Thursday, January 12, 2006

Ho Humm, Ho Humm,

It's off to New York he's gone...

photograph picture daniel humm's campton place calling card

A Retrospective for San Franciscans, A primer for the New Yorkers:

So, Daniel Humm has left the building. Is it good riddance? Is New York welcome to him? There was some upset over the departure of the feted Campton Place Chef so I just had to squeeze in a swift visit before Christmas to see what all the fuss was about. Lovely Laura, visiting from Paris, allowed herself to be dragged to the fancy Union Square hotel dining room to help me determine what all the fuss was about.

Stupid us to think we could get away with a spending $34 on the set menu and be done with parting with our cash for the day. After all - they have champagne cart and once you've called it over to your table you can hardly send it packing again for being, er-humm, pricey, now can you? The domestic started at $16 a glass and the Billercart Rose was about double what you'd pay for a far more generous fluteful at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants. But at least here, you can drink it in peace, in truly beautiful and tranquil surrounds, without a parade of bumbling food-tourists scoping you out as they wander by. Next bottle up: "We are the only place in town to open this lovely vintage Krug and serve it by the glass, Madame", explained our adorable waiter. "Thank you kindly, sir, but you needn't crack it open just for us." (Phew, we just saved ourselves $49 a piece.) So, we were as cheap as we could be under the circumstances and then had a good bitch about how small the glasses were. Really, I hate it when restaurants are mean with their servings of bubbly. Their cart may impress but their piddly little glasses do not.

So to the food. This is the kind of place where you start by getting stuff for free. And I like free, especially when it is a lip-smacking pumpkin and lobster bisque with apples and walnuts. But where on earth did they manage to find bowls that were actually smaller than the champagne glasses? Laura and I wanted to lick them out, but I don't think we went that far, afterall this was our first date alone together, and far too early in the relationship to embark on a group sex session in public.

Despite being coy over the amuse, Laura and I decided to get a little closer over the appetizers and share the Poached Tiger Prawns with Satsuma Tangerines, Baby Fennel, Satsuma Reduction and Vanilla Oil. But, as if to slow down the pace of our blossoming relationship, the dish was divided beautifully for us in the kitchen and brought to the table on separate plates. It was bright and pretty and fresh and delicate with the vanilla very much in evidence to my visual and olfactory senses. But when it came down to oral pleasure I have to express mild nonchalance. I was hoping for something a little more imaginative, something that would coax my tastebuds erect, something less missionary. I had the conception that Humm was one of the more innovative chefs in town but here was a simple dish striving to be appreciated on the merits of its ingredients. I couldn't fault the pedigree, but I didn't get the dizzy headrush of excitement a new relationship can sometimes bring.

Salmon sous vide was the real reason I couldn't resist the lure of Campton Place under Humm's helm. A work colleague, whose opinion I value, had accidentally stumbled upon the restaurant a few weeks earlier and thereafter enthusiastically declared the salmon to be the best he had ever tasted in his life. This coming from a man who is sparse with his praises. Woe was me when I found the salmon had been replaced on the menu with a cod instead. A melt-in-my-mouth luke warm, almost imaginary piece of fish that was on my tongue one second and then disappeared into thin air the next. I appreciated the opportunity to experience sous vide, but the accompanying pouple (octopus) was conversely not tender and the noodles, barely above room temperature. At this point I started to feel a sense of deflation.

If there is one thing, however, that can turn things around and get two girls excited again, it is the promise of dessert. Sweet things, special things, jewels and the promise of treasures. Cuban Chocolate Ganache, Chestnut, Sweet Potato "Dauphine" and Sour Orange and White Chocolate Sorbet, all on one plate. How could the idea of such wonder fail to get our hearts pulsing and our expectations raised?

Not so fast. The seduction process should be taken slowly at first, just a little bit of pleasure at a time. To start with, a gift, a sweet taster, a shot of hibiscus cream soda, a tiny glass of dark pinky-red liquid bubbling on the surface with blob of something cold, creamy and white. We slurped, we licked and we smacked our lips again. We learnt that the pastry chef had carefully extracted the juice from the hibiscus plant himself. It sounds like a sensitive job - he must be a sensitive guy.

