Sunday, January 25, 2009

Classy, Sumptuous and Romantic - The Outstanding Dishes of The Dining Room at The Langham, Huntington Hotel and Spa, Pasadena

It feels like I've known about The Huntington Hotel for as long as I can remember. I remember being taken there once as a child by my parents, and while I don't remember the meal, the images of traveling through a forest of oak trees before arriving at a huge, grand structure in the middle of all of that have become an indelible memory. A few years later, I still remember enjoying a nice Sunday brunch when it was The Huntington Ritz-Carlton and now as The Langham. But I've never had the chance (nor the inkling) to dine there for dinner.

I had foolishly thought that dinner at The Langham, Huntington Hotel must be the same as the majority of hotel restaurants in the U.S. (outside of a few places in Vegas): Overpriced, "fancy food" for the hotel guests. But then I heard some strong recommendations for The Dining Room at The Langham from ipsedixit and others, and took note. And then it earned 1 Michelin Star last year and this year, and articles about their Chef, Craig Strong, appeared. With my interest piqued, I was finally able to pay a visit to The Dining Room at The Langham, and I'm so glad I did.

The Huntington Hotel has served as a quiet landmark in Southern California for many years, owned by Henry E. Huntington (of The Huntington Library fame) for decades before the switch to the Ritz-Carlton and then the current incarnation as The Langham. There's something special about The Langham, Huntington Hotel & Spa, sitting on the border of San Marino and Pasadena, it is literally surrounded by groves and groves of beautiful oak trees, in a quiet residential area. Pulling up to The Langham carries a certain sophisticated, understated elegance, which carries forward as you make your way down the long hallway to The Dining Room. You can also enjoy walking through their beautiful outdoor center garden before or after the meal, which just adds to the romantic feel of the evening. (^_~)

Upon entering The Dining Room, we were greeted by Manager Robert Hartstein, who promptly showed us to our table. The main dining area feels like a throwback to an earlier time: Classy and elegant, but not stuffy.

Perusing their menu, The Dining Room offers a nice variety of appetizers and entrees, in addition to a Chef's Tasting Menu and a Personalized Tasting Menu. They offer a decent variety of wines under $50, with most bottles over $50. And they serve 22 different kinds of beer from around the world, which is nice to see. For our first visit, we decided to try a few appetizers and entrees.

The Dining Room is currently helmed by Chef de Cuisine Craig Strong, formerly of the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia and Atlanta. He started us off with an amuse bouche of Ahi Tuna, Spiced Mustard, over Sesame Soba Noodles, Micro Green Salad.

As an amuse bouche, this truly set the tone for Chef Strong's dishes that evening: The Ahi Tuna was very fresh and clean, and the Spicy Mustard and Sesame Soba Noodles added just the right layering of spicy and fragrant nuttiness to elevate the Ahi Tuna. The Micro Green Salad also added a nice earthy, herbal quality, and they all worked well together. There was a tiny bit of gristle / connective tissue in the Ahi Tuna, but otherwise it was excellent.

Bread service began at this time as well: The Dining Room was offering 3 types of bread, ranging from an Olive Bread (the exterior was a bit tough, but the interior was good) and Country White (straightforward, well-made), both from La Brea Bakery, and a house-made Brioche, which was simply amazing, buttery and airy. :)

One nice touch that The Dining Room offers is to have the kitchen plate each appetizer and entree as if it was a Tasting Menu, with the portion split amongst the party and individually plated (beautifully), free-of-charge.

Our first appetizer arrived promptly: Dungeness Crab and Avocado Salad, Pink Grapefruit, Micro Greens with Honey Sherry Vinaigrette.

Chef Strong uses fresh crab and hand-pulled meat (not pre-packaged), and the results are wonderful: Naturally sweet and succulent, perfectly cooked chunks of Dungeness Crab matches beautifully with the Avocado and the Pink Grapefruit. My first inclination would be that the citrus elements and/or potential bitterness would clash and ruin this dish, but far from it, it shows just how well thought out Chef Strong's creations are: The combination is absolutely amazing! :)

Our second appetizer arrived soon after, individually plated as well: Monterey Baby Calamari, Bread Stuffed and Sauteed, with Aioli Sauce, Arugula Salad, Parmesan, Lemon Dressing.

