I have a friend and colleague who is crazy for Joel Huff's cooking. Like, if Huff had a fan club, she'd be a charter member. Susan has been singing his praises since her first meal at ~SILKS~, calling him the best new chef of San Francisco, and so I was thrilled when she offered to treat me to dinner there recently. I am willing to wager very few of you have eaten at Silks, or have even thought about it. Well, like Susan, I'm here to tell you that you should. (Come on, drink the Kool-Aid!)
Restaurants in hotels can sometimes have a tough time, and especially when they're not even visible from the street—Silks is tucked away on the second floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in the Financial District. I can't vouch for how busy the room will be or not, but I'd say the odds are good that it'll be mellow. See, not enough people know how downright delicious the food is here. I'm happy to help my friend with her crusade to turn more people on to Huff's unique and excellent dishes that integrate Asian flavors and influences, French technique, and his own je ne sais quoi add up to a totally fresh approach.
This was the first Mandarin Hotel to open in the U.S., so it's modeled after the Silks in Hong Kong. Large panels of silk robes line the wood-paneled walls, plus tiered and hand-painted lampshades with tassels and a stenciled trim heighten the exotic design touches. The floor is also lushly patterned. The dining room has some booths upholstered in Prussian blue mohair that are situated along one wall (request one of these if you can), but the dark wood armchairs with padded arms and backs in the center of the room are still lovely, and comfortable, seats. The room feels sophisticated (well, except for the bizarre display of bottles of Veuve and some wines on a table covered with a black tablecloth like it's a tradeshow setup) and you can actually carry on a conversation with your guests without having to sign to each other. (Read: great place to bring the 'rents, have a romantic dinner, or just "stop the insanity.")
Okay, it's not cheap. Let's just get that out of the way. We're talking along the lines of the other big guys in town, like Masa's and Michael Mina and the gang. You can do the tasting route ($75 for three courses, $85 for four) or order a la carte. Either way, get that credit card or drug dealer wad of cash ready. And let the edible art show begin.
My friend and I opted for the four-course dinner (naturally) with the suggested wine pairing ($45—it would be $35 for the three course). We started with a ridiculously delicious and artful amuse of an oyster topped with sea urchin, thinly sliced sea grape and one edamame bean—a lovely kick off. It was followed by the glistening jewels of yellow fin tuna ($15) dolloped with feta foam (I know, cheese and fish (!), but it was scrumptious), partnered with petite yuzu jelly cubes, a ponzu truffle vinaigrette, and a little surprise crunch of roasted garlic chips. Oh, and there was some fried caper, and basil in there too. I mean look at the pic, and yes, it tasted as good as it was pretty to look at. Daring combo of flavors, and it sang. Not Top 40, mind you—this was a definite indie track.
My all-time favorite, and I know I am not alone in this, is his decadent rendition of eggs, bacon, and toast ($18). One of the biggest duck eggs I have ever seen is tempura fried, and rests on a slice of brioche and is blanketed with some speck foam (speck is a smoked prosciutto—you should try it in a sandwich sometime). You break the egg yolk and it runs into the crispy swath of suckling pig that looks like pork belly, but it's not. It is actually a center cut of pressed and then braised pork. Delightful textured layers of crispy and fatty succulence, with full-on porky flavor. In this dish, what would be your home fries are actually truffled potatoes, with a drizzle of Pinot Noir reduction on the plate (our 2004 Willakenzie Pinot Noir was a perfect match for this dish, and it's not just because it's the same Pinot he uses for the reduction). It all looks quite Kandinsky on the plate. Some people would be slayed with the richness of this dish, but I'm a total pig for anything with egg and/or pork, so I was in literal hog heaven. It was my dream trough.
I was enraptured with the concurrent simplicity and depth of the Japanese hot pot dish ($30), a steaming cast-iron bowl that comes resting on its own little block of wood. Within was a treasure of tender Alaskan black cod braised in sake, and then brushed with miso. I adore mushrooms, so the medley of enokis, shimejis, and oyster mushrooms was a shroom extravaganza, coupled with esoteric bursts of flavor from the sea beans. There was also bok choy, carrot cut into tiny leaf shapes, and edible fern. Oh, and let's not forget the tender rock shrimp gyoza, all resting in the chicken dashi consommé. My cravings for nabeyaki are suddenly pale, if not gone—THIS is the dish to crave.
I found the hand-cut tom yum noodles with a sparkling-fresh Maine lobster tail, mussels, and clams ($40), while lovingly executed (and interestingly so as well—it all arrives wrapped in parchment paper that is ceremoniously cut open by your server—you get an aromatic spa-like face steaming), was too familiar in its flavors to really make me ever desire it again—especially when compared to the uniqueness of the other dishes, and its steep price. Ingredients like Kaffir lime, lemongrass, Thai basil pesto, and crushed cashews were harmonious, but didn't really strike me as sigh-worthy.
Desserts continued the theme of beautiful presentation, but it was the plainest presentation that I liked best (a Cinderella finale, you could say). After trying the stacked dominos of chocolate marquise ($11) (I savored the surprise of the white pepper sorbet) and the banana split ($11) that came with a tasty vanilla malt shot, it was the complimentary coupling of a teacup full of rich hot chocolate and a shot of bock that totally wowed me. Yes, chocolate and beer, truly bittersweet. I wonder if someone out there could (and would) try making this into an ice cream flavor. Hey, I'd buy a pint.
So, are you curious? I hope so. Huff is a young and talented chef—read my friend's article for more on his interesting background, which includes Ventura, Australia, Denmark, and New York. The easy street parking in the evening or the complimentary valet parking for three hours is a nice bonus, and the efficient service and thoughtful wine pairings all make for one heck of a memorable dining experience. Don't let the empty room scare you—you just happen to be in on a secret that really should be common knowledge. And don't forget your wallet.
*Update: March 30, 2009*
Chef Joel Huff has left, have not returned to check out the menu under chef de cuisine Orlando Pagan.
222 Sansome St.
in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel
Cross: Pine St.
San Francisco, CA 94104
Dinner Tue-Sat 6pm-9pm
Tasting Menu $75
Chef Joel Huff is no longer here, so this review is out of date.