Eric Ziebold was the chef de cuisine at the French Laundry. He still wears his French Laundry jacket in the kitchen at CityZen. One of the Captains is from the French Laundry. The pastry chef was the pastry chef at the Fifth Floor, one of San Francisco's best restaurants. Her husband has moved from the kitchen at the Fifth Floor to the kitchen at CityZen. Several million dollars have gone into the sixty seat dining room replete with twenty foot granite columns, mahogany stained wooden floors, beige tapestry and an open "exhibition" kitchen. Huge six foot circular "modern Medievel" chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling complimenting the many candles on the tables below. In the back chef's tasting room a fifteen foot high chrome and glass wall encases shelves of wine framing a round table for ten with several additional chairs against the wall.
CityZen feels San Francisco. It feels Union Square with more in common with Danko than with the French Laundry. The room is a statement, an announcement that this is an ambitious effort at a cutting edge experience that D. C. has only previously aspired to.
Staff is choreographed in their attention to tables with at least three Captains supervising another six or seven servers. Stemware is Reidel Vinum, steak knives are bone handled Lagioule, linen could be Frette although no label was evident.
CityZen is a Big deal.
It is also a work in progress. I would also suggest that there is a very different experience available at table #49 than there is elsewhere in the room. Table 49 is a "two top" directly in front of the open exhibition kitchen. As table #7 at Laboratorio and one of the tables in the front of Maestro this is THE table to ask for in this restaurant if there are two people. If there are four people the adjacent table, #45, is the one to ask for although this is a bit further removed. I suspect that seated elsewhere there may not be the same appreciation of this restaurant.
There are two tasting menus, seventy dollars for three courses nd ninety dollars for five. We had the five course tasting menu which included a "Matsutake mushroom tart with parmigiano reggiano and baby arugula," "sauteed filet of Pacific Medai" with butternut squash chutney, roasted leeks and turmeric," "grilled calotte of prime midwestern beef with Yukon gold potato mille Feuille, French prune puree, glazed baby turnips and sauce Poivrade." The fourth course is a collection of a half dozen tastes of various cheeses and the last is a "Fudgesicle," described as a "Valrhona chocolate semifreddo, magic shell and Kendall Farms Creme Fraiche."
There was also a beet and caviar amuse, apple ice with "tonic gelee" and a parting plate with a half dozen tastes of cookies and pastries, one bite each.
Believing this was not enough food and with several experiences at the French Laundry where we previously left hungry (yes!) we also ordered a "Moulard duck foie gras risotto with caramelized Granny Smith apple."
As it turned out our experience at the French Laundry served us well since the portions were generally very small. It seemed to us that Eric Ziebold subscribed to Thomas Keller's belief that there are only several truly extraordinary bites in a dish with every one thereafter a successive step down. A letter I once received from him (yes, I shamelessly complained about the "anemic" size of the portions in the early '90's when I first visited the French Laundry!) noted that he didn't "believe in burdening the palette."
The artichoke, beet and caviar amuse was delicious. The mushroom tart was unique and quite tasty though not what I would describe as an exceptional nor over the top first course. The inch thick Pacific Medai was perfectly cooked contrasting nicely to the squash chutney, a very successful second course. Our risotto was served after this. I should note that we had a full portion for one that we shared. This was a total of at least four bites, maybe five. (Not an exaggeration and I am talking about a small spoon.) It was extraordinary! It WAS the single best dish of the night. Three quarter inch chunks of grilled foie gras with similarly sized chunks of Granny Smith apples played off of each other beautifully resting on top of the creamy arborio. This was a Great dish worthy of any restaurant on earth.
Why it was not part of the $90 prix fixe is a complete mystery to me. Still, it is not to be missed. Inventive, imaginative, textural and delicious this could win an international contest for risotto (coincidentally there is one!)-it is THAT good!
The next course was almost as good: a single half inch thick slice of grilled medium rare marinated flank steak with a prune puree. Incredible. A second Great dish! Back to back, no less!!
At this point, a bit more than one hour into the dinner, I had begun to think that CityZen might challenge Maestro, Citronelle and Laboratorio for a fourth star from the Post. Or from me. This became a fantasy when the cheese course was served.
In Europe cheese is a major focus of any meal. In a Michelin starred restaurant, especially a two or three star, it is a production with Sterling Silver carts wheeled out and twenty to forty wheels/slabs/hunks/slices of pasteurized goat and sheep milk cheese displayed. Triple cremes, double cremes, deeply veined Roquefort, Eppousse, Brillat Savarin-a lengthy variety of tastes and textures to cement and tone the level of excellence of a fine dinner.
