Restaurant Critic Roundup: The New York Times Reviews L'Apicio
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Every week, The Daily Meal rounds up restaurant reviews across America
As always, the ratings range from stars to bells to beans, but every review offers specialized insight into the food, atmosphere, and service of eateries in each city’s dining scene and the critics eating at them.
This week in New York, critic Pete Wells dons one star on restaurant L'Apicio, commenting that "many restaurateurs would like the secret to making people take up an imperfect restaurant the way New Yorkers have already taken up L’Apicio. Unfortunately, the recipe has never been written down."
Also in New York, Bloomberg's restaurant critic, Ryan Sutton, delves back into the Best New Spots of 2012. Counting down from 12, not one of the restaurants is north of 28th Street, all in "neighborhoods battered by [the] power outages and raging floodwaters" of Hurricane Sandy.
At Pabu in Baltimore, "thoughtfulness is as free-flowing as sake," however "it might take a few dishes to appreciate the concept."
From the East Coast to the West Coast, from North to South, the weekly restaurant critic roundup is here for all of your dining out needs.
Restaurant Critic Roundup: 12/19/2012
|Devra First||The Boston Globe||Granary Tavern||1 stars|
|Stan Sagner||The New York Daily News||Gaonnuri|
|Pete Wells||The New York Times||L’Apicio||1 stars|
|Michael Bauer||The San Francisco Chronicle||Company||4 bells|
|Candy Sagon||The Washington Post||Pabu||2.5 stars|
|William Porter||The Denver Post||True Food Kitchen||2.5 stars|
|Robert Moss||Charleston City Paper||The Shelter Kitchen + Bar|
Check last week's Restaurant Critic Roundup.
Don't forget to check out Top Chefs Review — and Rate — America's Food Critics!
Tyler Sullivan is The Daily Meal's assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter at @atylersullivan.
Why Are Wine & Cocktails Absent from Restaurant Criticism?
The average New York Times restaurant review rarely dedicates more than 20 words to beverages.
A recent offering from the sidebar of one Times review read: “The wine list is chosen with an eye to value, with some good bottles under $60, and flexibility with food.” Another: “Small-batch spirits, a short cocktail menu and a well-priced list of mostly natural wines.”
That’s like characterizing a Bed, Bath & Beyond as having “a selection of inexpensive cotton sheets in many colors and patterns.” Not a lot to go on. But the Times is by no means alone overlooking beverage in reviews is so common that it’s become endemic.
Unless the establishment’s concept is demonstrably founded on cocktails, beer or wine, the standard review routinely ignores all but casual mention, despite the fact that, for a growing and free-spending faction, drinking is an essential part of the dining experience. Even in reviews where beverage is more than passingly discussed, its contribution feels ancillary—rather than essential—to determining a restaurant’s merit. Is the drinking experience not a vital part of our overall restaurant experience (and expenditure), deserving of reflection in the review? Why does this bias exist? And is it time for it to change?
These long-standing questions came back to mind after a recent post by Michael Bauer, restaurant critic for my hometown San Francisco Chronicle. The entry—titled “Should cocktails have separate star ratings?”—responds to a reader inquiring about a review of new restaurant, Alta CA, in which Bauer brings up its ambitious cocktail program, but ultimately provides no quantifiable rating of it. Indeed, the standard Bauer review applies star ratings to the following categories: Overall, Food, Service, Atmosphere, Prices and Noise. One essential category is conspicuously absent.
Bauer explains that “the bar program is an extension of the food offerings and what I find becomes part of the food rating.” Cocktails alone deserve this respect, he writes, because “there’s a person behind the bar creating the drink,” which is not the case with wine and beer. I applaud Bauer’s transparency and willingness to discuss this. But just one question: If cocktails are a part of Food, where exactly do beer and wine fit into the equation? Are they a phantom subset of Atmosphere, Prices or Noise?
Considering the ever-ascending profile of beverage programs and their creators, the restaurant critics’ blind eye is especially confounding.
