CHEF JON SEARS

RESTAURANT & HOSPITALITY 
CONSULTANT

 
This Dining Room's Hard to Find, But Shouldn't Be Missed
Miriam Morgan, Chronicle Assistant Food Editor
Friday, March 24, 2000
(page 1 of 2) 
 
A charming three-room cottage that began life in 1907 as a guest house on the Borel Estate in San Mateo has now become one of the Peninsula's best fine dining restaurants.
 
The Dining Room -- sometimes called The New Dining Room to distinguish it from its previous incarnation -- with owner and executive chef Jon Sears at the helm, is turning out high-quality, refined and sophisticated food. It comes at a high price, and small portion sizes can leave you wanting more, but for the most part it is imaginative and beautifully prepared.
 
It's intelligently served, too, in the cozy, refurbished guest house. Each room holds three to four tables -- the entire place seats just 35. The atmosphere is at once romantic and yet relaxed enough for a diner on one recent night to pull out his clarinet and serenade his companion with a melodious rendition of ``Happy Birthday to You.''
 
Sears and his crew have made the most of the original wooden building, keeping the period look while brightening things up and trying to increase the sense of space with cream-colored walls, table linens, and light gold curtains. The separate entry hall acts as a small waiting room, leading into what once must have been the living room, with a working fireplace. Sears, who is self-taught, was a caterer and private chef for Epicurean Events, which he founded in 1992. The Dining Room, opened last September, is his first restaurant.
 
DON'T MISS DESSERT
The menu includes a multicourse tasting dinner as well as a la carte selections, half of which change monthly. But even the a la carte menu is designed so that a complete dinner means three courses, not including dessert. And with pastry chef Phil Ogiela, formerly of the now-closed 231 Ellsworth, now crafting desserts (he began in January), it would be a shame to pass those up. Sous chef Michael Jochner also is a 231 alum, as is Sears himself, who worked as a server there for a year. 
 
It wasn't the sort of place where people played with their food, but Sears picked up a lighthearted ability somewhere along the line, and even has fun with prime ingredients such as foie gras. In Demitasse o' Love ($15), he blends foie gras, truffles and cream in a silky soup, an utterly sinful first course. Rich, yes, but extraordinary. The results are equally as good in Havana French Toast ($24), a second course that features a thick piece of sauteed foie gras atop slices of chipotle-spiked sauteed bananas -- all on a base of brioche french toast and garnished with tiny split baby coconuts. 
 
It sounds outlandish, but tastes wonderful. The only flaw is a superfluous puddle of spiced rum sauce. 
 
Other first and second courses are slightly more straightforward and not as rich. White root vegetable soup ($8) brings a pure-tasting clear broth studded with diced turnip, parsley root, celery root and parsnip, with crisp grits cake flavored with chard, cheddar cheese and sage floating in the center of the soup. 
 
A refreshing frisee and baby beet green salad ($9) features roasted multicolored beets and nuggets of goat cheese and honey-roasted pecans with pecan-oil vinaigrette. 
 
Another successful salad combines baby lettuces, brandied figs, Stilton cheese and a spiced walnut brittle ($8). But an even better second course is the seared sea scallop ($11) on whipped potatoes infused with truffle oil. Scrumptious, but gone in three small bites.
 
DELECTABLE DUCK CONFIT
The entree of duck leg confit ($28) also was gone in a second. The meat has a wonderful mouth feel -- shredded, tender and moist -- yet still on the bone and full of flavor, with salt at just the right level. The small portion is set atop mustard greens and garnished with pieces of roasted chestnuts, Pinot Noir- soaked dried cherries, dabs of chestnut puree and dots of pomegranate vinaigrette -- a vibrant ensemble.
 
An Asian interpretation of sea bass ($23) steamed in a soy-ginger broth with baby choi sum, shiitakes and pea shoots, is clean-tasting and virtuous. Sears returns to his Hawaiian heritage with a coconut-macadamia crust mahi mahi ($26), which lacked enough salt to bring out its flavor. But the accompanying jasmine-scented sticky rice is terrific. 
 
