Santé in Sonoma
What Zagat says, I don’t care.
What Yelp rates something, I completely disregard.
But what Michelin states – I stop, consider, and I become interested in finding out for myself. I don’t always agree, but they have credibility with me.
So the fabulous Mr. K announces that the first dinner of the year will be at Santé at Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn . I’ve been to Sonoma Mission Inn before, and it’s a nice hotel and rather fabulosu spa. But I had never eaten at this restaurant; in fact, I had never heard of it. But I looked it up and was intrigued that it had received a Michelin star.
I thought I had eaten at all of Napa and Sonoma’s best, but according to Michelin, I was wrong.
Santé is a beautifully lit restaurant with a semi-formal but “wine-country casual” atmosphere. Given its status and location, I felt like I should be really dressed up but “nicely dressed” is enough for this location. The hostess was great, exactly how I like the service — friendly, polite and professional.
But straight off the bat, the servers struck me as extremely odd.
The Service at Santé
Now bear in mind that having stayed at this hotel, I thought the service at this hotel was exemplary topnotch Fairmont service. Inside the restaurant, I felt that they had trained otherwise good servers to be just — weird. I’m not sure how to explain it, but let me provide an example. When I say thanks for filling up my water, I don’t expect “Thank YOU!” in return. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with it, but repeat that four times in one dinner and you begin to get the idea. “My pleasure!” or “Certainly!” are acceptable responses, but “No, thank YOU!” to each token of thanks is just weird. But it wasn’t just that — it was like these servers had an idea of what “Fairmont Service” was supposed to be, and putting on an act to be something they were not naturally inclined to be. With the exception of one tall server who delivered our food, I found this to be uniformly true.
Another ding to mention.
Everyone who knows me understands that due to this site, I will most likely take a taste of every single thing put on the table after taking a photo of it. I will also opt to order as many different things as possible to give my readers a really good idea on what the food is like. At Santé, we were going to opt for the six-course tasting menu for one of us, and I was going to order one more starter and entree for myself. The server informed us that the kitchen might have a problem with this due to “timing”, explaining that the chef would not know how to time the dishes to make sure both of us eat. I explained we’d be sharing everything but by the time he went and talked to the kitchen and came back — the answer was that they could not accommodate this request.
It doesn’t mention anywhere on the menu that the if one person opts for the tasting menu, everyone at the table must. Gary Danko accommodates this; Acquerello nearly welcomes this; what is the problem?
Not wanting to put up a fight, we just picked another starter and entree. I, however, was disturbed. Not everyone wants to opt for a $105 tasting menu; not everyone wants 6 courses; and definitely, not everyone at the same table will want 6 identical courses!
We put aside the issue and ordered. We also ordered one of my favorite white wines, a Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc.
The Food at Santé
The foie gras was perfectly cooked and plentiful. I’m not sure how much the origin of the foie gras has to do with the taste, but this Sonoma foie gras was perfectly fatty and tasty. The second “way” of foie gras presentation was in a caramelized custard, much in the Creme Brulee style. This second way was delicious, but I tasted virtually no foie gras in it. The sweetness of it, however, nicely complimented the foie gras.
I had read raving reviews of the “Grown-up Mac and Cheese” at Santé earlier in the day, so I was compelled to order it. This seriously surpassed all previous macaroni and cheese dishes I have had — and I have had a good number of such dishes. I generally do not like fancy mac and cheeses; I like it simple and cheesy with good pasta that is cooked nicely Well, Sante’s Macaroni and cheese had a fascinatingly good cheese with al dente pasta, with huge chunks of lobster, truffle sauce, and even a nice slice of truffle on top.
Macaroni doesn’t get better than this, folks.
Photo looks good, huh?
The taste was even better. This Maine Lobster dish was simply perfect in taste and presentation, plated as beautiful twin piles atop a long white plate, so colorful and fresh. In Mr. K’s words, “That is the best gnocchi I have ever had.” And it was. It was so good that I doubted that it was gnocchi. The lobster was practically alive, with every ounce of sweetness just bursting in your mouth. The vegetable mix that accompanied this was simply divine. This dish, if I were to rate it alone, was 10/10. Executive Chef Bruno Tison really hit the ball out of the park with this dish — do not miss it if you visit Santé.