Be it parsimony in budget or column inches, a lack of institutional desire marginalizes beverage programs in reviews. And that, I believe, isn’t all. The other problem is what I call the Great Divide between food and drink. Wine, spirits, beer, coffee and tea are still specialized fields—realms of extreme geekiness—that require a certain level of expertise. While no one feels inhibition in critiquing steak frites, relatively few people can look at a wine list and tell you that the Lapierre Morgon is marked up way too high, or taste that the level of carbonation on the Anchor Steam is off or that there’s too much maraschino in the Aviation.
Consider Bobby Stuckey at Boulder’s Frasca, Joe Campanale at New York’s Dell’Anima and L’Apicio, Michael Madrigale and his big bottle pours at Bar Boulud, what Rajat Parr’s eminence meant to the Michael Mina Group restaurants and Le Bernardin’s Aldo Sohm, who routinely turns up on the Today show. Celebrity sommeliers have become draws unto themselves. The same is true for bartenders—like Leo Robitschek at The NoMad in NYC and Jeffrey Morgenthaler at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon—who have helped make their restaurants destinations for the hungry and thirsty.
Point is, in today’s competitive landscape, an ambitious restaurant undoubtedly takes beverages seriously. They hire talented sommeliers, cicerones and bartenders who go to great lengths to curate programs reflective of the restaurant’s concept and ethos. Should a restaurant not be judged on how well they execute this?
“For me, restaurants offer a single, overall experience,” says Eric Asimov, the Chief Wine Critic for the New York Times. “Food, beverages, service, atmosphere are all part of that experience and must be considered in making an evaluation.” Beverage programs may be a more or less significant part of a restaurant’s identity, but he notes—acknowledging that he may be one of the few wine writers who “doesn’t want to read much more about wine in restaurant reviews”—that it’s “unnecessary to spend a lot of ink writing about [beverage programs] in depth, and reviewing individual bottles is a useless exercise.” He does, however, agree that while the food is the most important feature in a review that “breadth and character of beverage programs is important, as is execution, and it can be evaluated swiftly and effectively without taking too much time away from the food.”
I agree with him on all counts. My only response is that restaurant criticism is rarely practiced in the way he describes.
“I’ve often felt that I should devote more space to drinks,” says Josh Sens, the restaurant critic at San Francisco magazine, “but I don’t for a variety of reasons.” Namely, he says, he’s so limited in the space he’s given that there’s hardly room. And more importantly: only one drink is accounted for in his reviewer’s budget. But he also makes another salient point (about cocktails).
“I think there is also the sense, or at least I get the sense,” he says, “that cocktail programs all wind up sounding largely the same in print—at least if one is writing for a general audience. If you don’t have the ink to really geek out about the subtleties, it’s hard to do justice to the distinctions that are actually there.”
That observation jibes with Asimov’s point that “reviewing individual bottles is a useless exercise.” Yet overall, I think Sens gets at the heart of the problem. Be it parsimony in budget or column inches, a lack of institutional desire marginalizes beverage programs in reviews. And that, I believe, isn’t all. The other problem is what I call the Great Divide between food and drink. Wine, spirits, beer, coffee and tea are still specialized fields—realms of extreme geekiness—that require a certain level of expertise. While no one feels inhibition in critiquing steak frites, relatively few people can look at a wine list and tell you that the Lapierre Morgon is marked up way too high, or taste that the level of carbonation on the Anchor Steam is off or that there’s too much maraschino in the Aviation. Those details are obviously too granular for a specific review, but taken in aggregate or as part of larger set of data they become information I’d like to have.
Further, for the general public, wine pricing is the black box of the restaurant experience—the issue that brings the most discomfort and sews the most distrust between diner and sommelier. (And frankly, the cost of wine at restaurants is major deterrent to my dining out.) Typically only wholesale wine buyers have pricing information at their fingertips. Without it, the rest of us are unaware whether we’re being gouged or encouraged to liberally partake of the list.
A proper restaurant beverage critique that examined pricing could serve to both ease customer anxiety on the subject and make restaurants accountable for unfair pricing, and thus possibly incentivize them compete. (To his credit, Bauer occasionally attends to wine in a review, and when he does he offers a rough description of the list and even points out good deals by comparing list price to retail. Few, if any, other reviewers go this far.)
