i took my hub this past sunday night to la suite for his birthday dinner. i decided on la suite based on a recent m. bauer review that it might just be a bay area version of ny's balthazar, and balthazar happens to be one of our favorite restaurants in the country. unfortunately, our experience at la suite left us with more of a longing for balthazar than ever, reaffirming that a solid french brassierie is not as easy to pass off as just the sum of its ingredients. i didn't see fit to take notes during dinner, so i'll elaborate to the best of my memory....
the space/scene -- as you enter, the bar area is to your right, the front dining area is to your left and spreads in front of you, lining up to the brass rail separating it from the open kitchen (the old slanted door space, of course). there are a few 4-tops lining the window looking onto the embarcadero, but the rest of the tables either line the leather banquettes against the rails or are free-standing in the room -- note: VERY LOUD in this room , to the point of distraction.... maybe the tables along the windows would be better. we were initially seated along the rail but asked to be moved (immediately) because we couldn't even hear each other. they were prompt and gracious about the relocation, which was a relief. we were moved to a table in the second room, more quiet (although still loud -- i'm blaming it on nothing but hard surfaces in the entire space). the only problem with being in the second room is that one tends to feel sort of "cut off" from the action. in our case, this was not an issue, but just an fyi...
the service -- all members of the staff that we interacted with were very courteous and professional. the only *very* mild irk was that our waiter seemed to forget who got what each time a course was presented.... not a big deal but a note nonetheless.
the food/drink --
1) our dinner began on a very promising note as we looked at the menu and had a hard time deciding on the wide selection of starters (seared day boat scallops, sweetbreads, butter lettuce salad...). i ended up ordering the roasted marrow bones ($9.50) and hub got the seared foie gras ($14). we the decided to split the warm lobster salad, a dish bauer thought was extremely good. we also ordered a bottle of '98 la milliere chatauneauf-du-pape ($69) to get it breathing. the marrow bones came made to order, about 15 minutes later, and were perfect. the rich, creamy, fluffy marrow came right out of the bones and was served with whole roasted garlic cloves, 3 long baguette crostinis, and a refreshing "salad" of flat-leaf parsley & shallots in a lemon-based vinaigrette. the foie gras was up to par with the better presentations in town -- a thicker than usual slab perfectly crusted on the outside and creamy-rare on the inside with some sort of fig (??) jus drizzled around it. these dishes, unfortunately, were the best of the food experience...
2) the highly anticipated warm lobster salad ($15) arrived and looked.... nice. not great, a rather small portion of lobster and a clump of baby arugula on the side, and the server poured a drizzle of the creamy citrus vinaigrette over it all. we dug in with gusto anyway, and then we both noticed a really BAD taste.... immediately spit it out (can't mess with potentially off seafood, you know). i smelled the still-intact lobster and it had a distinct ammonia smell. wow, were we bummed. we got the waiter back over and he took it away without a second thought. he offered to replace it but we were a bit put off at this point. the good part is that i ordered a viognier (only one available by the glass) to accompany the lobster, and the wine was excellent (about $8.50/glass, i think).
3) our main courses were at least better than the lobster experience, but still not exceptional. hub ordered the entrecote de beuof with frites and i had the seared ahi on celery root puree ($28 each). the steak was a thin rib-eye cut, uniformly browned and crusty on the outside, seasoned and cooked properly. as he cut into it, however, there was a thick border of fat that made up a good 20% of the steak -- the uniform browning made it difficult to see. the frites were fine but not outstanding or unique in any way, tasting almost as though there was a sprinkling of commercial garlic salt over them. my seared ahi was good, a very well-sized portion of 2 large "triangles," a combined weight of about 10-12 oz. they were executed well, perfectly seared with a slightly warm interior, but the oddly sweet celery root puree added a somewhat cloying backdrop to an already rich entree -- i would have loved a more earthy, light, or even slightly sour counterpart to the ahi. there were some wilted greens on the side as well, but i can't truthfully recall what or how they were (not too memorable.)
4) the dessert menu had some usual suspects, but we figured the tried and true might be a good call at this point. we ordered the molten chocolate cake and asked for the house-made vanilla ice cream on the side. this proved to be an excellent choice... we couldn't decide whether the cake or the ice cream was better. i regret not having the apple tarte (with calvados ice cream) to myself, in retrospect, but i suppose i was already full. the cappuccino and latte that we ordered were very nicely done, and we were comped the dessert as well as 2 glasses of a french (italian??) orange liqueur to make up for the mishap with the lobster.
all in all, it wasn't a bad experience, but i did expect more (based on the review and the pedigrees). the total bill came out to about $190 before tip (2 starters, 2 entrees, 1 bottle of wine, 1 glass of wine, 2 bottles of vittel water, 1 cappuccino, 1 latte... the rest was comped or removed from the bill). perhaps on our next trip, we'll try the raw platters and cheese course that were so highly regarded, although the idea of raw seafood there isn't that attractive to me right now....also, a few of the dishes that flew with bauer weren't on the menu when we were there (escargot, swordfish, duck leg...). we'd definitely go back for a glass of wine and the bone marrow appie, but an entire dinner might be too much to ask for now. balthazar it's not, but perhaps it's a work in progress. we look forward to finding out.
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