Hotel restaurants used to be stodgy, predictable, and dull — not destinations, but places of last resort for travelers too tired to leave the hotel, or inoffensive meeting spots for businesspeople. There's been a renaissance of sorts, often chef-driven, and now there are many restaurants in hotels that are serious eateries, adding luster to their locations and attracting a sophisticated foodie clientele. In San Francisco, such places include Michael Mina in the Westin St. Francis, Cortez in the Hotel Adagio, and Canteen in the Commodore Hotel. (Some are managed in-house; others rent their space from the hotel, and might also supply room service.)
The JW Marriott downtown is in the throes of a redesign and has installed a new dining room, Level III, on (surprise!) the third floor of the hotel, which it calls "The Lobby (reinvented)" and describes as a "unique combination of lounge, restaurant, lobby, and living space under one roof." In practice, this means you enter the hotel's ground floor, get on an elevator, and exit into a grand atrium. You're confronted by a huge sculpture of four ladies dancing around a fountain and the 17 additional floors of the hotel, in courtyard form, soaring dizzyingly above.
Huge red sofas dot the space; there's a fireplace, gas flames dancing, along one wall, with oversize chairs and oversized art books. Across the way, there's a glittering bar that still manages to look chic despite its big TV.
There are no walls to mark off the dining space, or an obvious entrance, but tables can be glimpsed in the distance, and a host station is tucked discreetly in a corner past the fireplace. From there you'll be led to your choice of small square tables set against windows overlooking Post Street, or bigger round ones in their own freestanding, womblike, semicircular booths, further enclosed by sheer embroidered hangings. The feeling of extravagant space continues. The colors are very hot: Chairs and booths are upholstered in orange striped fabric and yellow leather, and a busy abstract-patterned carpet in red, yellow, and orange predominates. Complicated light fixtures combine large red-trimmed white fabric drum shades with dripping crystal chandeliers. The general effect is modern, hard-edged, and expensive.
The menu looks much longer than it turns out to be: Only the first two and a half of its more than a dozen pages are devoted to food, with the rest featuring extravagant cocktails and a Northern California–heavy wine list. Most of the cocktails cost between $12 and $18, but we can't resist mentioning the Harvey Milk Punch, available spiked with three different bottlings of Grand Marnier: Cordon Rouge ($15), Cuvee de Centenaire ($45), and Cuvee de Cent-Cinquantenaire at $90. High-roller Dubai and Las Vegas nonsense arrives in San Francisco!
The menu is divided, a trifle confusingly, into three levels. Level I contains such bar nibbles as mixed nuts ($6) and potato crisps with Point Reyes cheese ($7), but it's a little unclear why "Manila" clams on the half shell ($7) are here and not nestled next to oysters on the half shell ($11) under Level II, or why the "tartare" of Hawaiian bigeye tuna ($12) and chicken sticks ($9) are listed under Level III with dishes that seem more like main courses, such as crispy skin "Thai" snapper ($16) and "Tasmanian" king salmon ($28). It's not clear at all why those words are in quotes, either, but a whimsical editor or typesetter has sprinkled them oddly throughout the list.
Three of us arrive hungry for dinner one night and order a couple of items each. We appreciate the comfy surroundings of our booth, and note that the carpets, enclosures, and space ensure we can easily converse. Even though we clearly said "I'll start with the bisque, and then go on to the sliders" and "I'll have the tartare, and then the crispy chicken salad," what we wanted as second, separate courses arrive within moments of the first courses hitting the table. When we protest, the server says it's about the concept of sharing. But the soup, poured from a beaker into a fancy dish with a spoon nestled atop, is clearly intended for one (we have to ask for extra spoons for our companions to sample it). We feel rushed.
The lobster bisque, atop minced lobster meat ($9), is a trifle thin. The creamy mac and cheese ($9), a generous portion, is rich with Gruyère, mascarpone, and Parmesan. The star of what we thought were the starters is the dazzling tuna tartare ($12), beautiful chunks of red fish shining with spicy ginger marinade and sided by a streak of avocado-wasabi purée, served with crispy sesame wontons and a thatch of mixed greens.
The ratatouille ($9) was not the long-cooked stew we expected, but a layered casserole of the classic ingredients (eggplant, summer squash, tomato, peppers, onions), still firm and almost crisp. The herb-crusted chicken ($14), a boneless breast prepared schnitzel-style, is sliced and presented atop mixed greens in a honey-Dijon vinaigrette. It was easy to eat, but nothing special. The three American Kobe sliders ($12) are plump little burgers with pepperjack and thin fried onions in shiny buns pierced with sticks bearing a cherry tomato and a cornichon: good bar food.
Five desserts are offered under the Sweet Level, further explained by "No, I Shouldn't, I Couldn't, Well, Maybe ... ," which is too cute, as are the presentations of four doughnut bites with warm chocolate sauce ($9) and three little logs of dryish cherry cola cake ($9) served with whipped cream. I don't quite understand the philosophy of the menu: Much of what we ordered seems like toy food, not really satisfying. Only the tuna tartare tasted like it came from a first-class kitchen.
When we return for lunch, the light-filled atrium is even more stunning. We wander around, finding snug loungelike spaces tucked behind the bar with their own big TVs, and computer setups at smaller tables. Level III could function nicely as a semiprivate refuge from the big city while nursing a $2.25 cup of coffee or a $12 cocktail.
But we're here for lunch on a workday, so we order shrimp and vegetable tempura ($12) for the light eater and filet "au poivre" ($32) for the hungry one. Bizarrely (especially considering the rapid piling-on of plates at dinner) it takes fully 45 minutes for the food to reach us — and the restaurant is nearly empty. The tempura is beautifully displayed, wrapped in paper in a wooden box. There are three long shrimp, carrots, green beans, asparagus, zucchini, and yellow squash, all in a thin crisp batter, decorated with sprouts, and served with a thick, sweet yuzu-soy sauce. The surprisingly thick chunk of good steak, dusted with lots of pepper, sits atop a layer of fries, garlicky as requested, and comes with a lovely cognac veal jus. Along with the tartare, it's the best dish we've had here.
It's another surprisingly long wait before we receive our Boston cream pie ($8), and this time "cream" should have been in quotes, because there's no sign of the custard that makes it a cream pie. But it's a good treat: tender sponge cake layered with Earl Grey–flavored chocolate ganache, with whipped cream, candied almonds, and squiggles of caramel sauce.
On the way out, we snag cups of cucumber-and-lemon-flavored water from a spa-like display near the bar. What's up with the service, we wondered? No businesspeople could sacrifice two hours for two courses at lunch, and we almost got the bum's rush at dinner. And the food is all over the place. Level III is stylish, but confused.