However, the sole vegetarian entree, a creamy Gorgonzola polenta topped with a ragu of chanterelle mushrooms ($21), was one-dimensional in texture and flavor. 
 
Playfulness returns in Sears' themed tasting menus, which change monthly. The current menu, called ``From the Ground,'' is an ode to the potato, which is featured in five of the six courses ($66; with accompanying wines, $96). 
 
Several of the current tasting courses are terrific -- a pureed roasted leek and potato soup, for instance (although the fried leeks on top could have been crisper). 
 
We couldn't stop talking about the pickled potato salad dish because of the miniature french fries and dabs of homemade ketchup that garnished the plate. The potato gratin intermezzo is a crisp, cheesy marvel, and the twice-baked Yukon gold potato stuffed with creme fraiche, bacon and fried onions is just as wonderful. It accompanied the main tasting course of three beef filet noisettes with horseradish cream -- an indulgent take on steak and baked potato. The only dish that didn't work was the overly sweet potato Napoleon, layered with a smoked salmon filling.
 
ETHEREAL SOUFFLE
But then there's dessert ($8 a la carte, but included on the tasting menu). Ogiela offers four to five creations each night. A recent roasted banana Napoleon was a marvel, and an ethereally light apricot-passion fruit souffle, with pieces of fruit, is terrific. A wedge of lemon tart in shortbread crust captures a perfect tart-sweet balance. One of his signatures has always been the soft-centered warm chocolate cake, but here the middle is too oozy.
 
 As for the wines, Sears and wine consultant Erik Entriken have created a thoughtful and often surprisingly economical list. Each a la carte course lists a suggested wine on the menu, and 2-ounce pours can be had for $11 for three courses. 
 
Service is caring and informed, and on the nights we were there, when the restaurant was not full, it was well-paced as well. The main drawback is that the food is often not hot enough -- either the plates aren't prewarmed or there's too much composing in the kitchen before the food is brought out. 
 
Finding The Dining Room may take some hunting. When it was built, El Camino Real was little more than a horse-and-buggy route that bordered the Borel estate. Now, set back from the main drag in a parking lot on the block south of McDonald's, it's an incongruous setting for a place that serves such sophisticated, food. It's not for every day, but for a special occasion, this is an intriguing place to celebrate.
 
This article appeared on page PN - 7 of the San Francisco Chronicle
.    
THE DINING ROOM     
1602 S. El Camino Real (between Barneson and Borel),
San Mateo     
(650) 349-5552     
5:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, until 9:30 p.m. 
Friday-Saturday. Reservations and credit cards accepted. Full bar. 
Free parking lot.
 
OVERALL:         THREE STARS    
   Food:         THREE STARS    
   Service:         TWO AND A HALF STARS    
   Atmosphere:       TWO AND A HALF STARS    
.    
   PRICES:         $$$$    
   NOISE RATING:     THREE BELLS    
   PLUSES: Creative, beautifully presented and well-executed 
food. Wonderful desserts. Interesting wines.     
   MINUSES: Portions can be small; food isn't always as hot 
as it should be.
 
RATINGS KEY     
   FOUR STARS:       Extraordinary    
   THREE STARS:      Excellent    
   TWO STARS:        Good    
   ONE STAR:         Fair    
   (box):            Poor    
.    
   $     Inexpensive:      less than $10    
   $$    Moderate:         $11-$17    
   $$$   Expensive:        $18-$24    
   $$$$  Very Expensive:   more than $25    
Prices are based on main courses. When entrees fall between these categories, the prices of appetizers help 
determine the dollar ratings.    
.    
  ONE BELL:       Pleasantly quiet (under 65 decibels)    
  TWO BELLS:      Can talk easily (65-70)    
  THREE BELLS:    Talking normally gets difficult (70-75)    
  FOUR BELLS:     Can only talk in raised voices (75-80)    
  BOMB:           Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)    
.    
   Chronicle critics make every attempt to remain anonymous.
   All meals are paid for by the Chronicle.
   Star ratings are based on a minimum of three visits.
   Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit.