For Christmas 2015 my husband and I used up some airline miles for a trip to San Francisco. We were just in the City by the Bay over New Year’s 2015, but for a quick weekend getaway San Francisco is a great city, so we figured why not take advantage of free plane tickets and take the one hour flight north? Lots of things to do and see, and most importantly, always a good restaurant or two, or 20, to try out. Our morning flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco didn’t start out as we had planned as we went through a flight cancellation and multiple delays, but we eventually made it up to Northern California. As we’ve learned from previous Christmas trips, when you travel on Christmas Day you better have dinner plans in place because you really can’t count on very many places being open on Christmas Day – though San Francisco is a bit more forgiving as there are so many tourists in town. After a going through a few choices for dinner, my husband and I finally settled on a restaurant located not too far from our hotel.
Luce, a California cuisine, seasonal and fresh market inspired restaurant, located inside the beautiful Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco, has been awarded a prestigious Michelin star for seven consecutive years (2010-2016). Under the guidance of Chef de Cuisine, Daniel Corey, a native Californian himself, the restaurant focuses on fresh ingredients and a sustainable approach to food to create a menu that’s “modern American fare with influences from all over the world – all with ingredients that are sourced locally.” The vibe of the restaurant is modern, clean, and simple, focusing on flavor profiles that excite the imagination.
As this was Christmas night, Luce was actually offering a special set menu for the evening rather than their regular full menu. We knew this when we decided on Luce and made reservations. However, that didn’t mean we still weren’t a little disappointed as their regular dinner menu is just awesome that we wished we could have tried a few items off that menu rather than having to choose off of our set menu. But, beggars can’t be choosers and this is Christmas night and we should just be grateful we had a place to dine.
My husband decided to kick off his Christmas meal with his go-to drink of choice, and Old Fashioned. This time, he asked the waiter if the bar could make the Old Fashioned with Whistle Pig, which he noticed they offered on their whiskey menu. Whistle Pig is a higher end rye whiskey which apparently my husband had read was supposed to be pretty good and he wanted to give it a try in the Old Fashioned. This is the one thing about our dining experience at Luce that night that was a bit off-putting to my husband and myself. Once we were seated at our table our waiter came over to introduce himself, but then when we weren’t immediately ready to order, he seemingly disappeared. I saw another table who came in much later than we were being serviced by our waiter before he ever came back and paid any attention to us. Once we put in our drink orders it seemed like our waiter disappeared again for an extremely long period of time before our drinks were served, so we were slightly irked by our lake of attentive service for the beginning part of our meal service. When my husband finally received his Old Fashioned he was extremely pleased with it. He said that you could taste the quality of the Whistle Pig in the drink and that the Old Fashioned just tasted a lot smoother and richer using higher end whiskey. He described the drink as not being as harsh on his lips and extremely tasty. He thought that this version of the Old Fashioned had more bitters in it than others he’s had previously, and for my husband that’s a real plus as he really likes the taste of bitters.
Each dinner meal started out with an amuse bouche, a little tasting created for guests courtesy of the chef. Served in a small round dish, the amuse bush was described to us as toasted oats, brown butter, sage and pumpkin. This was essentially the flavors that we all recognize as the flavors of fall or the harvest presented in a tasty small bite. My husband and I both thought that the toasted oats were delicious, full of flavor and they added a terrific crunch to the dish. My husband, however, didn’t like the pumpkin flavor in the small portion of pumpkin puree we received. He thought that the flavor of the pumpkin was so bland and muted that the dish would have been better served with some other fall/harvest/holiday flavor such as a tart bite of cranberry or tangy bite of pomegranate, something that just stood out against the rich flavor of the toasted oats. And I think I’d have to agree with my husband’s assessment as something with a stronger punch of flavor would have complimented the really tasty toasted oats much better.
As a first course, we were given two different options to choose from. I chose the East Coast fluke, lightly marinated and served with pomegranate seeds and mint. I knew that fluke was a fish, but just reading the description in the menu, I couldn’t really understand what the preparation of the dish itself would be. I was stunned and surprised when the dish was presented to me as it looked more like a fish carpaccio dish and a very light and bright and vibrant dish. And I was right, it was so incredibly light and fresh. I’m not quite sure still how the fluke was treated, but it was so tender and fresh. The flavors of the mint and the tang of the lemon really soaked into the fluke and gave the fish a great vibrant punch of flavor. The pomegranate seeds were such a nice accompaniment to this dish along with the thin-sliced radish which helped to give the dish a terrific crunch to offset the melt-in-your-mouth quality of the fish. This was such a delicious and light start to the meal.
