From the moment you walk up the steps of the Vinoy, with the glorious views of the Bay at your back, you cross into an elegant oasis that instantly takes you back to the heyday of the ’20s before the stock market crashed and dreams came tumbling down.
As you hang a right toward Marchand’s Bar & Grill, you can’t help but be awed at this timeless treasure.
It’s hard to believe that this grandest of 1920s boom-era hotels was once in such disrepair, that it played host to homeless wanderers and served as a training ground for SWAT teams in the 1970s and 1980s.
As you reach the end of the hall and its impossibly high ceilings, with the original pecky cypress beams and Mediterranean Revival arches, and step up through the colorful swags, you enter the restaurant restored to all its luxury.
Marchand’s has to be the most beautiful dining room in the region. There may be other handsome restaurants with modern décor or lovely views scattered around the Bay, but Marchand’s meticulously restored Pompeian frescos that lavishly adorn the walls above a colonnade with clerestory windows take the cake.
Imagine Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, or many of the other celebs that sought out the Vinoy, settling down here for a romantic evening.
The service is relaxed but the servers, resplendent in their historical striped vests, are well-trained and attentive. It’s the best of both worlds — unstuffy pampering. The same can be said about executive chef Mark Heimann’s menu; it’s not expansive, but focuses on modern classics that are beautifully conceived, expertly executed, and uniformly delicious.
Given my inability recently to get a single hot dish at one of the Vinoy’s Beach Drive neighbors, my table is excited by the piping hot soup bowl that arrives with a large dollop of creamy Greek yogurt topped with crunchy, toasted pumpkin seeds. Then, with a flick of a wrist, our server fills the bowl with steaming spiced winter squash soup. In goes an elegant sterling silver soup spoon, and when the hot creamy soup — brimming with the heady taste and smell of cumin — hits the lips of my dining partner, a happy yelp brings a smile to the table.
I came to the Bay area after many years in suburban Maryland, so I’ve had my share of crab cakes. And almost anywhere I go across this great land of ours, crab cakes show up on the seafood side of the menu; there’s no denying they are well-loved, but are often boring.
Not so here.
The golden brown crust is a nice contrast to the moist crab-filled interior. Chef Heimann’s version stands out because of the complementary garnishes — a vivid and tangy ginger coulis brings heat that can be offset by a cool, soothing cucumber gastrique. The crab cakes themselves are topped by a refreshing cucumber salad with a bracing vinaigrette. Depending on your personal palate, you can combine the yin and yang sauces in a very personalized way.
The Caesar salad is a solid representation of the traditional classic. The romaine is fresh and crisp, the Parmesan ribbons are nutty, the garlic croutons are crunchy and full of flavor, and the fresh white anchovy in contrast to the piquant dressing is a big improvement over anything from a tin.
The moist roasted half chicken is glazed in a thick sweet peach BBQ sauce that may seem cloying to some, but transporting to others; you know which you are. It’s served with a tasty scallion and white cheddar risotto that’s very creamy.
A flavor-packed strip steak, cooked to a perfect medium rare, comes with a fennel pollen-sea salt crust topped with decadent foie gras butter on a bed of wilted braised escarole with chunks of smoked bacon. And as if that weren’t enough, a delicious serving of crispy fries with a yummy truffle sauce in its own silver cup pushes this dish over the edge.
If you’re more inclined toward fish, perfectly seared salmon is topped with roasted chanterelles and a swirl of cilantro oil atop another risotto, this one with scallion and goat cheese. My preference is for the rice to be slightly more al dente, but it is delicious nonetheless.
We steer away from the siren’s song, the stalwarts of too many dessert menus, crème brûlée (this one hazelnut custard and cherries) and cheesecake (white chocolate with blueberry-orange) and opt instead for the butterscotch checkerboard with chocolate layer cake, butterscotch-tuile filling and crunchy toffee topping. It’s an eye-catching presentation packed with flavor.
Our smartest dessert choice, however, is the inspired ice cream sandwich trio. Three delicious cookie pairs are stuffed with homemade ice cream: macadamia nut cookies with coconut ice cream, double chocolate with Kahlúa, and cranberry-oatmeal with rum. They’re served with a cute ribbon-wrapped basket and a small container of caramel for dipping. There are grins all around.
Add to all of this the many gluten-free preparations, an outstanding Sunday brunch buffet, a bargain early-bird prix fixe, Wine Spectator’s award of excellence, and free valet parking for restaurant patrons, and you too will conclude that Marchand’s has earned its place in the pantheon of the Bay area’s best restaurants.