La Folie: Four Star Dining?

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Michael Bauer of The San Francisco Chronicle included La Folie in his recent roundup of "The Magnificent Seven," saying this four star destination is better than ever. With one truly memorable dish from my last meal there a a few years ago and not a single thing to really "wow" in the new dining room, I beg to differ. First, a note on my expectations. My sister visits from Atlanta for a day every three months. She comes to see a wonderful doctor and the night before her appointments, she likes to have the sort of fabulous meal that's all too hard to find in the South. Her food tastes tend toward the classic and she has been disappointed with some of our California-cuisine choices in the past. With only a week's notice this time, we failed to get into Quince. Friends gave some good suggestions that have been added to our list of Restaurants to Try, but we were nervous taking her to an unknown this time around. Having recently read in The Chronicle's four star restaurant roundup about the "dramatically upgraded dining room" that has "reinvigorated" chef-owner Roland Passot's cooking and armed with the memory of a perfect, classic lobster bisque and a friend's mock warning about the "mountains of foie gras," I figured this would be sure to meet with her approval.We were the first table seated at 6:30 on a Thursday evening. The dining room used to have a whimsical circus theme that was replaced in the recent overhaul by an elegant modern look that could be mistaken for any of dozens of other restaurants. It's a pleasant place for a long meal, but far from inspiring.The meal began with an amuse of salmon mousse in a shot glass with pickled cucumber, red onion, a seared salmon cube and daikon radish. Wonderfully light with a rich mouth feel and not at all fishy, this was a lovely contrast in textures and temperatures that was perhaps the best item of the evening.Oren selected a lovely 1999 Chassagne-Montrachet that had gentle but well-structured acid and a honey note and color along with the archetypal flinty, mineral character that I love in wines of the region. (The bottle stayed in the ice bucket except when being poured and I failed to catch a glimpse of the producer. I'm hoping Oren will enlighten me.)The three of us like to try and share as many things as possible, though with an expectation of small portions and too many of us vying for "first rights" to the beet and goat cheese millefeuille, we ordered two. Nice presentation with alternative layers of red and gold beets with creamy white goat cheese and cubes of pickled beets around the edges, but the flavors were rather subdued: the beets lacked the brightness you hope for in truly excellent specimens and the goat cheese was somewhat anonymous. We would have done better to get just one. The dungeness crab napoleon with pineapple chips and apple gelée measured up a little better, but still failed to truly impress. The crab itself was delicious in a light citrus vinaigrette that was complimented by the subtle sweetness of the paper-thin pineapple chips, but the apple gelée was something of a mystery: it coated the entire center of the plate like plastic wrap and was so hard that when Oren managed to get one tong of a fork through it, he was able to lift the entire plate off the table. The flavor, when I did manage to tear off a small bite and get past the form, was very fresh.Cassandra went on to try the signature foie gras in a dark berry sauce. This truly was a mountain of foie gras, the portion almost unseemly. Being a professed foie gras snob who only really likes the preparation in a small handful of the world's best restaurants, she was done after two bites. Oren made a larger dent, but I'm waiting to try it until someone trusted says it's not to be missed. The saving grace of this dish, for which I can't exactly credit the kitchen, was the glass of '93 Château d'Yquem we splurged on as an accompaniment. On inquiring, I was told the glass came from the 1993 vintage, which, unfortunately, was a rather weak year for d'Yquem, acocrding to the Wine Spectator in 2000. It had a rich honey caramel color (darker than usual, but perhaps it was the light) and an earthy, nutty flavor with only medium sweetness. I only have two real points of reference here (one of which you can see in this photo), but the d'Yquem, while good, was probably not worth $68 a glass, especially not with this particular foie gras.Given my happy lobster bisque memory, I was really excited about a dish that seemed tailor-made for me: lobster over butternut squash ravioli with chanterelle mushrooms. The implementation didn't quite measure up: the ravioli was heavy and the flavors were lost under the buttery mushrooms and rich but chewy lobster. The frisee around the edges didn't quite go. This was a fairly large portion and with nothing to cut through the richness, it quickly became tiring. I had planned to request a copy of the menu, so didn't take thorough notes all of our entrees. Well, I forgot to ask and in the ensuing week of family visits and long hours at work, have now forgotten the details. Neither the pork loin nor the stuffed squab made a particularly lasting impression. The palate cleansing shot of watermelon something that followed was more interesting.For dessert, we took our waiter's recommendation and tried the passion fruit tapioca, which did have a refreshingly strong, passion fruit zing, and the chocolate bomb, which I remember only as being very rich with a single-note flavor. The petits fours were presented in three attractive rows, five for each of us. All were tasty, but nothing truly noteworthy. It's possible we hit an off night or that my expectations were unrealistic, but in this vaunted realm of four star restaurants -- one of only seven -- it seems like at least one thing in the several hours we spent at La Folie should have made me say "wow!" The service and setting were very pleasant, but nothing more. The food was all good, but I feel as though I've had some better cousin of each of these dishes in much less expensive and acclaimed restaurants. I was equally disappointed at Gary Danko a few years ago and wasn't thrilled with my meals at Elizabeth Daniel or the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton (before the Chef moved to Masa). I like Manresa, but the thought doesn't quite leave me drooling. To date, only The French Laundry has lived up to my expectations. Is that really my only option for true four star dining in San Francisco?La Folie2316 Polk StreetSan Francisco, CA 94109415.776.3431Open Monday through Saturday, 5:30-10:30Valet available for $10 per car.Reservations available on OpenTable.