I recently logged onto OpenTable.com to check on the area's restaurants, including the various rankings. Despite my position as The Bee's restaurant critic, I think people should seek out a variety of opinions when they are weighing their dining options. One advantage I may offer to readers is that my opinions will invariably be more consistent and my benchmarks more thorough, while online reviews will be more plentiful.
The reason I prefer OpenTable to Yelp is that diners can only write a review and give star ratings when they make a reservation through the Web site and then actually show up and eat there. With Yelp, you can pretty much write anything you want without ever visiting any establishment. Still, there are reliable and amusing reviews to be found on Yelp. "Sarah S." for instance, is actually Sarah Singleton, the author of the impressive and entertaining "Undercover Caterer" blog. One drawback of OpenTable, of course, is that it does not rank restaurants that don't take reservations. That means people who search the site might not know about the wonderful food at a casual but consistently excellent place like Magpie on R Street.
As for OpenTable, its lists seem quite credible, with a few surprises. Ambience Restaurant in Carmichael tops the list in the "Best Overall" category. That's not a surprise. I have been touting the wonderful, artistic cooking and fine service for months, and I recently ranked it as my favorite fine dining experience of 2009. Mulvaney's tops the list "Fit for Foodies," followed by Grange and, pleasant surprise here, A Chef's Table, the new little bistro in Rocklin owned by Chef David Hill.
Ambience also leads the way on OpenTable's "Best Food" and "Best Ambiance." As fond as I am of Ambience, its ambiance (or ambience, if you prefer the French spelling) is not its strong suit. It could use a tad more warmth, a touch or two with dÃ©cor and accessories, including more and better art on the walls. But there is certainly plenty of art to be found on the plates.
I have dined several times at Ambience since I reviewed it months ago (and awarded it our highest rating with four stars). And Ambience was the way I decided to end 2009, attending the incredible New Year's Eve dinner, a seven-course set menu for $85.
After the salmon scallop mousse brioche that kicked off the meal, we were wowed by the three-part second course of lobster - lobster crÃ¨me brulee, lobster bisque and finally seared lobster on diced Asian cucumber with wasabi coulis and fondue sauce. What a warm-up.
After the beautifully arranged and clean-tasting golden and rainbow beets with Muscovy duck pate, we moved on to what I considered the best course of the night, a perfectly cooked and wonderfully moist grilled sea bass on braised leeks and white corn Arborio rice, dill butter and vinaigrette radicchio.
There was so much more, all of it amazing - a fifth course of pan-seared squab breast cooked medium rare, along with housemade squab sausage, brushed with blackberry glaze.
The sixth course was the gorgonzola stuffed pork tenderloin on scalloped potatoes, along with Burgundy poached pears and one of my favorite Ambience treats, wild black rice. If you haven't had that, it's delicious when it comes out of Morgan Song's kitchen. We were so full we had to take our excellent desserts home. When I passed by the kitchen on the way out, I caught a glimpse of Song and his young, talented sous chef Olga Ponce, fully concentrating on cooking and plating the food. Their night was an absolute success, and no doubt an exhausting one.
It made me realize that there must be something to the OpenTable rankings. In the "best food" category, I cannot imagine a restaurant performing any better.