We chose to dine the Hotel Bel-Air restaurant on Sunday for my birthday. It was my choice and though normally, I would pick a dining adventure, this time I chose a place that would be a beautiful experience in terms of setting, food, service and ambience.
Overall, the food was excellent, with one, glaring exception. The shocker was the service, which was erratic. There were several lapses in service, something I would not have expected at the Hotel Bel-Air, especially having read a recent chowhound posting about an anniversary dinner that was exceptional.
When we called to make the reservation, we were asked if it was a special occasion and replied that it was a birthday. That was the last mention of our special occasion, nothing when we were seated nor during the meal. Now, know that I am not someone who would want a fuss made or heavens forbid, singing! That said, I have been to places where perhaps they send out a glass of sparkling wine as an acknowledgement or even the pastry chef writes happy birthday on the plate on which dessert is served.
When we arrived we were seated on the terrace, as requested when the reservation was mad. I asked for a pastis. Our waiter however, had never heard of pastis and seemed satisfied with the assumption that the bar did not stock it. I explained that perhaps he recognized the common brand names, Pernod or Ricard, and that I would be fine with either. Bottom line, I had to ask him to check with the bar staff to get what I consider a fairly common cocktail. When my drink did arrive, he did not know how to present or prepare it. Luckily, another member of the staff stepped in to save the day. He also noticed the dirty glass that held my drink and had it replaced by another. One last thing of the beverage front, our table setting had no wine glasses; ours were plucked from a nearby table.
As an amuse-bouche, we were sent a spring pea cappuccino. I know the whole food as cappuccino thing is trendy, hence overdone and somewhat annoying. This, though, was good. It was bright green, light and refreshing. Perfect as a way to whet the appetite on a languid summer day.
The bread server did not arrive at our table until nearly 30 minutes after we had been seated. He only returned once, between the apps and main course, which was well into our meal. He attended to the table adjacent ours almost immediately upon seating and offered nearly every table but ours warm rolls.
I realize this sounds fairly picky. In my own defense, I used to work in several nice restaurants when I was in college and think service should be good no matter what the prices at a place. Also, the Hotel Bel-Air is pretty damn expensive it has a reputation for stellar service.
Our appetizers were absolutely perfect. I had foie gras served with California peaches and rhubarb. My companion had the famous tortilla soup. Each was delicious. The soup, in particular, was rich with ingredients and flavors. It contained chunks of perfectly cooked chicken breast and avocado and the base was rich with the earthy flavor of roasted chile. The foie gras, as foie gras can so often be, was transcendent.
We took advantage of the Sunday no-corkage policy to bring our own bottle of Chapoutier 1999 Le Bernadin Chateauneuf de Papes that went well with everything we ordered. To the credit of the staff, there was no discernable weirdness regarding the byob.
The entrees were a mixed bag. When they arrived each dish was tepid. We sent each entrée back and eventually, received them warm albeit more well-done than we would have liked. The Colorado rack of lamb was good, very good. The roasted figs and other sides were matched well with the sturdy flavor of the lamb.
The bouillabaisse, which I had made a point to ask about before ordering, was a colossal disappointment . The staff assured me that while it contained local product it was still in the traditional, French style. Let me beg to differ, the dish was little more than seared scallops, prawns and clams in a sparse tomato (and maybe saffron) base. The 2 pieces of bread with aioli were soggy, cold and tasteless. The broth/stock/base was so, severely lacking. You dont need to have rascasse and mullet from the Mediterranean to make a good bouillabaisse, you need time and effort, plus there were about 8 pieces of heirloom potato soaking in what was not nearly enough broth. I ended up sending it back, and it was taken off the bill, which was appreciated. Honestly though, this wasnt about saving cash, it was about having a mind-blowingly wonderful meal and I would rather have ordered something else and enjoyed it.
Thankfully, we had ordered the truffle-parmesan french-fries as a side. They were exceptional and kept us from gnawing at each other while the entrees were being re-heated. Fries are a personal weakness, but honestly, I defy anyone to eat these and not be blown away.
One of the waitstaff, he had on a suit so I assume he was up the food-chain, was quite attentive and, after the bouillabaisse debacle, he insisted on comp-ing our dessert. It was very nice, but the way he said it , I buy you your dessert like it was somehow coming out of his own pocket, was a tad strange and self-serving. Nevertheless we soldiered on, deciding to share a chocolate soufflé with pistachio crème) and some French press coffee. I ordered a domestic port (Ficklin Vinyards Tinta Port, California NV) and savored the delicious dessert, the wonderful port and good coffee. It seemed to be the one, truly effortless moment in our meal. We were entirely full and didnt even get a chance to sample the small sweets sent out by the kitchen to mark the end of the meal.
Our check was extremely modest, partially because of the no corkage fee but also because of the mishap and ensuing comp. However, as I said before, we were not there to cheap-out. We wanted an exceptional evening and were prepared to pay for the privilege.
I dont mean to paint an overly bleak picture. We had a nice evening. The setting was lovely and the food was, with the one exception, excellent. The service however, was erratic, at times overly solicitous and at other times nearly absent. Frankly, I just expected a better overall dining experience.