Dining at a hotel restaurant is like ordering room service without the benefit of eating while lying in bed. The setting is usually nondescript and the food, unless you’re starving after a long flight, is anything but delightful. Okay, there are a few exceptions; Relais & Châteaux hotels, for example, are known for their fine dining fare. But the Intercontinental San Francisco never crossed my mind as a destination for great food.
The new building from the world’s largest hotel group in SoMa is your typical corporate monolith, no special charm or personality. Getting to its restaurant requires going through the ample lobby, usually filled with trade show attendees proudly displaying their glossy conference badges. Something unfortunate as it deserved a separate entrance (which actually exists but is not in use).
At Luce (pronounced loo-chay, the Italian word for light), the interior design makes an effort to create an ambiance distinct from the hotel it resides. Floor to ceiling windows are covered with sheer metallic gold curtains that blur the outside view and try to create a more intimate atmosphere.
Dark wood is used to bring warmth while modern blown glass lamps hang from the high ceilings. Tables are set with white linen and fresh flowers. All dishes are served on beautiful white plates that frame the food artfully. The centerpiece of the design is a glass wall of wine bottles that divides the kitchen from the spacious dining room. It’s from behind this backlit wall that comes Luce’s brilliance. Also known as chef Dominique Crenn.
Raised in France, Crenn worked in Indonesia and Southern California cooking for luminaries at a private club before she returned to San Francisco–the birthplace of her formal cooking career. At Luce, she created an inventive menu that brings together seasonal local farm ingredients with Northern Italian influences. The restaurant serves breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. Diners will find an appetizing selection of a-la-carte dishes as well as 6 and 8-course tasting menus. On Sundays, a 4-course Supper menu entitled “Farm to the table” is also available. That’s what I had (and some other things).
Crenn, recently awarded “Chef of the year” by Esquire magazine, has a keen talent for combining flavors and designing beautiful presentations. Her food is delicate yet flavorful, perfectly prepared in every way. She combines classic French technique with modern molecular gastronomy in perfect harmony and purpose; like few people can. During service, you’ll see her come out of the kitchen a few times as she makes sure to stop at every table to make sure everything is fine.
Dinner begins with individually baked bread rolls. Crunchy and warm, served with soft butter.
For the first course of the Sunday Supper menu, Riverdog Root Vegetable Salad. Artfully presented, served on a black granite sheet. Heirloom carrots, turnips and chanterelles perfectly cooked, accompanied by garlic purée, vegetable foam and black olives powder. A delicate dish with beautifully balanced flavors.
Second, Braised Matsutake and Lobster Mushrooms Wild California Harvest. The meaty mushrooms are tasty and perfectly cooked; accompanied by a sweet chestnut purée.
From the appetizers menu, “Ocean and Land” Surf and Turf Carpaccio, Spicy Italian Black Olive Ice Cream. One of the most inventive items on the menu; raw rib eye, Artic char, scallops and smoked sturgeon are rolled together and thinly sliced.
The combination is surprisingly good, even better with the black olives ice cream.
Third, Niman Ranch Braised Short Ribs with Gigante Beans. Braised short ribs is one of my favorite dishes and Crenn’s is second to none. The beautifully marbled meat is buttery and flavorful, the kind that melts in your mouth. The beans, tender and tasty.
From the entrées menu, Black Ink Trofiette “Carbonara” Baby Calamari, Poached Egg, Pancetta and Parmesan. An original twist on the classic Italian dish. Instead of the raw yolk sauce, a whole poached egg tops the squid ink pasta. Deliciously flavorful.
The Supper menu ends with a Selection of Artisan Cheeses and its Condiments. Three soft cheeses are served with raisins, raisin bread and honey.
From the dessert menu, Greek Yogurt “Gnocchi” Rose Petals Broth and guava “Bubbles”. The bright-red rose broth is poured at the table from a glass test tube. Together with the guava foam, they bring a rich aroma and delicate flavors that complement the creamy yogurt.
Dominique Crenn’s cuisine is, simply put, delightful. She demonstrates inventiveness and perfectionism in her original creations and impeccable attention to details. Luce is nice surprise that is definitely worth the visit, even if that means tackling the eventual hordes of corporate tourists as you walk through the hotel lobby. Here’s a tip; walk fast, ignore what’s around. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Luce is at 888 Howard Street