So what to do? I agree with Asimov that beverage should be perceived as a significant part of the overall impression of a restaurant, but it’s unrealistic, I suppose, to ask food critics to have such specialized knowledge. So, for now, perhaps it should be treated independently. That is not to say that beverages should receive a separate star rating, but I would welcome at least a reasoned, contextual and observant assessment of the beverage options as a whole.
Just as a restaurant reviewer’s critique may have a salutary effect on a restaurant itself, and on all surrounding restaurants, the presence of a dedicated beverage analyst could persuade many restaurants to raise their game. It would also reward the restaurants who have invested as much of their heart (and budget) in the cellar and bar as they have in the kitchen with the recognition they deserve. And lastly, it would help pair the thirsty with the good drink they’ve been longing for.
Jordan Mackay is the wine and spirits writer for San Francisco magazine. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Decanter, The Art of Eating, Food & Wine, Gourmet and many others. He is the author of Passion for Pinot and (with Rajat Parr) the James Beard Award-winning Secrets of the Sommeliers. Currently, he is working on a book about Texas barbecue and two more books on wine. He lives in San Francisco.
The L.A. Times Dinner Series kicks off Sept. 5 with a three-course collaboration meal between Jon Yao of Kato and Mei Lin of Nightshade the menu includes dry scallop porridge and pork belly ssam. Dinners will be picked up on the day of the event, and my colleague Lucas Kwan Peterson will host a video chat with the chefs while participants dine together online.
In addition, the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl, usually held as a monthlong series of events in May, will go on this fall in virtual form, with World Central Kitchen and the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank as partners. Events include a cook-a-thon fundraiser Oct. 17 cooking editor Genevieve Ko, cooking columnist Ben Mims and senior food writer Jenn Harris will cohost 30 chefs and celebrities from Los Angeles, the nation and the world. The Food team compiled an accompanying guide for the year’s theme, “Takeout and Give Back.”
Have a question for the critics?
How Many Michelin Star Restaurants are There in New York?
At the beginning of 2021, there are currently 64 Michelin-star restaurants in New York, including 5 three-star restaurants, 13 two-star restaurants, and 46 one-star restaurants. All ratings have been carried forward from the 2020 guide, as Michelin has decided to postpone their 2021 guide for the time being.
There’s no denying that 2020 has been a tough year for the restaurant business. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Michelin has postponed the release of their New York Guide, traditionally published in November, until further notice. Speaking to The Times back in November, Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guide, said that "ratings are not appropriate when so many restaurants are closed," although it is known that the Michelin inspectors resumed their work in August, so a 2021 guide may be forthcoming if conditions improve.
Instead of ratings, the focus in 2020 has been on highlighting the plight of the restaurant industry and promoting success stories. The California guide’s release was also postponed in June of last year, and in its place was held an online fundraiser for restaurants in the area, while Michelin has also started highlighting new restaurants in its announcements. Writers and critics for other publications, including The Times, Grub Street and Eater have likewise refrained from rating restaurants in their reviews, with an increased focus on establishments that are doing things well.
Although there may still be a 2021 guide published later in the year, for now, the ratings published in the 2020 guide still stand, minus those restaurants that sadly closed their doors for good last year. This means that, at the beginning of 2021, New York currently has a total of 64 Michelin-starred restaurants.
The city’s five three-starred restaurants - Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, Eleven Madison Park, Le Bernardin, Masa and Per Se - all retain their stars from last year. The number of two-starred restaurants, however, has fallen to thirteen following the closure of Blue Hill at Stone Barns back in March. The list of one-starred restaurants has suffered several losses during the pandemic and now stands at a total of 46.
Chowhound Remembers Jonathan Gold, Esteemed Los Angeles Times Food Critic
Jonathan Gold, the iconic Pulitzer-prize winning Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, passed away on July 21 st at the age of 57. His best restaurants list was an exquisitely curated and definitive resource, and his passion for diverse dishes made him an unusual and meaningful advocate for neighborhood restaurants.