This was a rather striking presentation, with the Baby Calamari reconstructed to look like its former self. :) Taking the first bite revealed a surprisingly, extremely tender Calamari, which gave way to a Cod Brandade stuffing in the cavity of each Baby Calamari. It's an excellent idea, but the stuffing was just a bit too thick, with too much breading and not enough of the Cod. The Arugula Salad was excellent, with its spicy, peppery notes complementing the Baby Calamari beautifully.

The first of our entrees arrived next: Butter Poached Lobster, With Corn Cake Croutons, Fava Beans, Carrots, Ginger Tortellini and Lobster Bisque Sauce.

There are many places around town that serve a good Lobster dish, but it's been a long time since I enjoyed such a *perfectly* cooked Lobster; there's simply no other way to describe it. The Lobster meat had an amazing texture - just cooked-through - with a light firmness that gave way to tenderness with each bite. Wonderful. :)

But what was even more impressive were the accompanying facets of the dish: Fresh Fava Beans, Carrots and the Lobster Bisque Sauce were very good, but then came the Corn Cake Croutons... I can't remember the last time I was so impressed with Croutons before. Imagine the most aromatic, tantalizing sweetness of fresh-cooked Corn distilled into cute, tiny, moist, bite-sized morsels. So good! And finally the Ginger Tortellini: While the Pasta was a bit too firm for me, the Sweet Ginger filling was another surprise of light spiciness, sweetness, and perfectly matching the gorgeous Lobster.

Our second entree was: Trio of Colorado Lamb, Melted Tomato Ratatouille, Swiss Chard, Tarbais White Beans, Lamb Jus. The Trio consisted of Lamb Chop, Loin and Tenderloin.

I started with their Lamb Chop, which featured a Brioche-Thyme Crust. Cooked to a perfect medium-rare, like the Lobster, this was just outstanding execution of cooking techniques: The Lamb Chop was really supple and the Lamb Jus provided the perfect backdrop to enjoy each bite. Probably one of the best Lamb Chops I've had in the past few years (no hyperbole).

The Melted Tomato Ratatouille over Swiss Chard turned out to be fantastic as well: Soft, meltingly tender, roasted Tomato with a nice layering of vegetables wrapped by Swiss Chard.

Sadly, the Lamb Loin Roulade didn't fare so well, and proved to be the one big disappointment of the evening: Chef Strong takes fresh-ground Lamb Loin and wraps it with Applewood Bacon. It sounds like a winning combination, but the end result was a heavy, pungent, chunky meat, sharing characteristics of Liver more than anything else.

Finally, the Lamb Tenderloin was a tiny morsel, but we were pretty full at this point, so it was a good thing. :) This was naturally very tender, without any excess marbling, and exhibited a strong Lamb gaminess that the other pieces lacked. Ultimately, we both agreed that the Lamb Chop was our favorite of the 3 preparations.

We were offered a cute assortment of Petit Fours as we finished our meal, all of them the creation of Chef Strong, which was impressive (as opposed to having a Pastry Chef create all the sweet things on the menu).

The Snickerdoodle and Pineapple Madeleine, were well-made and lightly sweet, and the White Peach Pate de Fruit really captured the essence of the White Peach fruit without being too gummy, but the standouts were the Mini-Coconut Pastry and the Mini-Vanilla Bean Canele; especially the Canele, which exuded an enchanting fresh Vanilla Bean flavor infused with Rum.

And just as we were leaving, Chef Strong insisted that we try some of their in-house-made Chocolate Truffles with Grand Marnier Caramel - which were excellent - and then left us with a bag of house-made Candied Assorted Nuts to take home; a nice touch. :)

We were so impressed with this lovely dinner (and taking a quiet stroll through their outdoor center garden certainly didn't hurt :), that I couldn't wait to come back to try Chef Strong's Tasting Menu a few days later. (^_^)

For the second visit, I wanted to try out The Dining Room's Personalized Tasting Menu, which involved Chef Strong coming out to discuss what your favorite dishes are; what types of meats you enjoy; any aversions / dietary restrictions; essentially, truly personalizing the Tasting Menu to whatever you feel like.

