Friday, August 28, 2009

“Well, That was Quite Civilized!”

My words to Chuck as we departed the Ahwahnee Dining Room in the magnificent Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite National Park.

Now I take a backseat to no one when it comes to my appreciation of “diners, drive-ins, and dives” (and an occasional “joint”). But every once in a while, it is nice to experience fine dining--even if just at lunch.

The restaurant’s web page reads: “The crown jewel of Yosemite dining, the award-winning Ahwahnee Dining Room is both magnificent and intimate. The 34-foot-high beamed ceiling with large sugar pine trestles that complement the room’s granite pillars, floor-to-ceiling windows, chandeliers, linen tablecloths and beautiful china create the perfect ambiance for a memorable dining experience.” So true.

While The Ahwahnee Dining Room is elegant, it is not stuffy. As we were led to our table by one of the guides or seaters, she exclaimed that our table was one of her favorites. Table 115 sits next to one of the magnificent tall windows. One day as she was seating a couple at this table, they noticed a small tornado of dust just outside. It seems that two squirrels were enjoying an amorous moment just outside. Suddenly the activity drew the attention of some children seated nearby who immediately ran to the window to see what was the excitement. I’m glad I wasn’t a parent trying to explain.

The lunch menu is more refined that many restaurants’ dinner menus. Soups include their signature Sierra Nevada Pale Ale Cheddar with rye croutons, chive oil, and bacon or the vegetarian mushroom.

Among the salads were: the Mediterranean Chicken Salad with spinach, romaine, olives, red onion, feta, chickpeas, grilled portabella, whole wheat pita crackers, grilled lemon and California olive oil and the California Bay Shrimp Cobb with organic greens, tomato, bacon, avocado, olives, sliced egg, and Shaft’s Blue Cheese Louis Dressing.

And the entrée menu included a daily pasta selection (that day penne with a shrimp sauce) and: Tagliatelle and Vegetables with arugula, picholine olive, tomato and pine nuts, roasted garlic purée, and olive oil; Butterflied Jerked Pork Chop with rice, beans and plantains with mango pineapple salsa; Roasted Mahi Mahi Veracruz with peppers, onions, tomatoes and salsa verde; or Sautéed Mountain Trout Amandine with herbed pilaf and shallot-sherry vinegar brown butter sauce and served with seasonal vegetables.

All sounded wonderful, but the temperature that day in the valley was ninety-nine degrees, and I wanted something on the lighter side. So, from the sandwich menu, I chose the seared rare tuna steak sandwich with pea shoots and a wasabi and soy reduction. This came with a side of Asian slaw. Chuck’s lunch was the cheesesteak panini au jus with purple cabbage slaw and a German-style potato salad.

The Ahwahnee staff bake their bread in-house, and while we were waiting for our lunches, we were presented with a small basket containing a very good crusty white and a marvelous cheese and herb bread. This latter had just enough cheese and herbs. Too often cheese bread can be overpowering, but not so this.

Our meals arrived just in time--we had finished the bread basket. Chuck’s panini was thick with thin, tender, and juicy meat with caramelized onions and peppers over which had been poured a beefy and savory au jus. The roll was spectacular--light and with a crisp crust made even crisper from the sandwich pressing process. The kitchen was generous with bacon in the potato salad, but to me it could have used just a touch more vinegar. Chuck liked it just the way it was.

And the purple cabbage slaw, which also contained julienned carrot and green, red, and yellow bell peppers--was lightly tossed with a creamy dressing. Just enough dressing to tenderize the cabbage and allow the taste of the cabbage, carrots, and peppers to come through. Since Chuck is not a big fan of caramelized onions, he did think that they had been applied with a heavy hand. My opinion was that the sandwich was just right.

My tuna steak, served on a very good sandwich roll, was rare as advertized with the pea shoots providing a slightly bitter and a slightly grassy taste that, when combined with the spicy wasabi reduction, made the taste buds sing. If I had a complaint it would be that the tuna steak didn’t meet my definition of seared. To me, searing means placing the meat on a very hot flattop or in a very hot skillet so that an intensely-flavored crust forms on the exterior. This did not have that. The Asian slaw contained Chinese cabbage with thin-sliced red onion, bell peppers, and carrots and tossed with a mild soy and rice wine vinaigrette. This was a light and perfect accompaniment to the tuna.

Did we have dessert? Of course. Our choice was caramelized bananas and jackfruit (star fruit) incased in a phyllo "cigar," drizzled with a sweet sauce, and served with a scoop of boysenberry frozen yogurt. Wow!! Without the tart, frozen yogurt, this dessert may have been too sweet. But the tart fruit with the sugary banana and jackfruit was an inspired combination.

The setting was magnificent. The service was superlative. The food was wonderful. If only my tuna steak had been seared this would have been 5.0 Addie meal. But, alas, I can only award 4.5 Addies.

As we were leaving, I looked again into the Grand Lounge. I could picture The Ahwahnee when first built, filled with gentlemen (and they would have been gentlemen) and ladies in evening attire coming down for a long and leisurely dinner. Afterwards, they would retire to the Lounge for conversation, or to play cards, or to just let their meals digest. How civilized. Today, after dinner, we would retire to our hotel rooms, turn on the TV, and fire up the lap top.

They had the right idea in those days.

No comments: