Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Restaurant Review: One Market

It will be 15 years this coming April since my husband and I moved from the insular little island of Manhattan to the great Golden Gate with it's rugged terrain and breathtaking vistas. I must admit that it took me awhile to adapt to San Francisco with its treacherous hills, sleepy sidewalks, slow-moving traffic and laughable mass transit system (I'll never forget one well-meaning person try to warn me about BART, as though it were some superhighway that required the highest navigational aptitude when, in fact, there were only six or seven stops on a couple of lines in the whole city).

Just having moved from NY, where I had lived all 30 years of my life, I felt like I was in a vast cultural desert away from everything I knew and loved.
I missed the energy, the verve, the noise. With my fresh from New York cadence, I would walk past pedestrians in San Francisco (much to their chagrin) like they were standing still. I would wait impatiently on line (I guess only New Yorkers wait "on line", apparently the rest of the country waits "in line") while unbelievably chatty grocery store cashiers discussed the merits of the produce being purchased by each customer. I would try without success to hail cabs in the middle of a street. It was maddening!

So when I needed a little New York fix, I would walk down Columbus Avenue (a much different place than my then beloved Manhattan's Columbus Ave.) down Montgomery Street through the financial district where the buildings were tall, the sidewalks were crowded with hurried masses and only a sliver of nature was in evidence when you glimpsed small slices of blue sky between the highrises.
There, amidst those dark huddled buildings, I discovered a little oasis that reminded me of home. At the end of that tunnel of financial institutions, was a street called Market and the first building was appropriately labeled "One". It was a welcome and magnificent sight.

No cutsey little colorfully painted Victorian (although there were odd contraptions known as cable cars roaming the streets) but a proper building made of glass, brick, steel and stone. What made it all the better was that it housed a restaurant of gigantic proportions that served generous portions of well-cooked food; proper food, not just sprouts and lettuce and avocado but food that you can sink your teeth into where those weeds were the garnish not the main entree and I was a happy woman; I had discovered One Market which was also a newcomer to the bay area, and it was good.

One Market & the Hyatt.

Fast forward some 15 years, I am quite the happy San Franciscan resident, contentedly chatting with cashiers at grocery stores about what I'm making for dinner, looking askance at those rude people who go rushing around me when I'm out for a little stroll and I avoid downtown San Francisco like the plague.
It had been many years since I bothered to wander down Market Street looking for solace, and I hadn't patronized Bradley Odgen's One Market since the last time Ogden, himself, donned the chef's whites and criticized his cooks' mise en place. A long time, indeed.

However, when I read that San Francisco Chronicle's premier critic, Michael Bauer, decided to revisit it and gave One Market an eye-popping three and one half stars (after the Michelin people bestowed it with an equally astounding one star), I thought it was time I revisited my old haunt.

The interior is as handsome as ever with its roomy bar/lounge area and enormous picture windows to watch the parade of people down busy Market Street while you wait for a table or linger over an after dinner aperitif.

The views of the Ferry Building awash in light remain ever present and welcome. Arched ceilings finished with brick and stucco are still present and accounted for.
The booths have been super-sized to accommodate parties of six which made service for four a bit of a stretch ( and I mean literally not metaphorically) with yours truly having to acrobatically reach over my dinner companions every time the busboy wanted to refill my water glass, wine glass, retrieve my plate, change my silverware or serve me in any number of routine ways.

The menu layout is a hodgepodge of items reminiscent of a Molly Stone supermarket flyer with specials, tasting menus, a la carte items & crab festivals festooned all over that poor piece of parchment, leaving this diner and her dinner companions wondering why such a simple bill of fare cannot be presented in a more straightforward, and elegant, user friendly manner.

An experienced cryptographer would be hard-pressed to decipher the hieroglyphic-like menu. Some serious editing by an accomplished graphic artist would be money well-spent by the management team at Lark Creek Management Group.

In addition to the menu itself was a small cheat sheet (which more than one of us somehow misplaced) that showed you a week's worth of daily roast specials. A unique addendum to a Michelin star awarded menu where the wait staff should be able to retain by memory what the special roast of the day is without burdening the patron with a week's worth of the restaurant's roasted specials. Even a Denny's would spare its diners that kind of paper overload.

Our server was pleasant but obviously out of his element. He began his introductions by stammering something about this being the "15th annual inaugural anniversary" of One Market's opening.

While he understood that he had said something amiss (particularly after we all laughed good-naturedly) the poor man tried but couldn't rephrase his sentence; neither could he explain any of the featured menu items nor the chef's tasting menu; although, he was quite good at pushing the a la carte sides, extra bottles of water & other sundry items all unsolicited by us; with, one presumes, the hope of increasing the bill's ultimate tab.