The Dining Room was offering a Tableside Old Fashioned this evening, with a twist: They use a premium (ri)1 Rye Whiskey, Cointreau, and fresh-squeezed Tangelo Juice, in addition to the usual Sugar Cube.

The result is a nice, much more well-rounded cocktail, with the Rye Whiskey blending and supported by the fresh-squeezed Tangelo Juice.

And then, Chef Strong let loose a series of small bites of creativity that was nothing short of euphoria, starting with: Caviar "Taco" (Osetra Caviar, Mini-Crepe, Chives, Creme Fraiche). The Mini-Crepe was made slightly thicker than usual to give it enough strength to hold the ingredients in half, like a taco. The Osetra Caviar and Creme Fraiche are a classic pairing, and this was no different; a nice starter.

Then came the Dungeness Crab Salad, Pineapple Cone. Fresh-cooked, hand-pulled Dungeness Crab meat, lightly dressed, filled the Pineapple Cone, and the flavor combination was just *outstanding*! Showing off more of Chef Strong's creativity, the Dungeness Crab was so sweet and fresh, and one would think that Pineapple with Crab might not work, but it does, with the Pineapple aroma in the fresh-fried Cone imparting just a hint of the Pineapple without overwhelming, and adding greatness to perfection. :)

The Tuna Sashimi, Soba Noodle Salad, Sesame Tuile arrived soon after. There was a tiny bit of gristle, but otherwise it was very fresh, and elevated by the Soba Noodles and Sesame Tuile, giving the Tuna Sashimi that signature fragrant nuttiness that only Sesame can impart. Excellent.

Then an Onion Tart arrived, showing off Chef Strong's penchant for Pastry and mastery of it, the Onion Tart was amazingly light, buttery and flaky. Another excellent dish.

Next came a Foie Gras Parfait on Toasted Brioche. While a dish like this could easily have gone the way of predominantly Foie Gras, Chef Strong plays with our expectations and creates a really well-balanced dish, with Walnuts taking the lead, establishing an earthy, nutty base, with light notes of Foie Gras.

Chef Strong continued to delight with his Hama Hama Oyster, Passion Fruit Sorbet, Cucumber Gelee. Like a few dishes before, I was thinking that there was no way Hama Hama Oysters and Passion Fruit Sorbet could be a good match... until I tried it. :)

The Hama Hama Oyster was fresh, firm, yet supple when eaten, and very light, and when combined with the Passion Fruit Sorbet and Cucumber Gelee it was really complementary and unique: The Hama Hama literally just melted and perfectly matched the Passion Fruit flavors as if they were always destined to be together. This was impressive.

The next dish was prepared tableside: Kanpachi (Greater Amberjack) from Hawaii, seared atop a heated Himalayan Salt Rock, Osetra Caviar, Extra-Virgin Olive Oil.

Taking the first bite, with the explosion of Osetra Caviar, the stunningly fresh Kanpachi that was lightly seared just a minute earlier, with the hand-pressed Extra-Virgin Olive Oil from Catalan, Spain, one word popped in my head: Lush.

The Kanpachi was meltingly tender from the quick sear and the Osetra Caviar and the few seconds on the heated Himalayan Salt Rock were all the seasoning that this piece of fish needed. Outstanding! :)

I wasn't sure what could follow-up that dish, but the next one fared well: House-Cured Duck Ham, Asian Pear and Persimmon Salad, Balsamic Reduction.

Chef Strong likes to make as many base ingredients from scratch as possible, and this was no exception: The House-Cured Duck Ham was very concentrated and intense in its poultry flavor, but not in a bad way; it was refreshing to try a flavor not found very often, and the Asian Pear and Persimmon pairing was excellent as usual.

Continuing on was a nicely presented 3 Tier Soup: Hot Gelee, Lobster Bisque, Lobster Foam, served with Lobster Spring Roll.

