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Restaurants & Bars 4

Watergate -- Disappointed

nja | May 22, 200301:04 PM

"How can they do all this for just $25?" someone here recently asked about Watergate. Instead, I'm forced to ask "is it worth saving a few bucks to eat again at this restaurant?" My answer is no...

I've walked by this restaurant several times and was always intrigued by its attractive décor on an otherwise ugly block of Valencia. After hearing positive comments here I finally decided to try it.

Viewed from the inside, it was just as impressive. The warm and soft lighting, white table linens, tea candles burning on each table, lovely flower arrangements, and beautiful artwork all lend the place a very dignified air.

The first flaw, somewhat unfriendly and careless service, began when we ordered our meals. Our waiter, a 40ish unkempt Frenchman, approached our table and mumbled "yes," which we took as the signal to begin our order. Erika handed her menu and the wine list to the waiter after finishing her food and drink order. After stating my food order, I asked for the wine list because I had not yet chosen a glass. The waiter angrily flipped and rotated the menu several times right in front of my face before handing it to me. "Okay....what was that about?" we said to each other after the waiter had left.

The food was mostly good, but disappointed in a few minor ways. Erika's "tuna carpaccio" was good but poorly named. It consisted of a thin layer of delicious cured salmon that covered the entire plate. The salmon was ringed with salty caviar. In the center of the plate was a small glob of creamy avocado topped with a jumbled of crisp, thin fried potatoes. All of these ingredients were quite good, but where was the ahi? It turns out there was a hazelnut-sized piece of mushy red tuna buried in the center of the avocado. This was a good dish without the tuna...I can only guess they added a token amount of tuna so they could call the dish something more exciting.

My starter was good but also imperfect. Three small (very small) diver scallops were cooked rare, just the way I like them. They were set around a mound of mashed potatoes (okay, but nothing special), topped with three blue potato chips, and those topped with a small bunch of dressed microgreens. All of these components were good, though the chips were soggy in those spots covered by the greens. A goat cheese sauce ringed all of these ingredients, though it have very little flavor.

Between courses a very pleasant waitress cleared our plates. I took the opportunity to ask her for a glass of Sonoma pinot noir (I think it was Hartford). It was the only pinot by the glass other than "Bourgogne, France," no vintage, no producer listed. It arrived just before the main courses, and was quite poor. Funky odors and light flavor and color; not corked, just not good. When we got the bill, the Bourgogone was listed (at $9), not the Sonoma (at $11). I'm pretty sure I was served the anonymous non-vintage burgundy rather than the wine I had asked for.

My main course was a duck breast artfully fanned out over a pile of mashed potatoes, which sat atop a hash of duck confit, cherry, and wild mushroom. The duck breast was cooked medium rare, but was rather cool and dried out. The fat layer was tough; I normally love duck fat, but not this particular stuff. The confit and cherry mixture (I tasted no mushrooms) was the best part of the dish, a nice tart foil to the rich and ultimately tiresome duck and potatoes.

Erika's sea bass fillet was cooked just right, juicy and flavorful. It was served atop--lots of stacking at this restaurant--a jumble of steamed spring vegetables: peas (both shelled and sliced pods), artichokes, onions, and tomatoes. The fish was topped with a bread crumb mixture that I'm sure was meant to be crispy but was instead a mushy mess that was better scraped aside.

For dessert we ordered the chocolate genoise and strawberry napoleon. What arrived were the napolean and a poached apple with caramel and fresh berries. Several minutes later we finally had a chance to ask our waiter. "Excuse me, is this the--" "Keep it, I'll get your genoise" the waiter interrupted, before Erika even finished her question. This is just speculation, but I got the feeling that the waiter had purposely brought the wrong dessert and was hoping we'd just eat it without complaint. In any case, we soon had our third dessert.

The poached apple was mushy and, well, simply uninteresting. I'm glad we did not order it or pay for it. The genoise was very good: a disk of dense fudge topped with a moist cylinder of chocolate cake and a golf ball sized portion of rich coffee ice cream. But the winner was the napoleon, the simplest and best dish of the night. It was three layers of puff pastry, cooked to a perfect dark golden brown (had it been baked just one second longer it would have turned bitter). It was filled with light whipped cream and fresh, juicy strawberries. A perfect, delicate closure to our meal.

Another part I was unhappy with was the wine list. The list had very few inexpensive selections, which seemed on the whole poor options. Few wines are poured by the glass, and two of our three glasses were rather unpleasant (in addition to the bad pinot, we did not like the one sauvignon blanc by the glass, though we did enjoy the Coyne Viognier). After that, the prices climb immediately and quickly. I'm forced to wonder, is the wine list designed to steer people to expensive wines to make up for the lower prices on food?

Our meal had a few bright spots, but on the whole I was disappointed with Watergate. I'd prefer more carefully prepared and honestly described food, a more thoughtful wine list, and friendlier service, all of which can be had for just a few dollars more per person at dozens of restaurants in the Bay Area.

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