Like blood pressure, your portfolio, and Kirstie Alley's weight, restaurants have their ups and downs. Chefs come and go, trends are embraced or discarded, and servers get trained with greater or lesser zeal. The longer a restaurant survives, the more likely it sometimes will stumble. Ultimately, the winners are the spots that get up fastest.
Two recent visits to Sans Souci, in downtown's Renaissance Hotel, sparked these thoughts. Marked by off-target food and service flubs that left us scratching our heads, our meals were no picnics. But a restaurant doesn't reach the 16-year mark without having some moves, so we're inclined to view the glitches as part of a passing "rough patch," not necessarily a cause for prolonged hand-wringing.
Instead, we'll just trust that management remains savvy enough to get this award-winning Mediterranean mainstay back on its feet, lest it devolve into just another hotel eatery: a pricey convenience for travelers, maybe, but barely a blip on the regional radar.
Visually, at least, the dining room is as lovely as ever, with its luxuriously rustic mélange of marble, whitewashed pine, potted palms, and wall murals meant to evoke Provence-style reveries of sunflowers, lavender fields, and lemon trees.
Against this perennially pretty backdrop, the white linens, ornate flatware, and dainty floral china seem wholly at home. The rustic vibe inevitably whets our appetite for the excellent bread service: thick slices of fresh, wholesome loaves, accompanied by zesty tapenade — a signature blend of garlic, capers, anchovies, sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, and red and green peppers.
It was right there, though, with that tapenade, that the kitchen signaled its first stumble. Rather than bright and zippy, the present version seemed dull and flat, bereft of the properly salty tang of olives, anchovies, and capers. Unfortunately, such underwhelming flavors seem to permeate much of the food coming out of chef Anna Kim's kitchen.
A Northeast Ohio native and graduate of Arizona's Scottsdale Culinary Institute, Kim is the restaurant's most recent chef du cuisine, following Ben Fambrough, the six-year vet who departed last August. But while the concise Mediterranean menu hasn't changed much under Kim's watch — signature dishes include lobster bisque, angel-hair pasta with lobster cream sauce, and bouillabaisse — execution has taken a tumble.
Take that bouillabaisse, the hearty seafood stew that should be a celebration of sunshine and salt air. During a lunchtime visit, it was a forgettable toss of overcooked scallops, mussels, bass, and lobster meat, along with two just right clams and a couple of tender shrimp, in a Pernod-piqued broth. Or consider an evening entrée of should-be-succulent, buttery sea bass, which instead proved oddly watery and strangely stringy. The clumsy accompaniments didn't help. They included the strong, gassy-tasting kale, and a trio of tough "ravioli," browned in butter until nearly crisp.
Things looked up with the signature angel hair, perfectly cooked, drenched in lobster cream, coaxed into a vaguely crustacean-like shape, and showered with buttery lobster bits. Rich and unctuously rounded, its flavors were transporting.
But this dish also introduced a new problem. To complete the visual reference, the pasta is usually garnished with an actual lobster head. This afternoon, though, the kitchen was fresh out, a non-issue as far as we were concerned — at least until our chatty waitress made a big deal of pointing it out. And now that we've entered "silence is golden" territory, let us also recall her evening colleague, who actually scolded our adult dinner companion for using the wrong plate.
Such oddities aside, the kitchen scored again with a pristine leaf-lettuce salad, garnished with tiny cubes of fried pancetta, toasted pecan bits, wedges of roasted apple, and a light yet sumptuous mint-and-pecan dressing. Also memorable were two soups chosen from a special "Taste of Spain" menu — a sweet-and-perky roasted-carrot soup, delicately goosed with honey and curry, and a duo of red and yellow gazpachos, cleverly cuddled up beside one another in a single bowl.
But then came more stumbling, including the grievously lumpy polenta and flaccid broccolini in an otherwise tasty "duo of lamb" dish, starring two meaty, wood-grilled chops and an ample portion of reasonably tender braised shank.
In fact, the highlight was probably dessert — particularly the ephemeral lemon tart, a melt-in-the-mouth stack-up of sponge cake and caramelized lemon custard, garnished with plump raspberries and candied lemon peel. Still, even so sweet an ending — particularly when followed by a final, well-intentioned offering of grapes and strawberries, sloppily plated in a puddle of water — wasn't enough to mask the taste of disappointment.
After all, "Sans Souci" translates to "without care." It's a charming thought. But when it best describes a restaurant's performance, it's clear a little more caring is what's called for.