Sante at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn
When I wrote about Morimoto a couple of weeks ago, I looked them up in the Michelin Guide and was surprised to see that the famous Frenchmen had not granted them even a mention, much less a star. Just how good do you have to be to get awarded a star?
Friday night, we wanted to go up to Sonoma with BJ and Larry Ledgerwood to pick up some items we had purchased at Cornerstone. Naturally, we had to plan a dinner, and I decided on Santé, the restaurant in the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn. It not only had great ratings on Opentable.com, it has one coveted star in the Guide Michelin. Should be slam-dunk great, no?
Santé is good, but not great. Not as good as Morimoto. It has some great dishes, it has some clinkers. The service is decidedly spotty. The prices are seriously out of line for value received.
None of which is to say that this is a bad restaurant. They provide a quality of food and level of service most restaurateurs can only dream of. But when you hold a Michelin Star, you are expected to deliver an exceptional experience–and Santé didn’t live up to expectations.
The facility is quite attractive. You enter the main lobby of the hotel, where there is a very large fireplace with a very small fire. There was a very forward and forceful woman ostensibly “auctioning” some Chagall and Picasso prints–which is the same scam you see on cruise ships. We were early for our reservation, and it took them a few minutes before they decided to seat us. The lobby isn’t particularly emotionally warm; we were glad to finally get to the table.
The menu offers a 7 course tasting menu for $125, 4 courses for $90 and 3 courses for $75. This is an illusion, since quite a few of the dishes have a “supplemental charge”, ranging from $45 for the caviar to $12 for the soufflé.
Settling on the 4 course tasting menus, we dove in to our meals. First up was the amuse bouche, the chef’s gift appetizer.
The soup was amazing. The service was the showy professional variety I like–two servers came out with two plates each, and we were all served at once. The French Laundry brings 4 servers for 4 people, but they have, and deserve THREE Michelin stars.
My first course was my favorite of the evening, a tuna tartare.
This dish was beautiful, inventive, wonderfully flavored and just all around perfect.
I can’t really describe this next dish.
The “shells” are slices of onion. They were stuffed with cheese, sitting on a bed of kale. None of it made sense to me, I didn’t feel that the parts of the dish really went together or made a cohesive whole. There was quinoa in there somewhere, for some reason. There was a fancy, rare Maitake mushroom just sitting there. If this was a high-concept dish, the concept went right over my head.
Larry had this dish–a plate of garlic sausage, cold potatoes, friseé and grilled onions. It certainly looks good, and he ate it all, so we’ll call this one a winner.
Here we have Gail’s entree. It looks spectacular. It tastes, meh. Not bad, just meh. I tried the fish, which Gail thought was overcooked, and was just utterly unimpressed. The black pearl pasta “risotto” was the best part of the dish.
Larry had this–three different cuts of beef. A grilled skirt steak, a tiny filet, a bite of “Braised Pavé a la Bourguignonne”, which is the $10 was to say stew. Which is appropriate because this dish was one of the ones that carried a $10 “supplement”. Larry liked the filet, loved the stew and thought that the skirt steak was gristly and chewy.
This was some good venison. Often, farmed venison is too bland, but this had great depth of flavor and was cooked perfectly. I wish the huckleberry sauce had more huckle, but that’s probably being picky. I hated the Tokyo Turnips, but I hate all turnips so that isn’t news, or their fault.
Poussin is the fancy name for Rock Cornish game hen. When I was growing up we just called them little chickens. It’s a good looking dish, but the taste was unspectacular and BJ was not impressed.
On to the good stuff–dessert.
What would post-modernism be without deconstruction? Spiced carrot cake, and pink peppercorn mousse. Saffron-lilikoi coulis, pistachio emulsion, candied macadamia nuts and honey ice cream. How you make a cake into a mousse I don’t know. I like a good carrot cake the old fashioned way, this seems like innovation for its own sake. Larry said it was good, I thought it was too clever by half.
Santé offers two souffles—meyer lemon and chocolate. BJ had the former, I had the latter. There were no leftovers. What more could you ask?
OK, what I could ask is that the dishes got there faster. A souffle takes about 20 minutes to cook and has to be served as soon as it is ready. We ordered them at the same time as everything else so the kitchen could properly pace the meal, but that was to no avail. We finished our entrees, we sat there 10 minutes before our plates were cleared and then another 10 or 15 minutes before the desserts appeared.
Larry ordered a cup of coffee when the plates were cleared, and we were almost finished with the desserts before the simple cup of coffee arrived. We sent it back.
A meal like this is meant to be enjoyed and savored slowly, I recognize that. Sitting there for 20 minutes before the desserts were served was not savoring, it was boring. Waiting for the plates to be cleared was something you’d expect in Denny’s. The pacing of the meal and the service needs serious attention from management.
We were disappointed. Getting a Michelin star is a big deal, and one can reasonably expect superb food and near-perfect service for the lucky few. Santé had some excellent food, but some just so-so dishes as well. The service was just unpredictable–mostly very good, but then there was the whole dessert/no plate clearing issue. It’s still a very good place to eat, but I can’t really say it is worth the considerable price and I don’t recommend that you go there.
Good review. Restaurants like this make me happy to eat at home. Overpriced, pretentious nonsense. The owners want us to confuse “presentation” (and some of theirs is absurd) with excellence. Doubt that they get much of repeat business. They survive for a while because they’re the choice of least resistance for people staying at the hotel (“Inn?” Hah!), but you’ll probably find some other incarnation there in a year.