In Limewood, the Fairmont Makes Culinary Amends at the Claremont
The food is good. Not great, at least not yet, but certainly good and occasionally very good.
The burger at Limewood represents a move to be more accommodating and approachable than its high-priced predecessor.
Trinette Reed Photography
To say that Antoinette was a flop doesn’t quite do it justice.
The debut-dining concept from the venerable Claremont Hotel’s deep-pocketed new owners, the Fairmont Hotel group, opened earlier this year with heavy buzz and high expectations, thanks in part to its partnership with high-profile Michelin-starred San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn, who served as creative consultant on the project. That it then crashed and burned less than three months later in highly public fashion gives it the pole position for the Bay Area’s restaurant bust of the year.
The reasons were myriad and detailed nicely in a scathing review in the East Bay Express entitled “Antoinette Serves Hotel Food for the One Percent” (ouch!), which seemed to serve as the upscale French brasserie’s death knell—the Fairmont decided to pull the plug mere hours after the critique went live.
But undoubtedly the main problem was an inaccessible, expensive menu—absurdly so in some cases, as with a whole duck with foie gras that was listed for $200 on opening night—combined with not-ready-for-prime-time service and food that simply didn’t live up to the prices. Making it even more galling was the fact that the restaurant it replaced, Paragon, was known as a fairly unpretentious spot that drew a diverse crowd of nonhotel guests (including lots of families, many longtime day club members) to enjoy live music, sports at the bar, and of course those famous vistas across the bay.
Antoinette, it almost seemed, went out of its way to alienate Paragon regulars: no bar menu; no getting just a drink out in the patio to enjoy the views; not even an overpriced burger for god’s sake. Yes, the East Bay is being gentrified quickly, but not so fast that we can’t still call B.S. on a pretentious, overpriced dining experience. Oh, and given the current socio- political environment, maybe naming the place after a famously out-of-touch beheaded French queen wasn’t such a hot idea either.
All of this is preamble to explain that the Claremont’s new restaurant, Limewood, can’t be judged simply on its own merits, but through the prism of its failed predecessor. Fortunately, it seems that the Fairmont learned some lessons from Antoinette. Most obvious is that its replacement is a much more casual and approachable affair, both in terms of food; the prices, which have dropped significantly; and the vibe, which is noticeably less stuffy.
That was by design, according to Michelle Heston, the Fairmont’s regional director of public relations. Heston, understandably, didn’t want to dwell on what went wrong with Antoinette, except to say “there were a number of issues, and we realized pretty quickly that it just wasn’t going to gel.” But it seemed clear that massaging some of those bruised relationships with the community was forefront in their mind in coming up with the concept for Limewood.
“I think being approachable was important,” she said. “We wanted people that live in the area to think of this as a neighborhood restaurant. We wanted it to serve as almost a living room, to feel comfortable for people coming in after work, as a place to bring guests to show off where they live.”
Limewood does owe a debt of gratitude to Antoinette in one respect: It’s a good-looking restaurant. The Fairmont made only minor tweaks to an interior that was completely overhauled from the Paragon days. And much like in the hotel’s beautifully revamped lobby area, the long overdue remodel served to illustrate how almost absurdly inefficient the old layout was in taking advantage of the resort’s unique location nestled in the East Bay hills. The most prominent change was to move the bar closer to the entrance and replace it with a lively open kitchen. A new tin ceiling, brasserie-style black-and-white tile floor, splashes of soft brown wood, purple banquettes, and lovely teardrop pendant light fixtures add to an elegant, comfortable atmosphere.
Combine that with those million dollar views and a built-in clientele of hotel guests, and really the food doesn’t even have to be all that good. (Paragon’s never really was.) Fortunately for diners, the food at Limewood is good. Not great, at least not yet, but certainly good and occasionally very good.
Helming the kitchen is Bay Area restaurant vet Joseph Humphrey, who brings fine dining experience from stints at Mina Group, One Market, The Restaurant at Meadowood, and Auberge du Soleil (plus a brief stopover at Berkeley’s sadly shuttered The Advocate). Smartly, I think, he doesn’t dig deep into his culinary bag of tricks at Limewood, where he keeps things fairly straightforward and accessible.
trinette Reed Photography
Cocktails emphasize the classics.
The food is, essentially, classic ingredient-driven California cuisine to which Humphrey exhibits a nicely restrained hand. The heritage pork porterhouse is a good example. The large cut was served simply with slices of green olives for a nice briny bite, creamy whole roasted garlic cloves, and wedges of grilled summer squash that added a surprising amount of flavor and texture. The Dijon mustard-wine au jus sauce landed right in my comfort zone—simple and delicious—and the side of velvety, buttery polenta was the perfect carb base. Unfortunately, the overall effect was tainted by the fact that the porterhouse itself was a little tough.
The Native acorn cavatelli—one of several allowances on the menu toward the gluten-free dining crowd—was another effectively understated creation. Gently spiced with smoky espelette pepper, the cavatelli, which had a pleasantly soft, gnocchi-like texture, was served with tender sprouted broccoli, curls of fresh Monterey Bay squid, and a buttery sauce infused with that deep, round, umami-rich flavor unique to squid and octopus. (I didn’t, however, see any sign of the shaved bottarga listed on the menu.) For a more traditional pasta dish, check out the light, citrusy sheep’s milk ricotta agnolotti served with pickled mushrooms, basil, and ricotta salata.
If you’re looking to taste a sampling of flavors, the “canapé” section of the menu, in which you can choose from among 10 or so small dishes, is fun to explore. The cane syrup-glazed gulf shrimp were sweet and plump and served skewered over a nice lime crème frâiche that was almost unnecessary given how tasty the shrimp were on their own. As my date pointed out, grilled figs with pan-cetta and balsamic glaze is a tough combo to mess up, and Humphrey doesn’t; the syrupy figs contrasting exquisitely with the savory pancetta.
Diners have to order three canapés at a minimum, but at three for $18, the price is reasonable, as is most of the menu. None of the entrees cost much more than $30 and most are in the $20-something range. House wine is available by the carafe in various sizes, always a nice way to shave down the final tab. The cocktails are a bit steep at $13, but they’re excellent with an emphasis on classics made with just a few quality ingredients.
And, thankfully, Limewood has brought back the bar menu, composed of a cross section of entrees from the dinner menu and lunch sandwiches, including (breathes a sigh of relief) a burger! The sandwiches are, frankly, still hit or miss—the roasted porchetta sandwich is quite good served with a similar mustard-infused au jus as the pork chop, while the disappointingly one-note fried chicken club was blander than any fried chicken dish has any right to be.
But there’s perhaps no better symbol of the restaurant’s return to sanity than that burger. It’s a very good version, the loosely packed grass-fed beef juicy and perfectly seasoned, accented by sharp aged cheddar and creamy horseradish, and served with a generous helping of crispy, crunchy Kennebec fries. Yes, it’s $18, but I polished that thing off in about 10 minutes, totally satisfied, and then sat to admire the panoramic views of the bay, my eyes following dotted red and white car lights out over the Bay Bridge and on to the magical, twinkling cityscape of San Francisco.
It’s a view that’s worth making allowances for. I’m just glad that, in Limewood, the Fairmont is no longer pushing its luck.
This report appeared in the December edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published online on Dec. 16, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.