At CityZen you are served a plate with five or six bites of fairly nondescript cheese. Certainly there is no romance, no opportunity to describe them, no chance to make them "special" to the dinner. One or two bites each it is what unfortunately serves as a cheese course in far too many middle of the road American restaurants. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was at this presentation. Nor can I tell you how disappointed I was in the selection.
I mentioned Gary Danko early in this report. Danko has an exemplery cheese cart that would shine well in France, Switzerland or Germany. A number of other San Francisco restaurants do too. Still, this lesson was not carried to the East Coast and a plebian monochromatic course is offered. For my wif and I who thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the European indulgence with artisinal cheese this was a huge disappointment. Especially since CityZen promotes two different butters with its house baked breads, one from Normany and a second from a Virginia farm. The two bites of bleu goat cheese were delicious; the rest was rather nondescript.
Dessert was a "Fudgesicle" which, for me, was a very poor attempt at replicating Michel Richard's Kit Kat bar. It just wasn't THAT good.
Five other desserts are offered. Six other appetizers and seven other entrees. There is no possiblity of interchanging any of these on the five course prix fixe. No prices are listed for the individual courses, only that the many first, second and dessert courses are part of the $70 prix fixe.
There were many other dishes on this menu that I would have liked to try but this was not possible given its structure. Simply the menu does not lend itself to trying a variety of tastes unless one restricts oneself to the three course and then orders individaul courses to compliment this.
John B. covered the wine list very well last week in his report. I would add that it is a fairly restricted list. For example there are virtually no 2000 bordeaux yet there is a great deal of mature bordeaux apparently purchased elsewhere. We had a bottle of 2000 Frank Phelan which was very good for $72 and a fair markup. It was the ONLY 2000 on the wine list.
I also want to note what I thought was very curious: there are a total of ten two seater tables and a total of ten four seater tables at CityZen. At 9:00PM every single one was full. There was not a single decanter of wine anywhere in the room. Rather than a service table adjacent to or nearby CityZen opts to have wine service from a ten foot long table against a far wall. There was not a decanter there either. I found this amazing! Either no one had ordered a bottle of red wine worth decanting or the sommelier was delinquent in his presentation of better wine.
I would suggest the latter since our bordeux was not decanted. I understand that it did not NEED to be yet this is a presentation that I feel would add to the experience. Also, at $72 for the bottle, I do not believe it would have been unrealistic to expect such a young bottle of bordeuax might not benefit from this.
For me this is a point that I believe CityZen should take a look at. Even decanting a "middling" $72 bottle can add to the overall presentation and experience of a restaurant. At this level presentation plays a major role along with the food.
Our dinner with two five course prix fixe, the single bottle of bordeaux and an additional single risotto course along with a bottle of water, with tax and tip was $360.
Aside from the sixty seat dining room there is a back chef's room with a large round table that can accommodate up to ten people. There is a $2000 guarantee for this table with a $1500 minimum for food and wine and an additional $500 suppliment for the table and the room it is in. Generally diners would order from the menu and pay the menu prices (against the $1500) yet the chef could fashion a unique tasting menu for each party. Saturday night a group of eight men were there to help celebrate a friend's birthday. I should note here that CityZen has a dress code and every single man in the main dining room is required to have a jacket; most had jackets AND ties. For the chef's table we noted that five men walked into the room WITHOUT coats or ties.
I would suggest that if CityZen is to have a dress code they should enforce it for everyone not just those who pony up to a $2000 + check.
In my title I noted that this was their 24th night. This restaurant will grow and it will refine itself. There are several outstanding dishes, perhaps more, perhaps many more. But I found the menu to be rather restrictive in allowing sampling of a number of dishes. I also did not believe that all of the dishes on the $90 prix fixe represented the best of what the kitchen could do. Certainly, the risotto was a Great dish and it was not part of it. The dessert that was on it was mediocre at best.
Overall, this is a restaurant that has a great deal of promise. Anyone reading this should seriously consider giving it a try NOW. My only caveat is to strongly suggest table #49 where the entire kitchen and the back of the private chef's table room unfolds behind you.
This is not Maestro nor Citronelle nor the French Laundry nor Danko. At least not right now. But it can really grow into something special and it is very early. How special it can be only time will tell. For me, right now, it is a "three star." But there is a very real opportunity for this to realize a fourth... For the moment I don't expect anyone to rave about this in the way that recent posts have raved about Maestro. My hope is that with time-perhaps just months-this may happen.