Gold’s review of Jessica Koslow’s Sqirl in Silver Lake in the LA Times is an often-cited and prime example of his way with words: “Isaiah Berlin, in his famous essay, once divided thinkers into two groups: hedgehogs, who know one big thing, and foxes, who know many things… Koslow is a micro-hedgehog: She captures the flavor of a season and a place in a jar. Her cafe exists to reanimate the flavors she preserves, to display them as they ought to be displayed: rice porridge with toasted hazelnuts and jam rice tossed with tart sorrel pesto and preserved lemon fried eggs with puréed tomatillos and house-fermented hot sauce, just a smidge of hot sauce.” Although Gold’s food writing is what he was known for, he started off as as an equally talented and insightful music writer covering everything from grunge favorites to rappers.
The Goldbot, a Facebook Messenger chatbot that served up LA food reviews sourced from Gold’s reviews and Best of LA lists, was a particularly inventive way to utilize Jonathan’s recommendations and indicative of his collaborative spirit. Gold wasn’t precious about dining—the popular documentary “City of Gold” by filmmaker Laura Gabbert showcased his love of discovering new hot spots and his pride for the Los Angeles food scene.
Known for driving around LA in a green Dodge Ram pickup truck, Gold was an eccentric and endearing critic and was once described by the Chef Ricardo Zarate as a man who “looked like George Washington.” Pete Wells’s New York Times obituary for Gold goes on to describe his unpretentious style and focus on the people behind the food, as well as Gold’s commitment to exploring small family-run establishments.
With the recent loss of Anthony Bourdain, Gold’s untimely passing is particularly devastating for the food community. Readers and fans are posting on social media and online, as well as visiting their favorite “Gold spots” to pay tribute. Gold wrote more than a thousand restaurant reviews throughout his career and will be remembered for his contributions not only to the California dining scene, but also for his no-nonsense approach to food journalism, which won him many loyal readers.
Breaking News: New York Times Critic Frank Bruni Leaves Food Beat And Newspaper Folk Can’t Spell
My RSS feed just blew the hell up! Well actually … it blew up around 1:30, but I’m just now getting around to this. I got this email from my friend at the NYT, but this has been posted all over the net by now. The best thing about this email – the typos from a big wig at a major newspaper! Note the [sic] I inserted.
When we recruited Frank Bruni from the Rome Bureau to be the restaurant critic of The New York Times, there was a quizzical buzz in the food-o-sphere. Sure, Frank had shown himself to be a gifted reporter on subjects domestic and foreign. Yes, he was indisputably an exquisite writer. And there were unmistakeable [sic] clues to his affinity in his travel pieces, with their vivid evocation of Italian food, and in other features — the profile of the makers of Italian grappa, the visit to the University of Gastronomic Science in Polenzo. But he lacked what the foodie establishment would regard as suitable credentials. He was not the obvious choice.
Five years later, the choice seems not only obvious, but inspired, proving that sometimes editors get one really right. Not content to review his way around New York with authority and brio, not content to blog discoveries that do not yet merit a fullblown [sic] review, he has also performed more ambitious feats of criticism: his unforgettable cross-country tour of the iconic fast food joints of America, for instance, and his quest for the best brand-new restaurants in all of America.
In his spare time, between aerobic eating and the requisite gym time to burn it all off, he has managed to produce a memoir of his lifelong, complicated relationship with food. Recognizing that the book is certain to seriously compromise his ability to be a spy in the land of food, Frank picked this as a natural time to move on. He will be turning in his restaurant-critic credentials when his memoir, "Born Round: the Secret
History of a Full-Time Eater," is published in late August.
After a break for book promotion and some overdue vacation, Frank will become a writer-at-large on the staff of our Sunday magazine, where he will have license to follow his appetites — his journalistic appetites — whereever [sic] they lead him. Jill and I have insisted on the right to draft him occasionally for projects large or small, but the magazine will be his base and main outlet. Readers are in for some great reading.
As for the restaurant beat, the search for a successor begins now.
Server Lili Watson with your order in pre-in-dining suspension times at Cafe Medina, 780 Richards St. in Vancouver. Photo by Mia Stainsby
Amid endless days of pandemic deprivations, restaurants allowed us to be part of a tribe, albeit separated by plexi-glass and distanced. Even during this indoor dining lockdown, they rescue us from our own cooking with takeout and delivery. But restaurant workers work under challenging conditions, worrying about their health and keeping the public safe as well.
Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking : Yiddish Recipes Revisited
Arthur Schwartz knows how Jewish food warms the heart and delights the soul, whether it's talking about it, shopping for it, cooking it, or, above all, eating it. JEWISH HOME COOKING presents authentic yet contemporary versions of traditional Ashkenazi foods-rugulach, matzoh brei, challah, brisket, and even challenging classics like kreplach (dumplings) and gefilte fish-that are approachable to make and revelatory to eat. Chapters on appetizers, soups, dairy (meatless) and meat entrees, Passover meals, breads, and desserts are filled with lore about individual dishes and the people who nurtured them in America. Light-filled food and location photographs of delis, butcher shops, and specialty grocery stores paint a vibrant picture of America's touchstone Jewish food culture. Stories, culinary history, and nearly 100 recipes for Jewish home cooking from the heart of American Jewish culture, New York City. Written by one of the country's foremost experts on traditional and contemporary Jewish food, cooking, and culinary culture. Schwartz won the 2005 IACP Cookbook of the Year.Reviews & Awards
James Beard Foundation Cookbook Award Finalist: American Category
IACP International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook Awards, American Category Finalist "Jewish Home Cooking helps make sense of the beautiful chaos, with a deep and affectionate examination of New York's Jewish food culture, refracted through the Ins of what he calls the Yiddish-American experience."—New York Times Book Review Summer Reading issue, cookbook roundup“Schwartz breathes life into Yiddish cooking traditions now missing from most cities' main streets as well as many Jewish tables. His colorful stories are so distinctive and charming that even someone who has never heard Schwartz's radio show or seen him on TV will feel his warm personaality and love for food radiating from the page . . . Cooks and readers from Schwartz's generation and earlier, who know firsthand what he's talking about, will appreciate this delightful new book for the world it evokes as much as for the recipes.”—Publishers Weekly
In Memoriam: AA Gill’s Most Scathing Restaurant Reviews
Just a few weeks ago, prominent British food critic AA Gill dropped the news that he had been diagnosed with cancer — perhaps fittingly, in a review. Over the weekend, the Sunday Times confirmed that Gill had died.
Gill was known for his finely honed wit and razor sharp observations and assessments of the restaurants he covered (as well as other cultural phenomena), not just for the Sunday Times, but also Vanity Fair, the New York Times, and more.
In honor of Gill’s refined take-downs, here’s a roundup of some of his most scathing reviews that savage the most heinous crimes against food and dining.
66 (New York City)
Gill dropped by Tribeca restaurant 66 for a Vanity Fair review in 2003, and didn’t really agree with the its self-perception as a “fusion of modern design and haute Chinese cuisine.”
To say the food is repellently awful would be to credit it with a vim and vigor and attitude it simply can’t rise to. The bowls and dishes dribble and limp to the table with a yawning lassitude. A vain empty ennui. They weren’t so much presented as wilted and folded to death. It was all prepared with that most depressing and effete culinary style—tepid whimsy. Tell me, off the top of your head, what two attributes should hot-and-sour soup have? Take your time. It was neither. Nor anything else much.
L’Ami Louis (Paris)
For a 2011 Vanity Fair critique, Gill visited this Paris bistro, which he characterized as a favorite among high-profile anglophone visitors to the city.
So why do the Americans and English come here? Men who, at home, are finickity and fussy about everything, who consider themselves epicurean and cultured. Men who choose their own ties and are trusted with scissors and corporations, who have “sophisticated” on their Facebook pages. Why do they continue to come here? They can’t all have brain tumors. The only rationally conceivable answer is: Paris. Paris has superpowers Paris exerts a mercurial force field. This old city has such compelling cultural connotations and aesthetic pheromones, such a nostalgically beguiling cast list, that it defies judgment. It’s a confidence trick that can make oreille de cochon out of a sow’s ear—reputation and expectation are the MSG of fine dining.
But still, it’s undeniable that L’Ami Louis really is special and apart. It has earned an epic accolade. It is, all things considered, entre nous, the worst restaurant in the world.
