Now, more than ever, when we go to a high-end restaurant we want a peak experience. And now, more than ever, if you're going to open a new high-end restaurant, you ought to have a really good reason to do so — something of a mission. Restaurants in hotels exist a little outside this paradigm: Travelers expect food as part of the amenities of their resting places. Once, hotel restaurants weren't known for the quality of their food — experienced voyagers knew to venture outside their lodgings for interesting meals. But in San Francisco, that has changed. Some of our best restaurants are inside hotels: Michael Mina, Fifth Floor, and Canteen spring to mind.
Midi, a new California-French restaurant downtown adjacent to the Galleria Park Hotel, recently replaced Perry's, a branch of the Union Street American-food stalwart (opened in 1969) offering stiff drinks and burgers atop blue-and-white-checked tablecloths. (Perry's gathered up its linens and moved a mile away to the Hotel Griffon on Steuart.) Renovating the two-level space took a year, and all vestiges of its tile-floored past have been erased.
We entered the hotel under a new green-and-white Midi sign, thereby getting a glimpse of the fabulous white lobby, boasting an especially beautiful Art Nouveau fireplace mantel worthy of a Jean Cocteau movie.
We were told we could access Midi by ascending the impressive white marble staircase to the second floor and turning left, or by exiting the hotel and entering Midi's ground-floor bar next door and taking its own interior staircase. We chose the nearer staircase, and arrived at a low-ceilinged, sleek, and dark modern space. We were led to exactly the table I wanted, among the dozen or so in the room: a four-top set at a gray-and-white striped upholstered banquette along a row of windows overlooking Sutter. (There's also a narrow, viewless room in the back.) We were a little distracted by a brightly colored flower mural along one wall, inexplicably containing a profile of a young woman with a ponytail and a headband, looking like a huge Barbie doll.
One of us sipped a superb orange-scented cocktail called L'Ange Orange (local Blue Angel vodka, mandarin liqueur, $9) from the now-obligatory fancy cocktail list. We liked it so much that we wished it filled its oversize martini glass more than two-thirds of the way. While we perused the compact one-page menu, which offered nine starters, seven entrées, and three vegetable sides, we chose a Gewürztraminer from the 15 wines available by the glass.
Executive chef Michelle Mah (born in Seoul but raised in Southern California), who was named a Rising Star Chef in 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle while at the Asian fusion restaurant Ponzu, is turning out what Midi calls "updated adaptations of popular brasserie classics," with the almost inevitable "fresh, seasonal, local, organic, sustainable" mantra attached. (Somebody should make up a rubber stamp of those words, with "whenever possible" appended.)
There are indeed reminders of spring on the menu, mostly among the ingredients listed under the main courses: English peas, pea tendrils, asparagus, rhubarb. We started with hearty, classic French dishes. A plump pot of pork rillettes ($13), somewhat less fatty than expected, was served with rounds of toasted baguette, house-pickled radishes, and mustard. A stack of chilled jumbo asparagus ($10) was enlivened with slivered radishes and coated with a tangy sauce gribiche (minced fresh herbs, dominated by parsley, with hard-boiled egg, capers, and a whisper of anchovy), which overshadowed any hint of the Meyer lemon oil also mentioned. The pan-fried veal sweetbreads ($15), a dish I can't resist, were perfectly fried with a crisp crust, a trick not achieved the last few times I've had them, and propped atop a silky dab of celery root purée, garnished with tiny pancetta and trumpet mushroom dice, and celery leaf and shaved fennel salad. Curiously, in a place that seemed to be straining for greatness, the ceremonially served rolls were poor-quality commercial pap.
Everybody but me was pretty much thrilled with the main courses. I found them well-conceived and carefully cooked, but lacking that ineffable touch that elevates good food, even very good and sincere food, into memorable and great food — food that you want to eat again.
A chicken breast (pan-seared first, for crisp skin, and finished in the oven, $22) was served atop a mélange of English peas, haricots verts, mushrooms, and pea tendrils, with tiny chunks of braised chicken thigh. The orderer of the spring lamb ($24), which was braised with baby artichokes, toybox carrots, pearl onions, fingerling potatoes, and a touch of persillade, raved about it and cleaned his plate. Grilled hanger steak ($23) came already sliced, anointed with a butter that didn't taste of the Roquefort advertised, with a thatch of watercress salad. Butter, however, was all I could taste drenching the very large serving of pan-roasted local rock cod ($25), perched on a stew of pencil asparagus, fava beans, English peas, and leeks. It was called a truffled white verjus butter sauce, with black Himalayan truffles, but butter predominated. French fries served in a paper-lined glass ($5) with béarnaise were perfect.
The bittersweet pot de crème was touted as the chocolate lover's dream, but its chocolate flavor seemed hidden under a layer of salty caramel sauce and crème fraîche. We found the thin espresso and cream tart and lemon-thyme semolina cake with honey ice cream (all desserts $7) similarly uncompelling — we didn't finish any of the three sweets.
I realized that part of my disappointment with Midi stemmed from recent visits to Range and Zuni Café, admittedly two of San Francisco's best restaurants, serving more personal and exciting food at similar price points. Midi paled a bit in comparison. But nowadays — and in my opinion, always — $13 starters and $24 main courses should be more than just pleasant if you want your clientele to eagerly return.