My husband deduced to try the other first course option which was the warm local mushrooms & wild matsutake with brioche and anchovy vinaigrette. I had no idea what to expect with this dish and neither did my husband other than the fact that it had mushrooms and it was the opposite of what I chose. My husband’s way of thinking is that we might as well try everything that’s on the menu rather than both trying the same dish. After a bite, my husband declared his mushroom appetizer as “awesome!” He said that he actually wished that the dish was twice the size it was because he could easily devour the whole thing. He really enjoyed the broth that the mushrooms were cooked in and that is what added a terrific flavor of the perfectly prepared mushrooms. The greens and the croutons were all just side dressing to the star, which was the mushrooms.
For the main course, we were given an option of 3 different dishes, a seafood dish and two red meat dishes. A little surprising that a chicken dish or a vegetarian dish wasn’t offered, but that was fine with both of us as my husband and I both gravitated to two separate dishes. Not surprisingly, I went red meat all the way with the short rib of beef dish, glazed with black truffle and served with potato puree and broccoli. My short rib of beef was fantastic and very well prepared. The short ribs were incredibly fork tender and so packed full of flavor . The two large shavings of black truffle, while flavorful, were a bit gratuitous on the dish. My husband didn’t mind though, and actually took my black truffle for himself. I loved the sautéed broccoli leaves and thought that the glaze from the short rib was a nice dressing for the broccoli leaves. The potato puree was truly a puree, and the potatoes were so light and fluffy, it almost was hard to identify the puree as being made from potatoes. The dish itself was filling and delicious and just the right size.
My husband chose the other red meat dish which was roasted duck breast served with cauliflower, Fuji apple and pine nut crumble. I’m not sure my husband has ever met a duck dish he didn’t enjoy, but he really enjoyed this dish. At the end of the meal, he was so impressed with the food served at Luce. The duck breast, two large sections of duck breast, was perfectly cooked to a medium rare. The duck was incredibly tender, and flavorful. The pine nut crumble atop the duck breast added a nice earthy flavor to the duck and was a textural compliment to the duck. The accompaniments of the sliced Fuji apples and roasted cauliflower were a nice light addition, and the apple added a nice light touch of sweetness and tartness to the duck dish. Again, I think that the food was so good that my husband only wished that the portion size was twice as large as it was.
Again, for dessert we had two different options to choose from. Both desserts sounded spectacular, but there was definitely one I wanted, so my husband chose the other dessert. His choice was the Luce Yule Log made with chocolate, gingerbread and pear. So beautifully and artistically presented, it was almost a shame to have to tear it all apart and eat it. The candied ginger that accompanied the yule log was my husband’s favorite part of the dessert. The “mushroom” was actually baked meringue and it was fun and creative. The yule log, while delicious and light and airy, my husband thought contained too much chocolate and therefore was too sweet and overwhelming, without enough other flavors to balance out the sweetness of the chocolate. But that’s not surprising, since my husband isn’t a huge chocolate fan to begin with.
For my final course, I chose the caramelized banana bread pudding with creme Chantilly. My husband knew I was going to order this all because it contained the key word, “banana.” I loved it. I will say that much like my husband’s dish, I did think that the banana bread pudding was quite sweet, but the creme Chantilly really helped to mellow out the sweetness and balance the flavors. The bread pudding was jam-packed with bananas, which was terrific because you could actually taste the bananas and so many of them were caramelized during the baking process that it only helped to bring out the natural sweetness of the bananas and added such a great textural contrast to the soft bread pudding. Also, as an accompaniment, the dish was served with a banana mousse, dehydrated banana pieces and chopped nuts. The idea of using the dehydrated banana pieces was genius and just added to my love of this band bread pudding dish.
While we were disappointed that we didn’t get to try out menu items from Luce’s normal dinner menu, we absolutely loved everything we were served off of the special Christmas menu. Each dish presented to us was visually appealing and the flavors were absolutely delicious. Even though we got off to a little bit of a rocky start with slow and inconsistent service, after our drinks were delivered, the service was impeccable and the food more than made up for the little hiccup in service. It’s not hard to see why Luce is a Michelin star restaurant as it really stands out amongst the hundreds of amazing restaurants in the City by the Bay. The restaurant lives up to its reputation in every way, and the little taste we got of the restaurant from Christmas night dinner only whets our appetite to return to Luce again in the future when we come back to San Francisco so we can taste their full menu offerings.