People complain all the time about the demise of fine dining -- but it's alive and well at the Dining Room, the premier restaurant of the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena, where the gifted young chef Craig Strong cooks five nights a week.
Most hotel chefs are really more administrators than cooks. Not Strong. A consummate chef, one who came up in the hotel system and is thoroughly comfortable there, he has somehow retained his passion for hands-on cooking. He bills himself as chef de cuisine, not executive chef, and since he came to the Huntington four and a half years ago from the Ritz-Carlton Barcelona, he's been quietly turning out some of the most exciting food in Los Angeles.
Nothing brings life to the rather unfashionably formal dining room like the presence of the chef himself -- confident, energetic, unpretentious, taking compliments with easy grace or coming out to ask tables that have requested a tasting menu what they like and what they don't.
You have two tasting-menu options: as written or whatever the chef wants to cook. Some friends and I recently went for the latter. And we had a spectacularly interesting meal.
It begins with hors d'oeuvres, but nothing like the usual. First, the most delightful caviar taco, a soft taco the size of a silver dollar with chopped hard-boiled egg, creme fraiche and osetra caviar heaped inside. Then comes a bite of Dungeness crab and mango salad with baby lettuce and pineapple satay dressing, and a single Santa Barbara prawn speared on the tines of a fork.
Strong has fun with the amuse, an avocado soup poured into the small hollow of a Bernardaud porcelain dish, which also holds a luscious briny oyster and a tiny scoop of tart tomato mignonette sorbet. This works, and works beautifully because the sorbet rides the edge of sweetness. From previous visits I remember a silky mousse of foie gras set on a slurry of spiced apple or the warm English pea soup Strong poured over a miniature scoop of mint sorbet so that warm and cold mingled and played.
As a first course, he's stuffed zucchini blossoms with brandade, but not the ordinary salt cod variety. This is a lovely mix of fresh halibut with potato and garlic that doesn't upstage the delicate squash blossom. Paired with a swirl of Catalan romesco sauce, it's a masterful dish.
But my favorite this night is Strong's "fruits of the sea," sort of a mini-bouillabaisse made with scorpion fish the chef gets in live daily, sweet-fleshed cuttlefish and octopus tentacles with English peas, chanterelles and tender gnocchi. This really tasted like the Mediterranean.
We mix it up for the main courses. Highlights, though, include sauteed foie gras with Maine lobster so fresh and perfectly cooked the meat is still a bit custardy. Underneath is a creamy polenta infused with vanilla bean and shreds of earthy, deep-flavored spinach. Kumquats add a bittersweet element that make the whole dish sing.
I also love the combination of wild king salmon with warm potato salad, a dab of caviar and smoked parsley sauce. Slow-roasted Kurobuta pork comes with a savory potato mousseline-boudin noir. It's wonderful to see blood sausage on any menu, but at this starchy hotel it's particularly surprising. This is one chef who doesn't cook down to his guests.
Head for the terrace
SOME boutique hotels in big cities have been successful in creating or partnering with restaurants with personality and pizazz, but the Ritz-Carlton Huntington's Old Pasadena locale and the Dining Room's fuddy-duddy setting -- a decor heavy on model ships, a classical guitarist in the corner -- have dissuaded many Angelenos from discovering Strong's beautifully crafted cuisine.
Oh, they did try to update the look recently, but you have to look very closely to discern any difference. A new wall covering, more stylish curtains and I think, but couldn't swear to the fact, less ornate chandeliers. It doesn't change the essential problem: The dining room's stuffy.
Whenever I've been seated inside, the evening has felt stilted, everyone at the table slightly inhibited. Not that we're a rowdy bunch.
But seated on the terrace outside -- overlooking the hotel's historic horseshoe-shaped garden, -- now that's the ticket. The lights are lower, the breeze is fresh, and nobody feels hemmed in by the formality of the room.
And lately there are some waiters who are informed and engaging without getting too informal. It helps the spirit of the place tremendously.
The a la carte menu, which changes frequently, is uncommonly interesting too, with individual items that are as intriguing as those on the tasting menu. Some of the dishes Strong might send out for the tasting menu, in fact, are drawn from the a la carte menu. He's especially strong on the first courses.
