The first night, head chef Chris O'Connell was a prominent figure in the kitchen, but I didn't spot him during our second meal. I assume that, with the cat away, it was a line chef who wrecked our pan-roasted free-range chicken breast. The "airline cut" (a half breast, plus the first joint of the wing) had clearly started life as a flavorful Shelton Farms bird -- a couple of bites from the underarm were tender -- but the rest was cooked to cardboard. Worse, the "whole-grain mustard sauce" (based on chicken-stock déglace) was reduced over too high a heat, not just caramelizing but cremating it. Gritty black specks floated in the brown colloid. If not for this hellacious sauce über alles, we'd have enjoyed the Alsatian-style accompaniments of braised cabbage, cubes of apples, and fingerling potatoes. Only the crisp disks of rolled pancetta were flavored strongly enough to survive.
In my opinion, the best aspect of our two dinners was the opportunity to pair foods with an adventurous choice of wines available by the glass. As at most gaming houses, drinks are affordable, but Fiore's wine list is interesting, filled with international bargains. For the salmon tower, I chose a Stuart Vineyards Viognier from nearby Temecula, with lush aromas hinting of honeydew and honeysuckle. With the duck, I enjoyed a complex Chilean L'Apostolle Merlot from a winery that's been winning raves in Wine Spectator. To accompany the steak, instead of a typical tannic red, I gambled (and won) on a hunch that the lighter Joseph Drouhin Beaujolais Villages would profitably conspire with the tarragon in the sauce.
The short, sweet dessert list at Fiore's offers five confections by the hotel's skilled pastry chef, Francesco Santoro (more about his desserts next week). A velvety ricotta cheesecake with a topping of frozen strawberries in their own syrup was everything it should be. Other choices include bananas Foster, tiramisu, molten chocolate cake, and vanilla crème brûlée. In the past, the waiter told us, crème brûlée was offered in a "flavor of the day," but none of the customers would order anything but vanilla.
THE OYSTER BAR
The Oyster Bar is attached to Fiore's like a barnacle to a ship. It's literally a bar, behind which there's an oyster-shucking station, a steam table, and a separate space where the shucker serves as sushi chef. Overseen by Chris O'Connell, head chef at Fiore's, the bar offers an array of popular seafood dishes (half-shells, cocktails, chowders, etc.). The menu is both chalked onto chalkboards and printed on stand-up cardboard rectangles. At 6 p.m., the Oyster Bar is full, while Fiore's is near-empty. At 8 p.m., the situation is reversed.
We started with a "seafood combo on the half-shell" -- freshly shucked oysters, bland boiled shrimp, scallop ceviche, Hawaiian ahi (with salsa, not an island-style poke), salmon (more salsa, and a lime marinade), and blue-crab salad. The oysters are fresh but generic in flavor. The cocktail sauce is finish-it-yourself, with a blob of grated horseradish in the center and lemon wedges on the side. The scallop ceviche featured sweet little bay scallops. The crab salad, however, was too sweet and tasted better smeared on the house roll than eaten solo.
The bar recently added sushi, a limited selection of four "fancy rolls" (futo maki). The song of all novice sushi chefs is "I wish they all could be California rolls..." At this bar, they are. (It's a relatively easy roll to carry off.) We chose an "Asian Roll," featuring cured salmon and avocado with a fillip of daikon sprouts. The young oyster shucker struggled with his knifework on the slippery salmon, and the nori had been toasted too far ahead; it was chewy rather than crisp. The rice was heavily sweetened. At the center sat the sweet blue-crab salad of a standard California roll. (It seemed to be the same salad served in the "seafood combo" described above.)
I was tempted by the entrée "pan roasts," featuring various maritime species. Luckily, my neighbor saved me by ordering first. Instead of a true pan roast (butter, olive oil, garlic, herbs, maybe a splash of cream and/or a scattering of tomato cubes), the dish arrived looking like cream-of-tomato soup with a scoop of rice in the center. The lady tasted a spoonful and asked, "What is this?" "Oyster pan roast," the server replied. "Not where I come from," she parried, "and I come from a place where seafood pan roasts come from." (I'm not sure where that is, but I believed her.) Visibly disgusted, she pushed it away after a second spoonful.
The Oyster Bar is open Wednesday--Thursday 5:00--10:00, Fridays and Saturdays until 11:00 p.m., Sundays noon--7:00 p.m. Soups, salads, sushi, and appetizers $5--$12; seafood pastas and entrées $11--$17. A few mainstream supermarket wines (average $9/bottle retail, low $20s here), available by the bottle or glass; full bar.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Christopher O'Connell, chef de cuisine at Fiore's and the Oyster Bar, was born in Manhattan and grew up in San Francisco, so he started life eating well. "I'd always enjoyed great food," he says. "I started out working as a busboy and I was always enamored with the chefs, but I didn't even know how to go about getting into that. I worked under chef Reed Hearon at the Corona Bar and Grill, and he gave me my first opportunity to cook. After about a year, I made the decision that that was what I wanted to do. Then I worked for that same company, Kimco [which runs several boutique hotels and restaurants in San Francisco], for about 3 1/2 years. During the off-seasons, I worked at Cafe Pescatore, Rosalie's, Bix. I went on to a huge convention hotel, the San Francisco Hilton. I worked in the fine-dining area, I worked banquets, I did all that. Then I decided to go to school and figure out what it's really all about.
"I went to the California Culinary Academy for 16 months. Afterwards, I liked the opportunities that big companies and hotels offered, so I moved out to L.A., worked at the Beverly Hills Hotel just after the remodel in '95, then at the Ritz Carlton Del Rey for almost three years. I had a lot of friends in San Diego and had my business cards [circulating] out here. One day, I got a call from Pascal Vignau, then the chef at the Four Seasons Aviara, and I went there for 4 1/2 years. I also worked at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, another Four Seasons Hotel.