San Diego "Taste this," said my partner, handing over a forkful of his braised New Zealand Tai snapper. "What is it?" There were four hunks of snapper (or what looked like it) on his plate. This particular bite was flat, grill-marked, and suffused with sauce, but the texture was too firm to be fish. "That's -- uh, let me check," I said, pulling out the mini-menu I'd stashed in my purse at the entrance to Molly's. "Aha! It's Bread & Cie olive bread toast! It just looks and tastes like fish because it's sopped up so much of the seafood sauce." "You know," said my pard, "this chef is clever. I think we have a winner here!" The two snapper fillets proved to be a bold-flavored species, boldly garnished. One was crowned with a garlic-rich chervil aioli and shaved raw baby fennel. The other was topped with melted leeks and a zesty tomato-fennel seafood sauce, enriched by the juices of the clams and mussels served alongside.
That's when we went from enjoying the food at Molly's to falling in love with it. There's a new chef in town, Brian Sinnott, who's cooked at some of San Francisco's best eateries. Although the menu at Molly's looks short and simple, featuring California cuisine with a slight French tilt -- nothing there to scare the horses or the relatives from Duluth -- what comes from the kitchen is a long way from cautious hotel-restaurant fare. This entrée confirmed that the cooking at Molly's is not merely delicious, but as intelligent as it is sensual. The combinations are sharply conceived, not mechanical -- there are culinary crosswords to enjoy, taste-teasing mysteries to solve.
Of course, finding the restaurant is a bit of a puzzle in itself; this dauntingly vast hotel ought to post "U R Here" maps at every elevator. Once you arrive (let the doorman point you the way), Molly's is cozy and clubby, with sweet holiday decor. A gingerbread house, surrounded by multicolored lights and guarded by a gnome-size chocolate Santa's elf (with the face of calypso singer Black Stalin), welcomes you to the carpeted semicircular dining room. The linen-dressed tables with their comfortable captain chairs are well spaced -- if you overhear nearby conversations, it's because some people just talk louder as their evening goes along. For larger parties there are a few banquettes and several half-circle booths seating six or more. Prints and oils with a jazz theme hang on the walls, and high above the center of the room is a recessed ceiling mirror, fun for spying on fellow diners across the way. The table settings are functional: pairs of identical forks and knives, so nobody has to worry about which implements to use for which course.
The holiday crowd at Molly's is non-glam and non-local -- a combination of conventioneers in their business duds plus visiting aged parents in pastel suits, dining with their adult offspring. There are signs of caring from the moment you sit down. The service is unfailingly friendly, and everybody seems to do everything needed -- even the bartender and the sommelier will step in and wait on you when the wait staff is pressed.
The table bread is an assortment from Bread & Cie, served with Plugra butter slabs, and the appetizers are true harbingers of what's to come. My favorite is fried squash blossoms, in the airiest batter, plumply stuffed with ricotta and flecks of fresh basil and plated atop basil-infused olive oil. At the other end of the rectangular platter are sweet corn kernels from Chino Farms strewn on arugula leaves. The chef is smart to keep the corn separate, because it would be lost in the stuffing. Unfortunately, it's not available every night, because the early-bird crowd often gobbles the entire supply, so call ahead if this is your heart's desire. A mayo-dressed Dungeness crab salad similarly showcases its main ingredient without fussing. The perimeter of this heap is decorated with rectangles of apple and white-rinded, red-hearted Chinese "watermelon radish" (shinrimei -- "beautiful in the heart").
A luscious starter of "hand-cut" pappardelle features a cupful of house-made rectangular pasta, rolled very thin and sauced with sautéed chanterelles, pancetta, fresh spinach wisps, and shaved pepato, a sweet-flavored peppered sheep's-milk cheese (from Sonoma's renowned Bellwether Farms) that melts into a hint of cream sauce. This is a dish you normally find only in top-hat Italian restaurants.
As I recall, Alice Waters wed baby beets to warm goat cheese back around 1974, and ever since, the pair have been inseparable. Here, the cheese takes the fresh form of a miniature soufflé served at room temperature, with lean but creamy Laura Chenel chevre melting inside a firmer shell. Bathed in citrus vinaigrette, bicolor beets hunch at the other end of a plate decorated with microgreens, tiny Mandarin orange segments, and the inevitable balsamic slick. They taste almost as good as the soufflé, but the couple has run out of conversation during its 30-year marriage. It's time for an amicable divorce, or at least some outside fooling around.
Other too-familiar appetizers (which I was too bored to try) include Caesar salad and caramelized pear salad with watercress, candied walnuts, and bleu cheese. You'll also find the chef's favorite starter, a revisionist tuna tartare mixed with playfully reshaped elements of a classic salade Niçoise. I'm sure these are as advertised.
Unlike the many chefs who spend all their imagination on the starters and then go dim, chef Sinnott's entrées are the climax of the meal. Pan-seared Maine diver scallops reveal his baroque side: Plump, juicy bivalves sit atop celery-root purée, mingling with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (which resemble tiny brown chickens with ruffled feathers) and cubes of butternut squash, which look enough like carrots to be a happy surprise when you bite into them. Parsnips appear in the mix as both cubes and frizzles, and tiny brussels sprouts play a part, too. Sneaking around the edges are golden pools of buttery "thyme jus." None of these choir members are superfluous -- all voices thrill in this oratorio of ingredients.