Nearly hidden inside a lovely art deco residential building on Nob Hill, Charles is the more intimate sister of Aqua, both part of owner Michael Mina's restaurant group, which also includes Pisces. Quiet and richly elegant, Charles' interior still has the feel of the private men's club that once resided in its space. The dark wood interior and antique-looking mirrors help to give the room a classic, sophisticated feel generally associated with old money. The small dining area (we never saw more than 25 guests in the room) also adds an intimate, romantic ambience. In fact, most of our fellow diners were couples. The dining room is separated from the entrance by a gorgeous, though equally small, bar, which seems the ideal place for a nightcap after an elegant evening. The only curse of such beautiful but old-fashioned architecture is that the bathrooms are tiny -- slightly larger than what you'd find on an airplane.
Executive Chef Melissa Perello is a 25-year-old Wunderkind from New Jersey who's been working in professional kitchens since she was 15. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Perello first appeared in San Francisco as the lunchtime garde manager (in charge of artistic presentation), and then assistant pastry chef, at Aqua, before eventually landing in the pastry kitchen at Charles Nob Hill. In October 1999, then-executive chef Ron Siegel offered Perello the position of sous chef, and she accepted. Siegel, of course, went on to become the first American to win Japan's Iron Chef competition; under his direction, Charles Nob Hill won four-star ratings.
Much ado has been made about Perello's age and gender, given the rarity of both women and young folk in the upper circles of local culinary life. But perhaps more impressive is that she had the gumption to take the reins as executive chef when Siegel left for Masa's last year. Suffice it to say that his were big clogs to fill.
Perello's menu presents most of its excitement at the beginning and the end, sandwiching a selection of fairly simple, traditional entrees. The restaurant offers a six-course tasting menu for $70 per person or a nine-course menu for $100; either can be matched with a six-course wine pairing for another $45. Otherwise, the menu is à la carte, in the $30-40 range. For such steep prices, we expected to leave delirious from the experience and awed by culinary perfection; sadly, we were neither.
We were greeted by a pre-menu gift from the chef, a demitasse cup of Sugar Pie pumpkin and Jonagold apple purée so fabulous and rich that any more than that small serving would have been too much. The appetizer menu showcased what is unquestionably Charles Nob Hill's signature: foie gras. It was exceptionally tasty and tender, used in numerous ways throughout the list. I was thrilled with the sautéed day boat scallops topped with caramelized foie gras, a sensuous combination that came together beautifully, with luscious taste and texture. One of my companions ordered the Hudson Valley foie gras served over huckleberries, which made for a delightful contrast. The whole dish was burst-in-your-mouth flavorful, yet at the same time remarkably delicate; it was particularly nice accompanied by a sweet wine suggested by sommelier Jane Rate. Across the table, our friends had a Dungeness crab salad made with crème fraîche, which sounded extraordinary but was unfortunately overwhelmed by too many baby greens on top.
The entrees, though exorbitantly pricey, were a mild disappointment. Rack of lamb came served atop an onion tart that added a pleasant sweetness to the dish. Though the meat was perfectly cooked, it didn't particularly stand out. Monkfish arrived with baby artichokes and a cranberry-bean ragout, and although the artichokes were appealing, the beans seemed a little out of place -- too earthy for such a delicate plate. The parsley, which added the only color to this otherwise entirely white dish, seemed dull. Charles serves its Niman Ranch filet over a potato galette, accompanied by a sauté of porcini mushrooms and topped with seared foie gras. Much like the lamb, the filet was good but not particularly special. A more succulent preparation might have contrasted better with the potatoes.
Predictably, the wine list at Charles is impressive, including selections from around the globe, ranging from $30 on up. Sommelier Rate is clearly on top of her game, and did a terrific job of helping us select an Australian wine, a 2001 Cimicky Shiraz Daylight Chamber, that went well with a table dining on meat, lamb, and fish.
All of the food at Charles comes served on white dishes of different shapes and sizes; desserts are particularly attractive, plated on big square and rectangular dishes and in round bowls. Of course, we had to indulge. Pastry chef Jacov Toviano has created an interesting cornucopia of treats that range from the classic, rich, and buttery (can you really go wrong with lots of butter?) to the downright adventurous.
We started off with his saffron panna cotta, which was surrounded by a small moat of tomato coulis (yes, tomato), and found it to be much better than it sounds. Legend has it that Toviano was inspired by the fire trucks he noticed racing up and down the streets of San Francisco, and decided to add a little something red to this dish in their honor. Saffron gave his creation a slight spiciness, lightly balanced with the otherwise sweet panna cotta; the tomato added a little tang. We also tried the pear tart with goat cheese, which was a wonderful, creamy delight, though the pear seemed somewhat under-ripe and not as flavorful as it could have been.
Finally, as though all that weren't enough, we dove shamelessly into the gâteau, made with Valrhona chocolate and accented with almond dentelle lace around the edge. Nothing says dessert like chocolate, and this version was smooth and spot on.
Throughout the meal, our servers -- and there were many in this relatively small dining room -- were appropriately attentive and invisible. They neither added to nor detracted from the experience; they're just part of the atmosphere at Charles Nob Hill. In the end, though, the nearly chilly professionalism gives the restaurant a feel that borders on pretentious.
The final bill came to $386, which is comparable to the tab at other high-end restaurants like Masa's and Chez Panisse. Yet we somehow felt a bit cheated at Charles Nob Hill (especially after one of our party was greeted with the lingering aftermath of someone else's illness in the men's restroom). Certainly, we enjoyed our meals. But none of us was dying to get back into the place after we left. Particularly in these lean times, for such a high price tag we expected a truly spectacular dining experience, and this one came up short.