San Franciscans rarely pay much attention to hotel restaurants unless they're famed for extraordinary food or outrageous decor: In eater's heaven, who wants tourist food?
Silks has always been a little different. On the second floor of the Mandarin Oriental, where business dinners are likely to involve global trade, the prevailing style is a sophisticated cuisine of Pacific Rim ingredients shaped by French techniques. When Silks chef Dante Boccuzzi was recently nominated by the prestigious James Beard Foundation as rising chef of the year, it amplified a buzz that's been building since he took over the kitchen. Although Boccuzzi didn't win this time, the nomination still carries lots of weight -- especially because his mentor, famed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, received the nod as chef of the year. Any day now, Silks will be "discovered," but until then, it's one of the easiest serious restaurants at which to get a reservation, especially on weekend evenings, when the Financial District is comatose and the business visitors have gone home.
A special attraction is the seasonal six-course tasting menu, including a cheese plate and a choice of desserts ($70, or $93 with accompanying wines). Since Silks' international wine list runs long but steep, with just a handful of choices available by the glass (at $10 and up), it made sense both for finance and for fun to book the first-class flight and let the sommelier delight me. My companions, meanwhile, ordered a la carte, and we discovered that you can eat just as well that way for perhaps a trifle less, if you're careful with your choices and stingy with the grapes. Starters run $9 to $15; entrees range from $24 (several fish choices) to $35 (grilled porterhouse). All courses from the tasting menu are available a la carte as specials. Desserts, including the cheese plate, are $8.
Dinner begins with a complimentary amuse-bouche, that night a few seductive bites of wine-red tuna tartare and center-cut baby asparagus cylinders, set on a crunchy bed of tobiko caviar with crisp slivered vegetables. The first tasting menu course was a large, perfect artichoke bottom heaped with asparagus tips, endive, and tiny orange-hued rounds of glazed fruit (I'd guess loquat), refreshingly dressed with yuzu (Japanese lemon). Salads are a challenge to any wine steward, but sommelier Renee-Nicole Kubin came up with a great match in a Villa Maria sauvignon blanc, a fruity live-wire New Zealander ($11 per glass).
Next on the tasting menu were diver scallops with black chanterelles, English (pod) peas and pea puree, and Italian truffles shaved into translucent rounds. The bittersweet pea flavor and dark subtleties of the mushrooms set off the ocean sweetness of the marshmallow-sized scallops, with their toasty exteriors and trembling centers. For once, the powerfully aroma-tic truffles faced a fair fight against equal powers, while a steely Pouilly Fuisse proved a discreet escort.
However, from the a la carte appetizers, we'd chosen chilled snap pea soup with Maine lobster and shaved Italian truffles ($15) -- the scallop dish's evil twin. In this subtler setting, with the pea puree thinned to soup and a small heap of mild-mannered Maine lobster, the truffles were instantly shocking and ultimately destructive, as their sulfurous aura slowly permeated the liquid, like bottom silt rising in an overtrodden pond. Nor were we wholly delighted by a terrine ($14) of foie gras and seared Hawaiian tuna (which tasted like rare filet mignon), dressed in a rich, thick port sauce that flattered the duck liver but cold-cocked the fish. Still, with their interesting flaws, these audacious dishes were a world apart from "safe" hotel food. Less risky menu choices include Charlie's Sea Scallop Sandwich ($12), a famous Charlie Trotter creation of scallops in a crisp potato crust, and Dungeness crab ravioli ($10) in saffron-infused bouillon.
After the complexity of the appetizers, we needed a respite, which arrived promptly in the form of the tasting menu's poached guinea hen, a study in luxurious simplicity. Guinea fowl, which look like feathered footballs, have lean flesh with a faint piney flavor similar to that of partridge. Juicy blushing medallions of the meat were served in a satisfying poultry broth garnished with lacy green sprigs of chervil. Large fresh morels contributed their attractive firm-spongy texture and lavish dark flavor. The wine was an Austrian pinot noir from Johanneshof Reinich, which opened out once poured to reveal a classic, enticing Burgundian nose.
The final tasting entree was crispy rabbit loin, fried golden in a light panko breading. Surrounding the rabbit was a melange of fava beans with a few rectangles of roasted salsify (aka "oyster plant," because it tastes faintly like oysters) and a host of small, firm, silky-textured mushrooms with a flavor not unlike that of straw mushrooms, a variety our server identified as "Trumpet Royale." In the center of the plate was a pillow of rosy sauteed foie gras, in rich contrast to the lean rabbit. The accompanying Grenache from the Midi was atypically dark, tannic, and a little brutal.
Our a la carte entrees were equally delightful. Pepper-seared Sonoma quails ($28) presented a multitude of juicy little legs, cleverly matched with a fricassee of rich sweetbreads, bright forest-green bacon-scattered chard, and more of the juicy morels, sauced with a lightly saged poultry jus. Shrimp-crusted Chilean sea bass ($24) was a large, creamy square of top-quality white fish whose browned topping contained both whole and chopped shrimp and fresh herbs. It sat atop a thick mattress of succulent black forbidden rice from China, dressed with a light kafir lime sauce.
The hotel's ownership is Chinese, and the model for the pampering service at Silks subtly differs from the feudalistic intimidations of many European and American luxury establishments. Staffers seem deeply considerate, in a style neither servile nor intrusive. When we told our server we'd be sharing everything, we didn't have to ask for extra soup spoons -- she brought them automatically. The bussers didn't hover to hurry us to the finish, but between courses they not only crumbed the tables and replaced all needed silverware, they even twinkled a little.
The tasting menu's classic cheese plate (without accompanying wine, alas) featured a nutty cheddar, a tangy goat, and a triple-cream, all from New York state's Egg Farm Dairy. Dessert choices are standard -- gussied-up tiramisu, ice cream sampler, chocolate extravaganza, etc. I chose a trio of miniature creme brulees: Tahitian vanilla (intensely vanilla, what else to say?); chocolate, tasting a lot like Jell-O pudding; and passion fruit, with a jolting sweet-sour intensity that was exhilarating at first bite, exhausting after the second. My companion's lemon-blueberry tart was conventional. The espresso was world-class.
Catch Dante Boccuzzi as a rising star, before he becomes a shooting star and commands month-in-advance reservations. Our dinner was grandly enjoyable -- even including the dishes that didn't work completely -- and served so graciously that it left us glowing with pleasure.