Mixing the 3 parts of the soup together, the Hot Gelee gave the fresh, succulent pieces of Lobster in the Lobster Bisque extra body and texture, and the Lobster Foam really accentuated the dish (whereas some foams feel a bit unnecessary). It was an excellent soup overall.

But perhaps even better than the centerpiece soup was the Lobster Spring Roll. Visually, it looked like nothing more than a potential "throwaway" / side item of a dish, meant to add a little something extra, but it was quite the opposite: Freshly-cooked pieces of Lobster (so fresh, clean and firm, yet tender) in a Spring Roll crust that was as light as it was delectable.

Then the Seared Scallop and Foie Gras, Chicken Jus, Quince and Sunchoke Puree arrived.

The idea was excellent: The subtle textural contrast between the Seared Scallop and Seared Foie Gras allowed you to revel in the similarities and differences with each bite, but unfortunately this dish was marred with a massive salt overdose. :( This wasn't "slightly too salty" but rather a complete salt bomb. The Seared Scallop was the culprit, covered in sodium. I tried eating some of it with the Quince and Sunchoke Puree, which helped to mask the saltiness with the fresh, fruity sweetness, but it wasn't enough to counteract the salt.

Thankfully, the next dish rebounded nicely: Lightly Smoked Sturgeon, Fingerling Potatoes with Lemon Preserve, Horseradish Cream Sauce.

The Lightly Smoked Sturgeon illustrated more of Chef Strong's mastery of cooking techniques: The Sturgeon had this great meaty texture, firm, tight, but supple as well, almost like a sous-vide Chicken with Bacon undertones. It was so meaty and "hearty" in its aroma and texture (but still light from it being fish), that it felt natural pairing with the Fingerling Potatoes.

The next dish was the one I was most looking forward to: Australian Kobe Beef, Cassis Bordelaise, Parsley Puree, Potato Mousseline.

I had spoken to Chef Strong about *not* doing a beef dish for the Personalized Tasting Menu this evening because I was ruined after trying Grade A5 Wagyu. (^_~) But Chef Strong mentioned the Australian Kobe Beef he stocked, and how it was much better than the regular USDA Prime that's on the normal menu, so I left it up to him.

While it was certainly well-marbled, and cooked medium-rare, the Australian Kobe was a big disappointment. Getting past the tender portions, each slice of the beef had ample amounts of gristle and was far too chewy, which was surprising and very disappointing. :( This isn't something I'll be ordering again.

The Parsley Puree was intensely herbal and a nice pairing, and the Potato Mousseline was very creamy and light, but the centerpiece Beef ruined this dish.

The final savory dish of the evening arrived soon after: Venison with Grand Veneur Chocolate Mint Sauce, Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, Braised Red Cabbage.

The Venison was cooked medium-rare and extremely tender without being very marbled. Unlike the disappointing Australian Kobe earlier, the Venison was enjoyable in its tender meatiness with no gristle. It was also very mild and clean-tasting.

The Grand Veneur Chocolate Mint Sauce was decent, but I couldn't detect any notes of the Chocolate nor the Mint. The Hen of the Woods Mushrooms were just luscious in their fragrance, really intense, earthy and woodsy, and perfect with the Venison.

The pre-dessert arrived at this point: Coriander Panna Cotta, Candied Almonds, Blueberries.

I always enjoy a good Panna Cotta, but this one was a bit drier than what I'm used to. Still, it had a very creamy flavor with a whisper of Coriander that gave it a nice characteristic, and the Candied Almonds and Blueberries were a good pairing.

A trio of desserts arrived at this point: Milk Chocolate Cardamom Mousse, Chocolate Financier, Banana Foster Canele with Powdered Sugar, Fresh Caramel, and Myers's Rum Ice Cream.

The Chocolate Financier topped with fresh Banana Slices was a beautiful dessert: Nothing was too sweet, with even the Chocolate Cardamom Mousse being a subtle background element to the whole dessert; fragrant, decadent and delicious.

The Myers's Rum Ice Cream was smooth and fragrant, and showed restraint, like all of Chef Strong's dishes, with the Rum never overpowering the Ice Cream itself.