My entree for the evening at Santé was the Duck Breast with Dirty Rice. The port wine sauce was delectable and savory and presentation was again just exquisite. The duck was a tad more cooked than my ideal preference, but it worked for this dish. The skin of the duck was fried to a crisp, bringing all the flavors of the underlying fat to life. Munching on these duck skins must be what God eats as a snack.
The dirty rice is a mix of wild rice, mushrooms, swiss chard, foie gras and duck leg confit. I love rice like this, and was looking forward to it, but bite by bite, combined with the duck breast, the explosion of flavors made my eyes roll to the back of my head.
For both entrees, however, I made a mental note to myself that the portion was quite small for the price range. On this evening, because neither of us were very hungry, the portions were simply perfect to reach a “good kind of full” level. On a normal dinner evening for people with my appetite, this would leave me wanting one more entree.
The Dessert at Santé
Now here is another service fault coming up.
In my dining experience, I’ve had the opportunity to have quite a few souffles, but in every case, it’s taken a considerable amount of time, and in every case, the server has either asked us while we initially ordered, or approached us mid-meal to ask us if we’d be trying the souffle for dessert. This way, after the entrees, the patrons don’t have to wait 30 minutes for their dessert to arrive.
On this evening, when we inquired about it, we were told that the chef was only preparing Chestnut Souffles on this evening, and that it would take 25 minutes. In our situation, because we had some wine to finish, it didn’t really bother us, but the staff has to be made aware that souffle offerings must be made to the diners at the beginning of the meal, or at least in the middle of the meal!
That said, the souffle at Santé was ideal in every way. It was puffed up high, and once the chestnut sauce was poured in, it still retained it’s shape and texture.
The bread was sturdy in texture but truly fluffy when you bit into it. Mixed in with the delicious creamy filling, this souffle was a perfect ending to the meal. We mixed it up (shown to the left) and every single bite was nothing short of divine. What was truly commendable about this was that with the bread portion of the souffle, the sauce was the ideal sweetness; not one bit too sweet or not sweet enough. The chestnut flavor was easily noted but not overpowering.
PERFECT. This might be one of the best things to ever hit these lips.
And despite having just complained about the server not having told us about this in advance, dare I say this was worth the wait. (Oh, and it got even worse when I saw him look at the amount of his tip as he was walking away from the table. Bad taste.)
I will often take up major issue with fine dining establishments paying no attention to the quality and taste of their coffee. Just as one expects outstanding food with exorbitant prices, one also expects a perfect ending to the meal as well – which, in most cases, would be the coffee.
Thankfully, Santé offers this. They get their beans from a local roaster, and offer it french press style, bringing out the true flavors of the beans. The coffee was served piping hot, the taste and flavor reigned supreme. We only ordered one cup of coffee, and the entire carafe was delivered to our table. Quite generous for only $3.
Santé only earned their Michelin star this year, and I think it’s well-deserved. The food was excellent for the most part, and the ambience is nice and spacious. The wine list was chock full of Napa and Sonoma wines, and the service, while they tried too hard, erred on the side of too much rather than too little. Besides, it just wasn’t my cup of tea; others may appreciate the “thank you — no thank YOU” interchange.
We were told that they would be closing for renovations starting today, January 2nd, and would remain closed for 10 days. They earned the star, and I suppose they intend to do an overhaul to the location and menu in order to ensure they retain it, if not add stars by next year. Given the taste of the food at Santé, I think they might actually accomplish this. I would only be too thrilled to go back once they reopen.
Santé is inside the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn at the address of 100 Boyes Blvd in Sonoma. Complimentary valet parking is offered to all hotel guests and restaurant patrons. You can reserve a table on OpenTable with a credit card.
Addictive Factor: 9/10
Overall Rating: 9.1/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.