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Silks

A Few Rough Edges

Silks in the Mandarin Oriental, once obscured within a sea of hotel restaurants, seemed to garner an unprecedented level of buzz in 2006. After reading so many good reviews of the Asian-influenced haute cuisine, we hesitated to order the same things that had been raved about. We took a chance on the tasting menu ($95), so we could really give the chef a chance to show his stuff. From the moment we walked into the lovely Silk Road-themed dining room, there were subtle signals that the balance was off.

For one thing, an architectural floral arrangement that literally scraped the ceiling made the room seem smaller than it was and stuck out like a sore thumb. And so it was with the tasting menu: an ambitious effort to be sure, but one that was filled with hits -- and not quite hits.

Though not reflected on the restaurant's web site, the tasting menu has been in rotation for the past six months. You can no longer choose 3 or 4 dishes from the regular menu at a set price; instead you put yourself completely in the chefs hands.

The amuse-bouche, a kumamoto oyster with a salsa verde foam, was bright and refreshing, which we hoped was a wonderful sign of things to come. But the first course, a ceviche, suffered from too much of everything. There were too many elements and no balance between the cool and sweet granita, the puckery sauce, and heavy mint aroma. The mild fish was all but lost in the mix.

The second course, a sashimi, was risky, with feta foam, a gelled cube of yuzu perched on ahi tuna, and ponzu truffle vinaigrette. But it worked! Score two for the kitchen.

Perhaps the best course of all was simply a cup of kolhrabi soup with mustard foam. Like a mini cappuccino, this hit just the right balance. The soup was the creamy essence of a vegetable in season and the foam, instead of being superfluous, actually complemented it with a light touch of brightness.

The two main courses were in a word, heavy. The first was a "surf and turf" combo of suzuki, a Japanese sea bass, and pork jowl, each of which were cooked masterfully. But the escarole foam added nothing to the dish. A kalamata sauce obliterated any hint of tarragon; the dish badly needed a counterpoint.

So too did the second main course, two preparations of kobe beef: a strip loin and a rich chunk of short rib. While each was flavorful, the side of mashed potatoes, mushrooms and white asparagus did nothing to elevate the dish and instead reinforced its heaviness. This plate stood in contrast to a kobe beef course at the French Laundry where the tiniest bit of tender spinach managed to balance the plate and the flavors.

The dessert on the tasting menu, which is always a souffl of the season, was lemon with a ginger creme anglaise. Like a puff of liquid air, this was pure heaven, just exactly as a souffl should be. Served charmingly in a teacup, it hit all the right notes, making us all the more melancholy for what could have been.

Should we return for a very special occasion or business dinner, we might sample from the a la carte menu, which includes starters like Botan Nabe (a wild boar shabu shabu -- $21) and entrees like lobster & shellfish tom yum noodles ($43). Maybe even an order of "Bacon, Eggs and Toast;" that is, duck egg tempura, crispy suckling pig, and brioche ($24). While there are high points on the tasting menu, at close to $100 there just arent enough.

Silks
222 Sansome St @ Pine
San Francisco 94104
415.986.2020
http://www.mandarinoriental.com/hotel/519000039.asp

Hours:

Breakfast
Monday through Friday 6:30am to 10:30am
Saturday and Sunday 7:30am to 11am

Lunch
Monday through Friday 11:30am to 2pm

Dinner
Tuesday through Saturday 6pm to 9pm

American, Asian influence
Downtown
$$$$

Reservations Essential? Yes