Finally, the highlight of the desserts was the Banana Foster Canele: Freshly made and still piping hot in the center, the fragrance of cooked Bananas, in the light-as-a-cloud Canele with Powdered Sugar was mouth-wateringly delicious! :)

They were offering the same Petit Four selection as last time, and I decided to go with the Mini-Coconut and Vanilla Bean Canele.

And Chef Strong ended the meal with more of his hand-made Chocolate Truffles: 70% Valrhona Chocolate Shell (made in the kitchen), Caramel center.

It's been said that the restaurant service industry in L.A. isn't up to par with many other metropolitan cities, with too many servers not taking the profession seriously enough. But the service at The Dining Room at The Langham, Huntington Hotel was nothing short of excellent. On both of my visits, everyone in the front of the house knew our names and the names of tables around us. They addressed the customer by their name, cordially and professionaly, executing the requests of the customers with a "Certainly, Mr./Mrs. [insert name]." Various servers and the manager would go around checking in on each table throughout the evening, and you only needed to make eye contact with a server and they would come over. Looking at it from a fine dining perspective, there were still 1 or 2 younger servers that would reach over and across us to place new silverware without mentioning anything, but most of the staff were well-trained and serious about taking care of the needs of the customers at every turn. And whenever we got up to take a break, etc., a new cloth napkin was brought over to replace the one we just left in our seat. Overall, very professional, pleasant and focused.

Prices range from $15 - $45, with the exception of a full ounce of Osetra Caviar at $250. The 5-Course Chef's Tasting Menu is $110, and the Personalized Tasting Menu is $165. On our first visit, we averaged ~$90 per person (including drinks, tax and tip); on the second visit with the Personalized Tasting Menu it was ~$240 per person (including drinks, tax and tip).

The Dining Room at The Langham, Huntington Hotel & Spa represents a classic romantic dining experience: Creative, outstanding dishes from Chef Craig Strong amidst a relaxing, elegant setting of the famous Huntington Hotel, which sits quietly amongst the surrounding Oak groves. From the amazing Butter Poached Lobster and dreamy Corn Cake Croutons, to the more creative and equally delicious Dungeness Crab Salad with Pineapple Cone, and much more, The Dining Room is a great place for a special occasion. There's nothing quite like it in the area. Very recommended.

Rating: 8.9 (out of 10.0)

The Dining Room at The Langham, Huntington Hotel & Spa, Pasadena
1401 South Oak Knoll Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91106
Tel: (626) 568-3900

Hours: Tues - Sat, Dinner Seating from 6:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. (they will stay open until you finish your meal).


kevinEats said...

"It feels like I've known about The Huntington Hotel for as long as I can remember."--My sentiments exactly. And yet I've never been.

This place doesn't get much attention, so it's good to finally see a review. Overall it seemed pretty solid, so I'll try to make it more of a point to visit sometime.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi kevinEats,

Definitely give them a try. I was pretty impressed with Chef Strong's cooking and can see why he earned a Michelin Star. I look forward to your thoughts if you go. :)

Anonymous said...

I went to the Langham for DineLA after reading ur post full of high marks..... and loved it! the entrees/food itself was good, but the service/ and all the little extras they do there really makes a great dinner! They didn't skimp just bc it was dineLA ... unlike many other restaurants. Loved it!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi shihfan,

Thank you for the report back. I'm so glad you had a great dinner here! :) It's good to know that even with DineLA, The Dining Room held up their excellent service and good food. :)

Epicuryan said...

Echoing Kevin's sentiments this is probably the most detailed look at the Dining Room that I have read.

Both the a la carte and tasting menus look delicious. Like you I'll probably have to make two trips, unless Kevin and I have the capacity to try everything in one go.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Tangbro1,

Thank you. :) I'm just glad to have tried it finally, and it was so nice that I wanted to go back again for their great Personalized Tasting Menu.

I look forward to your thoughts if you end up going. :)

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your review (as I always!) and am interested to know if you have been back to experience the Lagham now that Michael Voltaggio is chef?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks for your kind words. :) No, I haven't actually. I've been meaning to go back with Chef Voltaggio, but haven't had the chance yet. When I do, I'll be sure to post my thoughts. :) Thanks.

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