RIGHT now the first course of baby calamari stuffed with Swiss chard and salty-sour preserved-lemon saffron potatoes in a bright green chive nage thrills with its combination of earth and sea. Strong also makes lovely salads, such as the one of arugula leaves with marinated Spanish goat cheese and Serrano ham shavings so fine they melt on the tongue. It's tossed in walnut oil and a few drops of good balsamic vinegar. I remember, too, a salad of micro greens with flash-fried Gulf white shrimp punctuated with candied pistachios that brought out the meaty sweetness of the shrimp.
You can always get a good piece of meat at the Dining Room, such as the roast veal rib-eye I had one night with a light risotto perfumed with basil. I'm less fond of the veal tenderloin I had recently, three hunks of meat topped with caramelized cippollini onions in a truffle sauce. This, like the boned guinea hen rolled up with tapenade to form sausage-sized chunks, verges on generic fancy hotel food.
Strong is much stronger on fish. His "Catalan" cod is wonderful, fresh cod served with a torta Espanola, pretty fava beans, fried garlic and a hint of spicy chorizo in an olive oil broth. You can tell he's much more passionate about these flavors, which are bold and well defined. Or those in last year's seared diver scallops and foie gras with quince and Brussels sprouts in a graceful truffle sauce.
Strong, it seems, is a double threat: He's a chef who is his own pastry chef. Desserts are made with his recipes executed by the pastry team. Recently, he instituted a pre-dessert that is served immediately before the real sweets. This is something to anticipate. It might be the teeniest oval scoop of black truffle ice cream -- potent and incredibly delicious. Or a miniature chocolate financier soaked in raspberry cream. Last time, it was an heirloom cantaloupe sorbet that tasted like it came right off the vine.
Desserts ratchet up the intensity without getting too sweet or too rich. I love the "lacquered" peach glazed in peach juice and Sauternes sitting on a swatch of pistachio puff pastry surrounded by fragile fraises de bois and gooseberries. Few pastry chefs could resist gilding the lily on this dish with some impossibly rich sauce. Instead, Strong pairs it with a sexy olive oil ice cream flavored with just a touch of sweet basil and black pepper.
Also impressive is a dessert called "Spanish Virgin," an incredibly moist yogurt sponge cake crowned with frothy, lemon-scented Catalan cream. Strong plays around with the concept of New Orleans' bananas Foster. His take is a warm banana cake and fritter with orange-infused caramel sauce -- and, get this, raw-sugar rum ice cream. Mmmm.
For chocolate lovers, there's baked-to-order chocolate cake with a tender heart of peanut butter, accompanied by a malted chocolate sorbet.
Strong saves the really sweet flavors for the petits fours, which arrive at the table as a coda to the meal: handmade chocolates, sticky sweet "bordelaises" miniature yeasted cakes with a buttery caramelized crust and lovely little cookies.
When you finally leave the Dining Room, your taste buds have been through a workout that takes you through a wide landscape of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. And at this restaurant, the chef is definitely in. You don't have to wonder: You can see him striding through the room on his way back to the kitchen.
The Dining Room Rating: *** Location: The Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa, 1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena; (626) 568-3900.
Ambience: A formal and just a bit stuffy hotel dining room, but with a lovely outdoor terrace with stone balustrade overlooking the gardens. Pasadena's most serious restaurant, the place to take relatives in from out of town or host a business dinner.
Service: Varies from impersonal to highly informed and professional.
Price: Appetizers, $15 to $21; main courses, $32 to $39; desserts, $10 to $14; chef's tasting menu, $85 a person, with wine pairing, $140 a person.
Best dishes: Baby calamari stuffed with Swiss chard and preserved lemon, zucchini squash blossom stuffed with brandade, sauteed foie gras and Maine lobster with creamy vanilla bean polenta, roasted "Catalan" cod, wild king salmon with warm potato salad, roasted veal rib-eye, "Spanish Virgin" yogurt sponge cake, "bananas Foster" warm banana cake.
Wine list: More than 30 wines by the glass, a decent number of half bottles too, from a middle of the road collection. Corkage, $25.
Best table: One on the outdoor terrace.
Details: Open for dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.