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Level III

Hotel Resto Remodel Yields Mixed Results

In June 2008, the JW Marriott Hotel's "is it a bar or is it a lobby?" Pacific Restaurant, which sat pretty above Union Square, underwent a much-needed makeover. Jazzed up by an airy new design and revamped interior (complete with atrium, vaulted skylight, marble floor, and a sprawling assortment of lounge, lobby, living, and restaurant spaces), the newly christened Level III appears to be part of a larger sea change among chains like the Marriott: forego the default mode of generic, muzak-infused hotel restaurants, and opt for chill-out environments meant to attract all types -- from brunching girlfriends to the pre-theatre Friday night crowd.

Executive Chef Ben Mattmanís menu, filled with classic American cuisine, is complemented by mixologist H. Ehrmannís indubitably stylish handmade drinks (e.g., the Harvey Milk Punch and the Cable Car No. 2). But as fancy as the food or cocktails may be, itís the dťcor that immediately warrants attention.

Haute Environs
Hop on a glass elevator up to the third-floor restaurant, wind through the resin-wrapped marble columns and layered hues of saffron and vermilion, and spring for a pre-dinner cocktail by the bar fireplace. The dramatic lighting enables an easy nighttime transition from restaurant to cocktail lounge, and it is precisely this versatility that makes Level III so appealing. The variety-starved will appreciate the seating options, which range from a large communal table (perfect for people-watching while you nibble), to lounge beds, to nooks with flat-screen TVs, to private alcoves in plush, circular booths.

Decent Delectables
Much like the eye candy that festoons the restaurant, Level III generally gives good eats. While the restaurant does breakfast and lunch (and a mean weekend brunch, to boot; peanut butter and jelly pancakes and ginormous Bloody Marys are among the delectables), itís the dinner menu, with its fresh seasonal ingredients and classic dishes sporting an internationally flavored twist, which has the most takers.

Chef Mattman and his partner, Chef Ryan Jette, have split the dinner menu into three categories: level one (starters), level two (plates to share), and level three (individual entrees). The gastronomically sophisticated comfort dishes range from house favorites like fish tacos with lime mango salsa to slow braised ale short ribs and grilled Angus sliders. Individual entrees range from $13 to $36, from casual (a toasted brioche sandwich with organic chicken breast, fried egg, bacon, and pesto aioli) to executive (New York steak with roasted chestnuts, French beans, and truffle veal jus).

The Happiest Hour
For diners who find the dishes just a little above their price point, Level IIIís happy hour, from 4 to 7 pm Monday through Friday, includes a selection of appetizers that range from $3.50 to $6, as well as three signature cocktails and six wines for half price.

Taste Test
We decided to try the chefís $50 3-course tasting menu. The lobster bisque, served with tail and claw meat, cognac, and lobster oil, was a clean, aromatic plate with just the right balance of richness and delicacy to prime oneís taste buds. The main course -- a grilled filet with russet potato puree, mixed wild mushrooms, charred scallions, and beef jus -- was a hearty and tender dish with a satisfying, layered distribution of flavors that made it palatable throughout.

While we were disappointed with the scant dessert options (a cheese plate or a trio of ice cream sandwiches), the cheese plate proved to be delectable fare. Cow, sheep, and goat cheeses were served alongside succulent fruit slices, dried fruits, and nuts.

While we couldnít complain too much about our meal, the $50 price tag for the tasting menu seemed excessive in light of the offerings, which were up to par but still not executed with the ultra-chic panache that the Marriott appears to be going for with its general ambience. Additional risks and a more colorful assortment of ingredients would also have been befitting of the kaleidoscopic surroundings.

The lack of vegetarian options was particularly frustrating. In the main menu, levels one and two included hearty yet predictable fundamentals like bistro fries, mac ní cheese, and French onion soup. The only vegetarian plate on the individual entrťe menu was the tagliatelle pasta with butternut squash and sage, at a hefty $18.

The Verdict
Perhaps Level III lends itself more to shared plates with good friends, especially since the food can be upstaged by the cocktails. The sweetly piquant Harvey Milk Punch, offered in three levels, includes Grand Marnier, Navan (a cognac-based liqueur), milk, grated nutmeg, and just a pinch of cinnamon. The first-level version is already fairly pricey, at $15, but you can take it up a couple notches with level two (with Cuvee de Centenaire, at $45) or level three (with Cuvee du Cent-Cinquantenaire, at $90).

The Sunset on Dunnigan ($12) is a delightfully floral elixir with Damrak
Gin, sauvignon blanc, and St. Germain elderflower liqueur. Still, most patrons who arenít enjoying the happy hour may want to stick to beer and wine, especially if getting soused at the proposed cost (over $10 a cocktail) is none too appealing.

Because Level III is such a sprawling restaurant, service tended to be somewhat slow at times, even though our server was always gracious. The privacy of the enclosed booth in which we ate was a welcome reprieve from the silverware-knocking proximity youíre likely to experience with your fellow diners at most San Francisco restaurants, which are typically challenged when it comes to space. More adventurous diners will probably pass on Level IIIís menu, which can come across as pedestrian at times (chicken sticks and mixed nuts, anybody?), but if youíre up for the splurge, the main courses are toothsome enough (with accompanying cocktails, of course) for most foodies to sit back and enjoy the atmosphere.