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The Ritz reroutes

Josh Sens | February 13, 2012 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

Toward the tail end of its life, the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton was like a character from Downton Abbey: stiff-lipped and stuck in another era, even as the world around it convulsed with change. All across the city, formal restaurants had relaxed, shedding their white tablecloths and crumbers in a nod to the economy and shifts in dining culture. But the starchy room at the Ritz remained draped in heavy linens and done up in decor that called to mind your granny and her taste for doilies. It was, in other words, a deadly backdrop for Ron Siegel’s lively style of cooking.
As a youthful chef with a sterling résumé and a Ron Jeremy mustache, Siegel enjoyed a splashy moment in the late ’90s when he became the first American to win on the original Iron Chef—a fitting triumph for an ample talent whose cooking mingled elements of East and West. At the Ritz, where he took over in 2004, after stints at the French Laundry, Charles Nob Hill, and Masa’s, Siegel brightened a musty setting with such precisely rendered dishes as uni panna cotta and spot-prawn sashimi with tomato gelée. Dining under his direction, just off the lobby of the swish hotel, was like eating very well in a funeral home.
On that note, it is in respectful tones but without a heavy heart that I bring word of the old restaurant’s passing. Its ashes have been scattered, and the space that used to house it has been reborn. It is now called Parallel 37, a contemporary-sounding name that refers to San Francisco’s latitude on a map. Follow that line to Nob Hill and you find that the renovated restaurant boasts a bar with fashionable cocktails by Town Hall veteran Camber Lay, exposed wood tables, and brown leather booths backlit by outsize photos of oak-studded hills. The wine list, steeply marked up to high-end-hotel standards, is delivered on an iPad. Welcome to the Ritz-Carlton 2.0.
The one constant on the scene is Siegel, who has recast his menu to fit the fresh surrounds. Gone are the multicourse prix fixe options, replaced by a more casual collection of small bites, appetizers, mains, and sides. Compared with the old menu, it’s a populist approach. But to say that the chef has cut back on pirouettes isn’t to suggest that his performance is now simple. His subtle East-West leanings are still apparent in a small plate of perfectly seared scallops, spiked with yuzu and served with jiggly cubes of green tea gelée; and in kampachi sashimi, the sweet slivers of fish flecked with lemony wood sorrel and set on wavy rice crisps in bite-size portions. Pop them in your mouth and tiny citrus bombs burst: finger lime vesicles, which come sprinkled on the kampachi like caviar.
Even in the humblest-seeming dishes, Siegel’s high breeding surfaces. He complements polenta fries with chanterelle relish and flanks Miyagi oysters with pools of elderflower mignonette. For cardamom-braised chicken, he slow-cooks the thighs, grinds the meat into paste, and presents it in a small ceramic vessel. You lift the cap and dig a knife into the buttery contents, then spread them on grilled bread like pâté.
The eternal challenge of the hotel restaurant—how to attract locals without alienating business travelers—is a balancing act, and Siegel is as adept at it as any chef in town. His food is accessible and unpretentious. But for those seeking haute touches, there are plenty to be found. Take, for instance, a creamy curry-scented mushroom soup, poured tableside over a parmesan wafer, or local black cod, plated with diced daikon and delicate squid tentacles, then bathed last-minute in miso broth. The chef also deals in meat and potatoes, though his version is Japanese wagyu rib eye, with Yukon gold puree, king trumpet mushrooms, and pickled cipollini onions, underpinned by a dark and pungent sansho pepper reduction.
If all that is too much, there is always the bar, where one can find safe haven in balanced drinks (the Missionary March, starring tequila and grapefruit bitters, is one of several musts) and upgraded takes on happy-hour staples such as burgers, flatbread, and chicken wings. On my final visit, I paused there for a nightcap and a plucky lemon semifreddo in huckleberry sauce (like the rest of the menu, desserts strike a pose of relaxed sophistication), and realized I was sitting in the place to be. A football game was playing on the TV just behind the bar, and a gaggle of young suits had surrounded it to hoot at the action: a J. P. Morgan convention, the server informed me.
Not the most interesting crowd, yet more compelling than a mummified cast from Masterpiece Theatre. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel may still cater to the 1 percent, but at least its restaurant is alive and well. Parallel 37: 600 Stockton St. (at California St.), S.F., 415-773-6168, $$$$, reservations recommended, valet parking, wheelchair accessible, ***


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