Or is he? Maybe he's just some sado-masochist luring us into a false sense of security before imagining, with bizarre satisfaction, us digging our spoons into his orange sorbet, then puckering our mouths into patterns of displeasure as a result of its ugly, overt sourness? Maybe he's getting his kicks out of us searching through a spital-like-foam to find a ganache that tastes like a musty old cupboard?

Laura and I hated our chosen dessert. We settled our spoons on the edge of the plate and I was ready to admit defeat. But then something special happened. Laura whispered to me "We can't end on a low note." With that she eyed our impeccable waiter and lured him to our table with a smouldering look. Diplomatically, we pleaded that we couldn't find our personal nirvanas within the Pastry Chef's challenging presentation.

There was no other solution. We had to replace our dessert. We had to try and get giddy all over again. It didn't take much. The Symphony of Milk Chocolate and Caramel with Maldon Sea Salt that swiftly arrived, hit the spot fast. Soon we were oohing and aaahing, and umming and humming, and gasp!

It's always good to end on a climax, isn't it?

PS Amanda Berne announced Humm's replacement, yesterday in The San Francisco Chronicle and greatly respected fellow food blogger, NS, had a thing or two to say about the news.

PPS. Yesterday Cedric scooped a job offer that will attract all budding San Francisco restaurant reviewers, on Craigslist.

Bay Area Resources Referenced in this post:
News | from The Chronicle Food Section
The dining room | at Campton Place
High-end Dining | Local Blogger SF Gourmet
Raunchy Reviews | Local Blogger The Restaurant Whore
Wine Merchants | at the Ferry Building, FPWM
Local Scoops | Cedric, Le Blog de San Francisco
Job Listings | Craig's List, San Francisco

Other Resources Referenced in this post:
Fantastic British Salt | from Maldon
An American in Paris | Chef-blogger Cucina Tessa Rosa
Humm's New Home | Eleven Maddison Park

Archive Alert! On this date in 2005 British Cookie Recipe Links.

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Ho Humm, Ho Humm,


  • At 12/1/06 08:43, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Whew, Sam, I am fanning myself after reading your steamy post so early in the morning! Have to go get another cup or coffee -- and should be lighting a cigarette, right now!

    Sorry your Campton Place experience wasn't all you wanted it to be -- at least the food part.

    I very much missed Laurent Manrique's menu and have lovely memories of his time there. Let us hope the corporate changes at CP won't affect the quality of the dining room.

  • At 12/1/06 10:18, Blogger cucina testa rossa said…

    i need a cigarette after that! ;-) your review was much more delicious than the meal itself though the company irreplacable. a la prochaine...L

  • At 12/1/06 10:58, Blogger Mona said…

    Oh man, I had no idea!! I actually just ate there last July, my bf and I were passing through on my way to the airport. We had brunch and thought it was delicious!! Though portions a little skimpy. I had the "i wish i ordered what he did" syndrome, that I often get at new places :) He had some incredible eggs benedict with crab and spinach I think? I'll have to check out the menu to get a refresher...

  • At 12/1/06 13:45, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You know, I ate there in December, too, Sam. Our meal was probably a little more enjoyable than yours, but I honestly kept saying to my dinner companion, "He's young. He's got a long way to go to catch up to [one of the other 4-star chefs listed in the Chronicle]." I constantly compared the food to another restaurant, which easily bested Humm.

    The service was nearly impeccable, though. One exception being that one of the recommended wines was really not good at all, and they didn't replace it or even acknowledge the fact that it smelled like tequila and never opened up. That was a fairly unusual way to end an evening. (They didn't charge us for it, but they didn't offer anything else, either.) We decided to forego cheese and dessert, since we were perfectly full without either.

    We (my fellow San Francisco foodie, "Squeat Mungry") posted a report at, here.

    The chef is astonishly young, and I know he's really going to make a big splash when he gets to NYC.

  • At 12/1/06 14:09, Blogger Monkey Gland said…

    Oi Sam, I like the new secret agent info section at the end of this post!

  • At 12/1/06 17:23, Blogger Ced said…

    thanks for the link! Too bad your experience at Campton Place was not so great. It is hard to meet the high expectations, they have had such great reviews. In that sense, I'm lucky I went there before Bauer gave them 4 *******.

