House sweet it is
A couple of visits had confirmed that the Old House Restaurant, the spacious patrician getaway for grown-ups at the Eldorado Hotel & Spa, was entirely capable of hitting the dining-out trifecta: excellent food, an appealing space (unless you’re facing the unlit overflow room on the south side), and a wait staff that views its work as an actual profession. But there’s a fourth challenge: consistency.
Several Old House dinners ago I had swooned over the restaurant’s Chilean sea bass, lightly crusted on the outside, flaky yet moist on the inside, and bathed in brown butter — a winning selection in every way. Could the restaurant do it again? Now it sat on my dining partner’s plate, alongside a slow-roasted tomato and lightly horseradished fingerling potatoes, and as he took his first bite, his eyes opened wide. “Wait till you taste this!” I didn’t wait, actually. My fork was already on its way, and the fish was as heavenly as I remembered it. (Upon my inquiry, the server checked with the chef to make sure the sea bass was sustainably sourced, and the server assured me that it was.)
It happened again with the scallops, which showed up once in a “seafood trio” appetizer along with a cup of lobster bisque and a crab cake. I ordered them again as a full-fledged and generously proportioned appetizer all on their own. These are no ordinary scallops. These are katafficoated scallops, which means that each of the three shellfish is enshrined within a nest of thinly shredded phyllo-like dough, which crisps when baked. It’s a downright sensual dish, with the crackle of the pastry giving way to the buttery scallops concealed inside. The mussels were terrific, too, swimming in a perfectly emulsified fennel-cream sauce, with parsley and carrots thinly minced.
Not so impressive was a seafood paella in which the scallops were slightly burnt and slices of andouille exacerbated what was already an overly salty sauce. At the end of the meal it remained nearly untouched, which might have evoked comment from our server but did not. That same night, a request for advice about a wine pairing received the response “It depends on what kind of wine you like.” These were uncharacteristic lapses; on all other occasions, our servers were attentive but not officious, and questions received precise answers.
A tart Oberon Sauvignon Blanc supported the sea bass adequately, but even better was a 2007 Four Vines “Naked” Chardonnay, blessedly un-oaked, from Santa Barbara; both are available by the glass. Wine enthusiasts will find the list reasonably priced, with an emphasis on good vintages from California, the Rhône, and down under. Good values can be found among pinot noirs in the $40 to $60 range, and a few trophy bottles from Napa and Bordeaux tempt the deep-pocketed. A 2001 Latour will set you back $375, a 1999 Cheval Blanc $450 — a chunk of cash, to be sure, but you would be lucky to find the Latour priced as modestly in a retail shop.
Those highfalutin reds might come in handy when you embark on the meat side of the menu. The Old House prides itself on its beef, the provenance of which is neither local nor particularly pedigreed; when you enter from the lobby of the Eldorado, you pass a display refrigerator in which stout cuts of cattle are being dry-aged behind glass. Food enthusiasts are currently arguing about the incremental benefits that accrue as beef ages beyond 10 days or so, but I say go with the 12-ounce, 28-day, dryaged rib-eye. On one visit it came with haricots verts and not-overdairied blue-cheese mashed potatoes; on another with Hatch green chile mac and cheese and mushroom bordelaise. Both times the meat was richly flavored and precisely cooked to the medium-rare requested.
A 12-ounce New York steak au poivre was pale in comparison and on the stringy side. I was suspicious of the idea of a veal T-bone with ancho barbecue sauce served with white asparagus, polenta fries, and “tobacco onions” (thinly sliced fried onion rings seasoned with cayenne). Veal and white asparagus are treasured for their mildness, ancho for its pungency. Guess which wins in a total knockout?
The dessert menu could use some sprucing up: molten chocolate cake, churros, and so on are yummy but not in any way surprising, and they lack the inspired originality that mark the Old House’s best work, which can be fine indeed.
Old House Restaurant 309 W. San Francisco St., Eldorado Hotel & Spa;
995-4530 Breakfast 6:30-11 a.m. daily; lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. daily; lounge/bar 2-11 p.m. daily;
dinner 5:30-10 p.m. daily