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Salt and pepper tasting menu at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco last evening somewhat assuaged my fear that San Francisco is headed downhill in the fine dining department, lagging behind the scenes in London, Paris, New York. Well, behind Sydney, Los Angeles, Barcelona...

As it stands, there are only a handful of true fine dining category restaurants in the area. Among these, my current favorites are The French Laundry, Fifth Floor, Gary Danko, Coi, Michael Mina. I'll include mom's favorite Fleur de Lys, and my sister's favorite La Folie.

I cannot include Boulevard ("fine dining" place without fine food), Chez Panisse (food has become boring, and no fine dining attitude), Scott Howard (excellent food, perhaps slightly informal), Ame (savory food and elegant decor, yet it is somehow not all that fine, yet).

At the Ritz-Carlton dining room, the "ingredient" I found the most interesting, yet the least successful aesthetically, was... hickory smoke. One of the amuse bouche offerings, it -yes, the smoke- came in a cup, sealed with plastic wrap. A little hole is covered up with a little spoon, and flavorful smoke is released when you lift the spoon. Doubtful how much it helps the taste of osetra caviar and a quail egg which sit atop. If you want theatrics, perhaps you should opt for dry ice smoke...

The hickory smoke did cast a spell, though - I found the rest of the dinner bewitchingly palatable.

My wine choice : Chateau Prieure Lichine, Margaux

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