Café Royal (London)
It may have been affiliated with the luxury, five-star Hotel Café Royal, but for Gill’s Sunday Times review, that meant this Central London restaurant only had further to fall.
The most depressing and uncongenial meal, in an anaemic, echoey building, made even more wrist-slashingly ghastly by the sad and silent ghosts of a century of culture and élan and bibulous brilliance.
The Tiroler Hut (London)
Notting Hill restaurant Tiroler Hut is known for trying to create the most intensely Austrian experience possible in a dining situation. Gill was not impressed.
I tasted a steak, a schnitzel, a bait of herring, all inedible, unless you were as drunk as everyone else in the room, or on the death watch at an old people’s home.
Ballymaloe House (Cork, Ireland)
This restaurant was deemed “the spiritual home of Irish cooking” by the Irish Times, a characterization that didn’t resonate for Gill.
A dining room that had possibly once been epic and was now just adequate . . . sad and expensive.
This wasn’t Gill’s most cutting commentary, interestingly. The Irish Times carried the restaurateur’s response — and he didn’t seem too bothered.
Theo Randall (London)
Gill on British chef Theo Randall’s eponymous haute-Italian restaurant:
It looked as if all the ingredients had been fed through an office shredder with half a pint of water and kept under a hot lamp since lunchtime.
Perhaps the best example of Gill’s biting criticism came back in the late ‘90s. Before Gordon Ramsay was shouting at people on TV, he was doing it in kitchens — including an incident where he ejected Gill from one of his restaurants as retribution for a previous review of Aubergine, in which the critic described Ramsay as:
A failed sportsman who acts like an 11-year-old
If a critic’s number one job is to express opinions with brutal honesty, Gill certainly succeeded.
The Review: Saddle Peak Lodge
On a warm summer night, the terrace at Saddle Peak Lodge seduces with its view through a pine tree to Saddle Peak and, beyond, the sky. We’re wrapped in the quiet of the Santa Monica Mountains halfway between Calabasas and Malibu, with just enough light to read the menu and the wine list. Heaven, I’m thinking, as the wine splashes into my glass. I hear French two tables over, quiet laughter. We talk easily.
Others are enjoying the cozy, rustic dining room under the eyes of the collection of heads of moose and stag , and various other leaping animals such as the emu, that line the walls of this former hunting lodge. There’s even a buffalo head with the slicked-down do of a barbershop quartet singer, donated by a customer.
Hemingway would have been right at home here, but he wouldn’t find his beloved Château Margaux or any of the other French wines he favored. The wine list — and it’s an extensive one — is all California, all the time. At one time that was common, so this seems like a sweet anachronism. It has its advantages, though, in that California winemakers appreciate the support, and seminal figures such as Bob Lindquist of Qupe or Gray Hartley and Frank Ostini from Hartley-Ostini show up for special wine dinners at the restaurant.
At least once every winter I try to make it out to Saddle Peak Lodge for a meal at a table in front of the fireplace. And again in summer when, if the weather gods are cooperating, you can sit outside with the heat lamps turned off — the better to revel in the landscape and scent of native sage, pines, earth and a hint of sea breeze.
With a relatively new chef, an updated menu and a more professional — and welcoming — front-of-the-house staff, the iconic Malibu Canyon restaurant wears its years and history lightly. All your favorite stags’ heads are in place, the old library books, too, and the grand old California Cabs, but the new crew has swept away the cobwebs and the musty atmosphere and Saddle Peak feels more alive than ever.
Saddle Peak is said to trace its beginnings back a hundred years, when it was a roadhouse, hunting lodge, sandwich shop and restaurant at various times. Since 1992, though, Saddle Peak the restaurant has been owned by Ann Ehringer, a former professor of business management at USC.
During the last decade or so, the kitchen has seen a parade of chefs coming through, some staying for just a year or two, sometimes more. It’s been a good thing in that slowly, but surely, with each change, the menu has moved in a lighter, more contemporary direction.
