been a general feel on this board that FDL hasn't had top notch food and service in a while. Maybe Hubert Keller branching out to his Vegas restaurants has negatively affected his old restaurant.
2. The Dining Room gets lots of attention on here not because of the hotel or the stigma of its name but because of its head chef and the quality of food he puts out on his tasting menus. As for the front of house staff, I think it can be hit or miss depending on the waiter. Some waiters are clearly a little more standoffish, some are very friendly, and some can need more experience working at a place of the Dining Room's caliber.
I also don't know what you mean by "fawning" but most front of house staff in the states try to be very friendly regardless of who you are.
re: Xiao Yang
So, that would mean that since the name is a minimum of three words and seven if you count the hotel name, you wouldn't avoid it. Same number of words as Fleur de Lys.
I loved my dinner at The Dining Room a few years ago. Definately the definition of a Chowhound destination in that class. Also the Ritz has some of the best service I've ever had. When you are in a top-notch place like The Ritz, they don't fawn. They make you feel welcome and comfortable.
The chef, Ron Siegel can often be seen shelping around the SF or Marin farmers markets picking up items next week's menu. The food to me was both creative and full of flavor.
What I like about Siegel is that he is just focusing on that one kitchen. He isn't trying to open the next topscale chain like Minna, both Kellers (Tom and Hubert ), etc, etc, etc.
So have you returned yet or tried anything? You might look through some of the Place records and reports for restaurants in that same class to catch up.
The food there is creative and amazing -- the chef is Ron Siegel, who has a long and distinguished pedigree, including winning against Iron Chef French in the original Japanese Iron Chef. I've never heard any complaints about the service there being snooty -- I think they figure if you want to eat there and can afford to pay the tab, you're good enough for them! I'm not aware that it's the kind of place that draws people who are there to be seen and fawned over, either -- not like Fleur de Lys, which does have that reputation. If Fleur de Lys wasn't too uppity for you, then I can't imagine The Dining Room at the Ritz would be.
As for Bauer's Top 100 list, I don't know why he left off Fleur de Lys, although I think some people would say that it's coasting. It's believed he left off TDR because at the time the chef was rumored to be leaving in a deal that eventually fell through.