  • At 12/1/06 17:48, Blogger Owen said…

    funnily enough I saw that craigslist posting within ten minutes of it appearing but never really engaged my brain about it - also I noticed they didn't mention PAY!

  • At 12/1/06 19:50, Blogger NS said…

    Sam - thank you for the kind words, the link, and the great review. I'm sorry to hear that your experience at Campton Place was less than stellar - maybe Humm was just phoning it in by that point? As for the desserts, I had precisely the same experience that you initially had - the palate cleanser blew me away, but the dessert itself was very underwhelming. If only I had thought to ask for a replacement dessert...

  • At 12/1/06 20:30, Blogger Tana Butler said…

    I didn't have the impression he was just phoning it in, but then I was impressed with the energy that just streams out of that guy.

    We were there quite early, and the room was never full, even when we left at 8:30 PM. On the other hand, maybe he requested that the place not be full. Maybe he was taking it easy, but for whatever reason, that isn't the feeling I had.

    I think chefs have more pride than that. Perhaps I am wrong. He is European, and there is a very old-school pride that accompanies chefdom there. (As compared to, oh, Bobby Flay horrifying the civilized audience by jumping on the cutting board in Kitchen Stadium at the end of an Iron Chef challenge.)

    On the other, other hand, when he visited our table, Chef Humm did make the slightest reference to a change in management at Campton Place, and I believe his delivery spoke volumes about what constituted "time to move on."

    Sam, I agree about the skimpy champagne pours. They practically count the bubbles they'll allow you. It's bad karma and ungracious to accompany ridiculous mark-ups with chintzy pours.

    And one more thing: this is one of your best posts, ever, in my book.

  • At 12/1/06 22:45, Blogger cookiecrumb said…

    Ohmygod. I'd say the earth moved for me, but maybe it was just my stomach lurching.
    Or it might have been a little near-death experience.
    Too bad, Sam. I've never been crazy about Campton place, under any of its principals.

  • At 13/1/06 03:56, Blogger Arthur said…

    Sounds like CP may have turned on the autopilot for the transition. I too wanted to try it before Humm left town, but it looks like I didn't miss much. At least you had the company to save the day; sometimes that's what's most important, n'est-ce pas?

  • At 13/1/06 05:50, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    If Humm is taking over at Eleven Madison Park, then where is Kerry Heffernan going?

  • At 13/1/06 07:45, Blogger Sam said…

    kudzu - I hope I didn't make you choke on your caffeine

    Laura - thank you for joining me there - i hope we can catch up for a minute next week. (You know, to continue our now flourishing relationship)

    Mona - I imagine new york will hear about it when Humm arrives.

    Tana - thanks for the link - another good read from Mouthfuls

    Monkey Gland - yes - I think I can have some fun with this new feature.

    Ced - I remembered your raves about CP - one of the reasons I wanted to try it.

    Owen - pay? who needs pay when you get your dinner paid for, eh? (only joking)

    NS - I have to thank Laura for suggesting the dessert replacement. We were expecting to pay for it but in fact they comped it which I thought was a very sweet touch.

    Tana - I think they pace the dining room. I asked for a res at a certain time and they said 'no, but we can make it 15 minutes later'. When we arrived, it wasn't full, so I guess they are pacing the diners and making sure not everyone arrives at the same time. BTW - this post wasn't planned - i intended to write two short paragraphs, but once i started, the words just came oozing out in raunchy fashion.

    Cookie - be careful what you read in future, eh?

    Arthur - I am sure Humm has something special from all I've heard, I am sorry I didn't get to experience the magic.

    Gerald - that i don't know - maybe one of the New York Food Bloggers will have the scoop about what his setup will be on the East coast.

  • At 13/1/06 09:19, Blogger NS said…

    Gerald/Sam - according to this, Heffernan is still with Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group, but he's now heading up their new Hudson Yards Catering venture.

  • At 13/1/06 10:57, Blogger David said…

    Hey, isn't Cuban chocolate illegal? No wonder he's gotta get outta town...

  • At 14/1/06 17:44, Blogger Sam said…

    thank you NS
    and David? are you serious, hummm, that is interesting!


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