I first visited Campton Place not long after Bradley Ogden was named the Chef at the restaurant. I don't remember the exact year, though 1984 or 1985 is a good guess. Campton Place was an important restaurant opening for its time. Historically, hotel restaurants served food that could be easily called stodgy and traditonal. Places like the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston or the Palm Court at The Plaza Hotel in New York served a classic cuisine that was heavy on both frills and starchy sauces. But when Campton Place decided to hire Ogden as its chef, it was a much bigger step than simply getting a new face in the kitchen. Ogden was part of a new wave of American chefs that included the likes of Larry Forgione of An American Place and Barry Wine of The Quilted Giraffe. That generation of chefs would redefine American cuisine to such an extent that their imprint can still be felt to this day. Now sixteen years after Ogden's rein at the restaurant came to an end, a tall skinny Swiss chef by the name of Daniel Humm has been appointed to head the kitchen and he has been getting reviews that Campton Place hasn't seen since Ogden left the restaurant.
When I arrived my dining companions, Pim, she of blogging fame and David Kinch, he of Manresa fame, were waiting for me at the bar. We didn't waste a lot of time there and we headed off to our table. I would venture to say that the restaurant was about 2/3 full which was I found surprising on a Tuesday night in August. One would think that San Francisco would be full of hungry tourists at that time of year. After poring over the menu for a bit, we all decided that the chef's tasting menu, a 12 course affair was the way to go.
Dinner got off to a bang with lobster ice cream served with pickled melons and cucumbers which was delicious. Savory ice creams are a great feature of the modern cuisine era and Humm's lobster ice cream was packed with an intense, sweet lobster flavor. Then what Humm calls "Fantasy of Eggs", a slow-cooked organic egg, sea urchin and osetra caviar topped with a sea urchin foam. Lovely flavor although I always have a nit to pick with dishes where sea urchin sauces or foams play an important role because the flavor is so subtle, and as a result the other flavors need to be subtle as well. But given that criticism, this was a terrific dish. Especially from the perspective of texture which was super-luxurious to say the least.
Trio of tartare, Kona kampachi, bluefin tuna and hirame. Very nice but not as interesting as the first two dishes. I mean how much can you do with tartars? Heirloom tomato and watermelon salad with almond vinaigrette was a nice combination with the watermelon and vanilla mellowing the acidity of the tomato. It reminded me of the Alain Passard tomato dessert and how he manages to temper the tomatoes acidity with sweetness. Then a torte of foie gras with beets that was lovely. This was the third foie and beets dish I had this year along with versions at Jacques Decoret and WD-50. How do you think the word get out that this is the year that foie and beets and foie are in vogue?
Consome of Hawaiian prawns infused with saffron, green apple and ginger was another dish that revolved around the subtle nature of an ingredient. Again nice but not one of the better dishes. Then a beautifully cooke aiguilette of John Dory with thinly sliced zucchini, tomatoes and saffron. The fish was exceptionally tender. I couldn't figure out whether the zucchini scales were applied before the sous vide or after. But this was a step in the right direction and seemed more in keeping with the lobster ice cream and the egg than some of the other dishes. Braised Snake River short ribs with seared Hudson Valley foie gras. This was sort standard issue dish for a restaurant in this category and I couldn't find the chefs hand anywhere in the dish.
Desserts were very good which is unusual these days as I am consistantly finding the desserts lackluster and redundent. Sweet corn sabayon with blueberries and bacon brittle, Jasmine orange cappucino, petite grilled cheese with strawberries and champagne meringue, and Valrhona chocolate pastilla with orange Guajilo confit and chicory milk. A very good assortment as they were both refreshing and original.
A very good meal even though it was uneven. The starters were really praiseworthy but the fish and meat dishes needed more inspiration. If Humm can tweak those courses to make them more interesting, possibly by making flavors somewhat bolder, Campton Place would be among the top five restaurants in the country. As it is, it rates in the top ten and it clearly is the best restaurant in San Francisco proper. Considering the press that chefs like Michael Mina and Gary Danko get, this is a much better restaurant. It's nice to see that the talented Daniel Humm is carrying on the tradition that Campton Place started with the hiring of Bradley Ogden more than twenty years ago. B+