Not an auspicious beginning, I don't like the "would you like to supersize that?" service mentality in a fine dining establishment. It's unseemly and unnecessary since most of us are in fact happy to both open and empty our wallets when we go into what we hope is three and a half star restaurant.

We had all started with cocktails (mine, an Iron Horse sparkling brut rose', the best of the limited sparking wines by the glass offered), then ordered a bottle of Peter Michael chardonnay and spring water before we even finished our cocktails but our server started his spiel anyway (maybe because we brought a bottle of Ambullneo Pinot Noir, an excellent boutique wine from California's central coast) so it made it doubly annoying that we were being hawked in this manner.

Because our server was not capable of explaining the tasting menu, we decided to play it safe and all ordered from the a la carte menu.

Of course, despite the menu debacle & the unpolished service, the food itself is anything but fast-food like. Although the obligatory amuse bouche of bay shrimp ceviche, artlessly presented on 4 stainless steel spoons in a small white plate (and improbably placed in the middle of the gargantuan table amidst a sea of glasses, pepper mills, bread & butter plates for us to try to wade in and dive for) left me unimpressed, the starters progressed on a more positive note.

Chef Mark Dommen offers New American cuisine with an emphasis on the seasonal and "sustainable". Nearby Ferry Building Farmer's Market provides the inspiration for his daily menus.

Thoughtful compositions and clean flavors graced our dishes with starters like beet carpaccio served with a ceviche-like anointment of plump rock shrimp garnished with sliced radishes and crispy ginger flakes that added a delightfully bright note to the dish; nettle ravioli with small graceful rabbit meatballs and black trumpet mushrooms in a parmesan emulsion; and Dungeness crabcakes that were a tiny trio of sweet, crisp and utterly crabby cakes without the usual bready filling that mars the gustatory perfection of that crustacean.
Main courses of a crisp but delicate potato-crusted petrale sole with a foamy meuniere sauce were perfectly prepared. However, two of us opted for the signature grilled lamb loin with huckleberry jus atop a braise of cocoa-inflected lamb shoulder and polenta cake. My dish suffered from poor expediting, as it was left under the heating lamps for too long, my medium rare lamb loin was barely pink and its huckleberry jus had congealed into more of a huckleberry gelee' by the time I received it. The flavors were there but the textures suffered mightily. My husband's "roast of the day", on the other hand, comprised of juicy tender, rosy slices of pork shoulder with a simple jus. Since the "roasts" are completely a la carte, he ordered two sides: one a saute of spinach & the surprise hit of the night, the "big fries" shown below:

Unfortunately, there was rather a long stage wait of almost an hour between courses. Our server was extremely apologetic and the busboy kept plying us with bottled water and bread but this is, needless to say, unacceptable under any circumstances.

The entire dinner from soup to nuts was four hours long with interminable waits between our two courses; while dinners lasting this length of time is de rigeur for those who choose to partake of the chef's tasting menus at places like French Laundry, Per Se, Cyrus etc. where course after delectable course keeps coming at you in a timely manner and is priced accordingly, it is utterly disastrous for a place like One Market where the chef's six course tasting menu, should you choose it (we didn't, if we had we might still be there), is only $75 per person and a table turnover of twice a night is probably an economic necessity. Two and half to three hours is plenty of time for the style of service offered at One Market, if the meals are properly expedited.

A table of four that only orders two courses should not be forced to spend the entire night because of the restaurant's mismanagement. I know this is an unusual complaint, having a leisurely dinner in a popular restaurant where one is all too often given the bum's rush to make way for the next seating. I would have enjoyed the pace much more if I had actually been eating during all that time. It was Saturday night and while I wouldn't call the restaurant jammed, the tables were reasonably full; but the disconnect between the front and back of the house could not be explained by an overload of patrons. It's just poor oversight that ruined the evening.

After the entrees were finally cleared, our server informed us that we would all be receiving complimentary mini-versions of the dessert special but wouldn't we like to order three or four more desserts for the table?

We were enjoying each others company if not our One Market experience but it was getting late for our friends who were BART-ing it back to Walnut Creek and needed to make the 10:25 train if they were going to get home that night, so we declined dessert for fear of waiting yet another hour but two of us did opt for port (Graham 20 year tawny port) & someone ordered coffee but it was now after 10 pm ( we had been there since 6:15 pm) and we needed to get moving.

The complimentary dessert arrived, a fairly pedestrian offering of dense chocolate layer cake with a filling of chocolate ganache & a hit of toffee, frosted with more ganache & covered in slivered almonds, was served & dutifully tasted. The check was brought & paid, we were out the door with barely enough time for our friends to make their train.


Recent critical reviews notwithstanding, One Market is not a temple of haute cuisine; it is an upscale California bistro (or dare I say it?-- diner!). The fare is clean, simple and straightforward even if the layout of the menu isn't.

