Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay
Fall is here, there is a nip in the air, and the warm embrace of the sun feels good again. Looking back at summer while making plans for another getaway, I wonder what fall is like at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay. Pleasant memories surface of an impulsive escape from a heat wave in Southern California that led to a road trip up north a few months ago.
Finding a hotel on the spur of the moment or even for a well-planned visit to San Francisco is always a challenge for tourists from any part of the world. For some local and out-of-town visitors, a few scenic Napa Valley resorts end up as an alternative to the busy city by choice.
In this instance, a picture of the view from the Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay prompted a search due south of the city by the bay. Just 23 miles from the San Francisco International airport (about a 45-minute drive) lies the scenic coastal town of Half Moon Bay. The 14-acre Ritz Carlton cliff-top luxury resort sitting on a bluff above the Pacific set amidst two pristine championship golf courses offers stunning views over the half-moon-shaped bay. After driving down the single lane approach through the small town with its beach-bound traffic, the six-story grey-hued hotel appeared as a welcome sight. It seems familiar, reminiscent of Scotland in one instant and an old world seaside lodge somewhere on the East Coast the next. The windswept structure reflecting the golden hues of the sun follows the natural curve of the bay and seamlessly blends into the surroundings despite its considerable size and 260-plus guest rooms. Once the friendly staff take over upon arrival in the porte cochere and guests step onto the compass inlaid floor of the lobby, it is easy to lose a sense of time or place in the elegantly appointed public spaces as well as the guest rooms.
The stunning view from the room was mesmerizing and hard to get away from, but the winding paths above the craggy coastline called out for exploration. The menu of services offered at the resort spa were equally inviting but the outdoor terrace and ocean lawn beckoned with picture-perfect postcard views that delivered what the hotel site had promised. Dotted with fire pits and blanket-draped Adirondack chaises, it was a perfect setting for relaxing with a glass of wine or an aperitif. In the evening, a spectacular sunset bathed the skies with a pinkish glow as the sun dipped into the Pacific. Adding to the magic, a lone bagpiper appeared on the horizon and the fading light seemed to synchronize with the plaintive notes of his bagpipe. That experience is enough to draw guests back for repeat visits!
Having forgone dinner reservations in San Francisco, it was time to check out the menu at the Navio restaurant at the resort. This year, chef Jason Pringle (formerly with famed chefs Daniel Boulud, Michael Mina, and Eric Ripert) took over the kitchen as chef de cuisine. The restaurant, named after the Portuguese word for ship, is oddly reminiscent of dining on one, with its barrel-vaulted dark mahogany overhead. Even the bright green of the golf course running right up to the edge of the cliff overlooking the bay doesn't dispel that notion. The Portuguese connection actually goes back to early nineteenth century, when these fisherman and boat-builders first settled in the area.
The restaurant's menu is designed to take diners on a food-centric voyage to experience the flavor of the ocean and what grows around the area with its seafood-oriented menu and dishes like the foraged agnolotti and a dreamy foie gras terrine. Most high-end resorts attempt to provide fairly decent dining experiences, but an exceptional dinner at Navio with magical wine pairings prompted a conversation with chef Jason Pringle, who was at the pass that evening. Prior to joining the hotel, he had spent two-and-a-half years in Miami, but was now back in his home territory. When asked what he was aiming for with his cuisine, Pringle said, "I want guests to experience the fantastic produce from local farms around us and what grows naturally literally outside the door." Prior to leaving for the East Coast, he was in the kitchen of Aqua in San Francisco with Michael Mina, eventually joining Le Bernadin in New York. After a leisurely dinner it was time to get to know more about the chef and his food.
A conversation with chef Pringle ensued.
The Daily Meal: Did you have a game plan regarding your career when you left culinary school, or did things just fall in place?
Chef Jason Pringle: I was always down towards fine dining and Charlie Trotter was someone I looked up to and was inspired by early on. He was a mentor and big inspiration since I was living in Idaho and working with a lot of game at that time. Then I came to San Francisco and worked my way up learning from all the other chefs around.
What did you bring back to California from your time on the East Coast in New York and Miami, and has the cuisine in Northern California evolved since you left?
I think what I have brought back with me are techniques from the East Coast — and as far as evolution is concerned, restaurants like Benu and Saison in San Francisco have drawn a lot of attention to the food in this region, and now there is not just the great produce, but also the techniques to enhance it.
Navio is a seafood-oriented restaurant, so did your experience in Eric Ripert's three-Michelin-starred Le Bernadin in New York influence your own cooking?
The biggest thing I brought from Le Bernadin is working to highlight the fish. Usually people like to use high heat, sear, or caramelize fish, while I like technique that enhances the texture of the fish. I do prefer more technique-oriented cooking, and overall I would say I acquired a lot of this at Aqua in San Francisco and my time at Cafe Boulud was a good reminder to keep things simple. I don't try to overcomplicate and I keep it natural.
You came from a Latin cuisine-inspired kitchen to a resort kitchen. Is the clientele different in this setting?
We have local fine dining lovers as well as guests from San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. Then we have guests from all over the world who come here to relax and enjoy the amenities.
Do you enjoy having creative control over your own kitchen?
It has been eight years since I took over a kitchen and now I am building a team here at Navio. I enjoy the creative freedom instead of having to follow someone else’s ideas. My greatest joy here is when I speak with guests and hear how much they have enjoyed their experience.
Are there ingredients or dishes you have introduced on the menu that you were uncertain about the response?
Probably the foraged agnolotti that I do with constantly changing ingredients depending on what I can find. It was a little bit of a surprise that it has become the most popular dish on the menu since I wasn't sure about what people would think of wild ingredients.
You are in luxury dining and cook for guests who have high expectations, so do you get requests to change a dish or substitute ingredients?
It does happen, especially with seniors, and if the product is in-house and we have the capability, we are glad to oblige.
What are your plans for the restaurant?
I want to maintain the progression of cuisine and do want to update linens, stemware, and right now we are in the process of changing our serve-ware.
What kind of plating do you prefer, complicated or minimalist?
I like simplistic and minimalistic usually, but for some dishes they are more complicated.
Do you limit the number of components on a dish?
I usually have three main elements and few others for interest or garnish.
Garnish for the sake of garnish?
What do you see ten years down the road for you?
One day I hope to have a couple of restaurants of my own.
In the meantime, plans are afoot for another escape to the resort to discover the fall menu, but this time is for the spa, playing a few rounds of golf, and getting pampered.