COX: Sante still divine
Published: Friday, June 21, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 20, 2013 at 8:43 p.m.
The décor at Santé, the main restaurant at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, seems to be a work in progress these days, but the food remains as good as ever.
Where: 100 Boyes Blvd., Sonoma
When: Dinner nightly from 6 to 9 p.m.
Reservations: A must. Call 939-2415
Price range: Very expensive, with entrees from $32 to $44
Wine list: ***½
Very good ***
Not very good *
It was closed for renovations for the first three months of this year and reopened on April 5. The lighting was changed, comfortable chairs put in and, most noticeably, the walls, pillars, window frames and mullions were all painted a deep black. The hostess said this was done to put the visual interest on the food. “It makes the food pop out,” she said. The sound system played soft jazz.
During that down time, the restaurant lost its place in the 2013 edition of the Michelin Guide to the Bay Area, where it had been given one star in 2012. It will undoubtedly regain that star next year. Through the years and a succession of chefs, the culinary thread that holds the Santé experience together is European-style quality — more precisely, French spa cooking — and impeccable service. Executive Chef Bruno Tison was classically trained with top chefs in France, became the youngest-ever executive chef at the Plaza Hotel in New York, and brought all his experience to Sante, where he crafts the menu.
Chef de Cuisine Andrew Cain realizes Chef Tison's ideas and adds his own. It's he who sources most of the ingredients locally and runs the kitchen day to day. The collaboration of these two results in deceptively simple-looking small portions, beautifully presented. The deception is revealed when you take a bite and discover the refined way in which the ingredients are brought to life by techniques and the spare but ideal use of flavorings.
The service can best be described as pampering. It's old-school, with plenty of concern for your happiness.
The wine list is fun. It's contained on iPads, so you can scroll through its choices of many great bottles with finger flicks. Wines by the glass run in the $12 to $20 range. I had a glass of superb 2011 Hirsch “Bohan-Dillon” pinot noir for $18 and my dinner companion had a glass of muscular 2007 Keenan “Spring Mountain” merlot for $16.
Dinner started with a happy-looking Spring Salad ($15 ). Calendula and borage flowers, fiddlehead ferns, asparagus tips, mache, pea shoots, pickled ramps, bits of colored radishes, and flakes of pecorino cheese cavorted on an oblong plate. Each bite was a joyous awakening to the fresh flavors of spring.
Carnaroli Risotto ($15 ) featured a sauce made with pureed English peas. The rice was topped with Italian white truffle foam and decorated with three flakes of black Perigord truffle. It tasted like mushroom incense.
There was one problem with an otherwise gorgeous Puree of Fennel Soup ($12 ). A pinch of sea salt added to the already salted puree buried the light anise flavor of fennel under too much salt.
The entrees are of a sort that you always hope to find at restaurants, but seldom do. Roasted Liberty Duck Breast ($34 ), for instance, matched three medium-rare cylinders of succulent duck breast with braised rhubarb and pommes rissolees - this latter being what we usually call hash browns. But these weren't just any hash browns. The dish was one hollowed-out cube of potato blanched in scalding water, then browned in duck fat and filled with braised frisee. It and the meat sat in a pool of luscious duck jus.
The kitchen pampers you with Butter Poached Maine Lobster ($42 ). No shells, no digging out the meat. Only the choicest bits of the lobster - the claw meat, the tail - are presented, glistening with butter. An artichoke is similarly treated: Shorn of leaves and the prickly filaments in the center, the cooked heart is all fun and no work for you. Onions reduced to a brown, sweet compote, baby carrots, and dabs of party-colored emulsions finish the plate.
Grand Marnier Souffle ($25 ) comes puffy and inviting to the table, where the waiter opens its steaming top and pours in orange crème anglaise. Strawberry and Rhubarb Shortcake ($12 ) comes with strawberry-basil gelato.
To sum up: Exquisite dining, thy name is Sante.
Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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