The 99 Percent Solution
Carolyn Jung / April 2012
With the f&b symbiosis between chef Ron Siegel and mixologist Camber Lay at its new hoi polloi hot spot Parallel 37, The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco rewinds to unwind.
With leather club chairs, dark wood paneling, and the unmistakable aura of a bygone country estate, the bar at The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco was not exactly the place to throw back Sake-tinis at a raucous happy hour. Indeed, the small bar, housed in what was once a cigar room, was frequented only by a few hotel guests and the rare local who even knew of its existence. Last December, though, that once-cloistered bar—along with the whole Dining Room—was not merely stirred, nor shaken, but rattled and rolled into something altogether sleek and excitingly new.
High near the top of Nob Hill, it had been the last remaining formal Dining Room restaurant at any Ritz-Carlton. It endured for two decades on the strength of its top-tier chefs, which over the years included Gary Danko, Sylvain Portay, and Ron Siegel, a founding member of the kitchen crew at The French Laundry, who has been at the helm since 2004. Enlarged and completely redone, the 72 seat restaurant, with its own spacious bar and lounge, is now Parallel 37, named for the geographic latitude running near the Bay Area. Gone are the damask chairs, white tablecloths, tapestry drapes, and hushed environment. They’ve given way to bare wood tables, curvy cocoa leather banquettes, a glowing glass wall of a backlit oak forest, and a far more boisterous ambience. It didn’t hurt, either, that the valet parking fee for the restaurant in this congested city also was dropped to a reasonable flat rate of $10.
“For people who love to eat out, this has the right feel now,” Siegel says. “I like the energy, the noise, and the quicker pace. It’s not as precious anymore.”
The bar, once merely an afterthought, is front and center now, with its charcoal soapstone top, upholstered bar stools, flat-screens, and nearby communal tables that fill up fast. Food is now available at the bar, too, from dainty boned-out chicken wings to a full-on cheeseburger with bacon and pickled onions to anything on Siegel’s dinner menu, which is what half of all bar-goers opt for. Behind the bar, Camber Lay, who cut her chops on cocktail programs at San Francisco’s Town Hall, Range, and Epic Roasthouse, applies her mad mixology skills. Named by her architect father for a type of curve, Lay’s task is to create libations as alluring as Siegel’s food. She already seems to have succeeded, a remarkable feat given that she was hired so late in the game she had only one week to create the bar program.
On a busy night, the bar-lounge alone draws as many as 100 people, the same number of covers the old Dining Room did in its heyday. About 75 percent of bar patrons order cocktails, she says, in addition to 50 percent of those in the dining room. After all, how can they resist cocktails that bring the kitchen to the bar? Lay’s list of seven specialty cocktails ($14 each) changes with the seasons and makes use of syrups, reductions, and infusions that she or Siegel’s crew create in the kitchen. The Missionary March is a refreshing blend of Tequila, orange bitters, and Key lime juice that gets a grind of sea salt over the top. Fair Game features the kitchen’s hibiscus syrup that’s been transformed into bitters. And A Day Late, so named because Lay was tardy in creating this last cocktail for her opening list, is a spritzy blend of sparkling wine, Aqua Perfecta Pear, aged brandy, local Meyer lemons, and a pinch of nutmeg.
“I want some shock,” Lay says of her cocktails. “Like the poblano pepper with the Benedictine in the Bar Fly cocktail. I want people to be pleasantly surprised when they take a sip.”
Lay, who has worked at restaurant garde-manger and pastry stations, often gets inspired by the ingredients that Siegel totes back from farmers’ markets, such as red shiso leaves, candy cap mushrooms, blood limes, and Tasmanian peppercorns. Siegel might offer suggestions, but never interferes. “I stay out of Camber’s way,” he jokes. “She’s a freight train.”
One that moves at bullet speed, too. After all, in addition to creating the bar program, she just launched an entirely different beverage service in the hotel’s new lobby lounge just outside Parallel 37. The newly renovated lounge, with soaring windows, a crimson-lit bar, and TVs hidden inside mirrors, reopened in February to spotlight the world of teas, from traditional to modern. That includes tea cocktails ($14 each) named for city neighborhoods, such as the Nob Hill (Absolut Wild Tea, Lillet, and sparkling wine) and The Mission (Don Julio Reposado Tequila, Mayan Truffle Tea, lime, and agave syrup).
Ideally, Lay would prefer patrons to start their evening with a cocktail, proceed to wine with dinner, and then end with an digestif. But she’s not averse to making pairing suggestions for those who prefer to quaff cocktails throughout the entire dining experience.
Neither is Siegel. His dishes remain exquisitely crafted, but in a different way. The tasting menus have been jettisoned for traditional à la carte appetizers ($7 to $18) and entrées (all under $30). Luxurious ingredients remain, though, including kampachi, done sashimi-style, with pomegranate seeds and crisp little puffs arranged just so, one of the prettiest dishes ever available in a dining room, let alone any bar. But lobster, which used to grace every menu at the old Dining Room, makes few appearances now, much to the dismay of tourists who still remember Siegel’s epic 1998 “Battle Lobster” victory, when he became the first American chef ever to defeat an “Iron Chef” on the original Japanese program.
Siegel couldn’t be happier about the changes. “It’s a new beginning. It’s energized me. It’s a good feeling.”
Each evening when plates return to the kitchen, he makes a point to inspect each one to determine if the food has satisfied. Nowadays, he sometimes finds something peculiar on the plates that he never did before—discarded cocktail straws. He can’t help but grin.