Given the state of the economy these days, it is crucial that a high end restaurant wow its guests to prove that an extravagant dinner is worth the expense.
I hope someone forwards this memo to Santé at the Fairmont Mission Inn in Sonoma, CA, where I dined last week. Though it strives to serve haute cuisine in wine country- and its prices reflect this effort- Santé too often misses the mark. Somewhere between a splendidly light cauliflower custard and a lackluster haché hearts of palm salad, I felt duped. I had come to be impressed, but the high points were too far and few between to warrant the price.
Since we went to Sonoma to drive race cars at the Infineon Race Way, a car analogy seems apt. It occurred to me that the hundred dollar tasting menu at Santé could be the culinary cousin of a Jaguar sports car. For the same price, there are many other cars with superior handling, reliability, and power. The Jaguar is therefore more of a status symbol than a high performance car, just as this restaurant looks and feels like haute cuisine but simply isn't worth the price tag. While there were high points and sublime tastes throughout the meal at Santé, I left thinking this was a lot of money for an acceptable- not fantastic- dinner.
The meal began with an unfortunate amuse-bouche: a shredded duck crostini with mushroom consommé and truffle foam that was too salty to really tease the palate. It left me wanting a tall glass of water, not the glass of champagne that accompanied it. Inauspicious from the starting line.
However, the next course of cauliflower custard topped with caviar was exquisite. While the texture of the custard reminded me of my grandmother’s best leche flan dessert, the salt content was perfectly apportioned in this dish, with the majority coming from the caviar topping.
The hearts of palm salad impressed no one at our table, and the saffron risotto was similarly disenchanting. Just because saffron is an expensive spice does not mean it should be used wantonly to impress. Worse, the undercooked rice was still grainy to the bite. The deep yellow color and brash flavor of the rice suggested what the chef lacked in preparation time, he made up with seasoning.
I do not wish to ignore some of the wonderful dishes Santé serves, for the seafood course demonstrated that Santé can do some things- and perhaps many others with a little more focus- remarkably well. Given my allergy to shellfish, I substituted the lobster for a halibut dish, but my fellow diners and I were impressed with both plates. The aroma of the butter poached lobster with squash was enough to make me wish I had an Epi-Pen handy. I wasn’t disappointed, though, because the halibut was expertly seared and remarkably moist. The accompanying bacon and peas provided the crunch each bite of fish deserved.
Half way through the meal, I wondered: Was Santé just confused? Did the different station cooks possess wildly varying abilities? The inconsistency reminded me of the Jaguar owner who relishes driving the car but must bring it into the garage, again.
After dancing around the issue for several courses, Santé had the opportunity to really impress with their Kobe beef entrée. I was expecting to see the value of the dinner after this course, that the first several courses were merely stepping stones to the jewel in the tasting menu crown. The rib eye cuts were tender, certainly, and they were juicy enough. However, I wasn’t bowled over by any particular pairing or flavor. The Prime Merlot that came with the Kobe beef was more intriguing to me than anything on the plate. I wish I could recall more about the preparation of the dish and its accompaniments; perhaps that speaks to its mere acceptability, rather than it being a truly memorable taste.
The cheese course was delightful in taste, but too small for our party of four. We chose five year Gouda, Rouge et Noir triple cream brie from Napa, and raw goats milk cheese. Though the cheeses themselves were pleasing, the miserly portions had everyone rationing their bites. For the price, the cheese course should be at least adequate for everyone to try every cheese. Again, I felt duped.
Santé closed the evening with two desserts, a blueberry sorbet with strawberries, raspberries and crème frâiche, and a Grand Marnier and chocolate soufflé. Of the two, I preferred the soufflé, which was prepared expertly and folded and puffed perfectly when topped at the table. The blueberry sorbet, however, did not have the refreshing quality of more typically flavored sorbets. The repetitive berry pairing surprised no one. Though a simple dessert can be classic, Santé should consider how inventive pastry chefs elsewhere are pushing the novel flavor envelope.
Given the precarious situation in which many restaurants find themselves these days, Santé must step up its game. Flashes of talent and true quality indicate that it can perform at the caliber its prices suggest. Whether they will do so remains to be seen.