The food here is good but not remarkable, the service and ambiance have suffered over the years despite the beauty of its site. The noise level was so high we had to shout to be heard. The kitchen had serious management issues with a style of food that should have been relatively simple to execute. The tables were so cumbersome that simple tasks like clearing dishes and refilling glasses required herculean efforts by both staff and patron (with more than one dirty fork dropped by the busboy onto to the jacket sleeve of our unsuspecting guest).

If this was a new chef with a new management team, I would say they just needed to work out the kinks and should be given some time to make adjustments; but chef Mark Dommen and GM Larry Bouchard have been manning the helm since 2004 and 1997, respectively. The Lark Creek Restaurant Group has managed it since day one, February 16, 1993.

There are no excuses, it's just a case of management myopia, complacency and neglect.

While I don't doubt that Chef Dommen is a man of culinary gifts (his resume speaks for itself) his vision is not being executed. If he thinks it is, then maybe he should wear bifocals and take a closer look or better yet, take a long walk around the restaurant during service and see for himself. The best chefs often do.

The fact that critics like Michael Bauer & his Gallic brethren at Michelin have embraced this restaurant does not mean that you should spend your money at One Market, if you are looking for a place to celebrate a special occasion. There are far better places to go to in the Bay Area. It does, however, beg the question of whether or not Mssrs. Bauer & co. are also members of the Lark Creek Restaurant Group and just looking out for their investment when they bestowed those plaudits because neither the food nor the experience add up to four and half stars (One Michelin, Three and half from the San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Bauer).

While I would happily eat at the bar or grab an open table if I were downtown, hungry and out sightseeing with a visiting aunt, I would never choose to eat there when I was looking for an extraordinary dining experience or celebrating a special occasion. I doubt that any of the aforementioned gustatory gurus would, either.

Frankly, I am appalled that any critic would think the restaurant going public in San Francisco wouldn't know the difference between food that's being served in restaurants like One Market and the caliber of food that is served in restaurants like La Folie, Gary Danko, Acquerello, Michael Mina, Masa, Fleur de Lys and Quince.

One Market's closest cousin, relative to service, is Fog City Diner, possibly Lori's Diner with a staff of servers that is just barely adequate; and, it's food quality is more comparable to (not type of cuisine but presentation & execution) Pres a Vis, Isa, Garibaldi's, LuLu's or maybe Zuni Cafe (Relax, Judy Rodgers fans; Zuni might be better).

Perbacco, Boulevard, Jardiniere, Piperade & Spruce are far better choices for those seeking quality food and service that is polished but slightly less precious than the highest echelon of restaurants in the city. One Market will never be in their league until serious adjustments are made .

I may not have been born here but San Francisco is my adopted home and I have great respect for its culinary traditions and gastronomic savoir faire.

I hope the professional food "experts" do, too, because ordinary people really do rely on their opinions when seeking food nirvana and deserve better from their culinary guides.

The facts:

A two course "a la carte" dinner for four with cocktails, a bottle of Peter Michael chardonnay, corkage fee for another bottle, several bottles of water & after dinner drinks was roughly $500 with gratuity. Hardly cheap but, unfortunately, not astronomical either, in this day and age.

Starters run from $12.95 - $14.75.
Entrees are from $18.00 for a vegetarian risotto to $76 for the 32 oz. Prime Ribeye for 2 with most entree prices averaging in the mid $20's.
Sides are $6.95 each and contain most of the vegetarian options for this menu. (Not a vegetarian friendly place).
Desserts are $5 for a "mini", $9 for a "Seasonal" dessert, $13 for a platter of three mini desserts, $8.50 & $9 for "Frozen Treats"
A selection of Cheeses is proffered with one cheese for $12 & $6 for each additional cheese.
There is a 3 course prefixe Winter Menu for $45 (starter, entree, dessert).
There is a 6 course Chef's Tasting Menu for $75 (good luck finding out what that entails).
There is also the chef's table which can only be reserved by phone for 1 party a night. Apparently, the chef's themselves preside over the service as well as the cooking. (This may explain why the kitchen is having difficulties fulfilling orders) Call for the restaurant for details.

The wine list is completely American in composition (which is proudly proclaimed on the list itself) except, of course for the ports and dessert wines. Some civic minded person should point this out to the sommelier. Markups are what you would anticipate.
One Market offers a full bar service.

One Market
1 Market Street
San Francisco, Ca. 94105


Anonymous said...

lady, you have WAY to much time in your this all you do?? what was your life before the net was invented? there are little kids in India that have NOTHING to eat right now and this is all you can offer to the world???


Lori said...

I guess, anonymous, without the internet I would be high up in my ivory tower, waiting for a brave strong man like you to whisk me away in his arms & teach me how to become a better person. But, hopefully, we wouldn't have to fly as far away as India to offer our services to mankind because there are needy kids right here in this country. What are YOU doing to help them?