When I first started eating at SPL in the late ‘90s, the game theme seemed almost a gimmick, with ostrich or buffalo or whatever dotted through the menu with abandon. Sauces were heavy, ideas outdated. But successive chefs have moved the game theme to the periphery of the menu, where it makes more sense as a bonus instead of the main attraction. Obviously, there are more game dishes in season (generally late fall and winter) than in spring and summer. Serving less game has also helped to moderate the prices at this high-end restaurant. Though game dishes can cross the $50 line occasionally, most other main courses are in the $30 to $40 range — still high, but more manageable.
It’s a smart move on the part of the management, invigorated by general manager Joshua Buckner. The service is crisper too, and much more professional than in the past, though you can still get the occasional waiter who thinks it’s paramount to ask constantly how “everything is tasting.” Just look at the plates no comment necessary.
Executive chef Adam Horton has been on the job for just over a year now. A 2004 graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena who had worked at Saddle Peak during school, he did brief stints at several restaurants in Europe and at Mélisse in Santa Monica before ending up back at Saddle Peak. His enthusiasm shows. He’s still got the fire in his belly, discussing his food with diners, thinking up new dishes and trying them on regulars. His cooking is deft and modern, a breath of fresh air in this once stolid place.
Though the restaurant has just added a weekday small-plates happy hour described as “blue-jean friendly,” it is a dressy place for the Santa Monica Mountains. First-time visitors are usually shocked to find valet parking in seemingly the middle of nowhere and the lot packed with fancy rides.
There’s no place like it. The massive two-story stone-and-timber building has been expanded over the years, but there’s still the cozy original bar. I walked in one recent night to find two friends sipping martinis and doing their best to be taken for Nick and Nora Charles from the 1930s and ‘40s “Thin Man” movies. Who knows? It’s not inconceivable that William Powell and Myrna Loy once made a visit, along with the rest of old Hollywood.
But they wouldn’t have found the delightful roasted pink lady apple salad with feathery endive, candied pecans and a little soft blue cheese. Or perfectly seared foie gras, a few rich bites, perched on buttery brioche. Berkshire pork belly is beautiful too, crisp and caramelized on the outside, tender within, perked up with heirloom tomatoes in a sherry agri-doux sweet-and-sour dressing.
Hand-chopped Angus beef tartare with a touch of quince mustard makes a refreshing starter on a summer night, the beef spread on round brioche toast. And an heirloom tomato soup garnished with a little burrata and a single brandade croquette and poured from a Japanese iron teapot makes me happy.
If you’re hankering for game, try the chef’s game trio of the night, which could be elk tenderloin with sauce chasseur, antelope with Brussels sprouts (and, oddly, bearnaise), and some ostrich tenderloin. I don’t care how beautifully cooked it is (and this was), I am never going to crave ostrich. The taste is just too boring. Duo of Nebraska buffalo works for me though. The seared New York cut is somehow lighter than beef while still having plenty of flavor. The short ribs shredded “barbecue style” rev up the flavor with a tangy sweetness and are well-served by an accompaniment of braised mustard greens and a corn-pepper pancake.
Pan-roasted trout gets a hearty treatment with some pancetta, polenta and a slew of vegetables. And black cod, substituted (praise be) one night for Chilean sea bass, tastes sumptuous under a miso-sake glaze. It sits in a spiced duck broth bobbing with duck confit agnolotti for an Asian-Mediterranean fusion.
Some other dishes may seem too tame, such as the chicken breast with artichokes and pearl onions or a mesquite-grilled filet mignon. That filet, though, gets a silky bordelaise sauce with wild mushrooms that harkens back to the old days at Saddle Peak but is prepared with such a light hand that this old dish seems new again.
For dessert, consider the trio of sorbets served on a carved ice pedestal with a hollow for each flavor. The blueberry is cool and intense. It’s a good dessert to share, but then again, so is the dreamy coffee pot de crème with a fluff of whipped cream or the piping hot beignets filled with strawberry jam and served with crème anglaise.
It’s a good sign if, at the end, everyone at table is inclined to linger. At Saddle Peak Lodge, the food, the wine and the magical setting conspire to seduce you into thinking you’ve been away for the weekend instead of an evening. In some ways, despite the high tariff, that makes Saddle Peak Lodge a bargain.