Dining: Dawson's leaves a desolate impression

01/13/2013 12:00 AM

01/12/2013 10:14 PM

I'm sitting in a large room that's very quiet, very expensive, has no windows, pipes in bad music and, every minute or two, there's this frantic-looking dude who stops by to apologize and thank us for being patient.

We never said we were patient, but we nod nonetheless and go back to twiddling our thumbs. In fact, we're sad, contemplative, regretful, and after doing a quick tally in my head of what all this is going cost, we wish we could have a good, stiff drink to turn our frowns upside down.

You might just be thinking: Good grief, our poor scribe and his significant other are stuck at a mortuary.

It was not, in fact, such a solemn place or serious occasion, but feel free to extend me your condolences nonetheless for having dined – and dined again – at Dawson's, a restaurant that woefully overpromises, dramatically overcharges and pathetically under- delivers in nearly every fundamental way.

It wasn't fun. It wasn't entertaining. There was no energy or excitement to the room, and the only thing interesting was the temerity of the whole thing, like charging $38 for $18 worth of middling seafood cioppino, asking $35 for a $15 pork chop and, worst of all, luring us into this dreamlike world in which a subpar chicken dish is suddenly worth $29 instead of $6.50.

What do I mean by underdeliver? That pork chop may be extra-pricey, but the kitchen will make up for it with all kinds of razzle-dazzle with vegetables and accoutrements and mind-boggling technique, right?

Wrong. Veggies are extra.

By the time I nibbled my way around a warm spinach salad that was just so-so, sawed my way through that thick pork chop and dug my way out of an oversized piece of carrot cake replete with cream cheese frosting and deep-fried carrot shavings, I didn't feel violated so much as I felt embalmed.

That carrot cake was, indeed, stunning in the way a Liberace cape is stunning. The fig tart? I checked the bill to see if the tough, chewy crust wasn't extra, too. I had a bad taste in my mouth – and it just set me back $200.

We wanted to take a new and detailed look at this restaurant after the departure of its respected executive chef, Ian Libberton, who took the helm several months ago at the new One Up Restaurant at the Grand Hyatt in downtown San Francisco.

Libberton's successor is Jason Poole.

Dawson's is a mainstay on the Sacramento restaurant scene, but there's a good chance you've (A) never heard of it or (B) regret ever setting foot in the place.

Dawson's may well be the most expensive restaurant in the city, but it's not close to being the best. While you are likely to have a satisfactory meal and find consistent cooking from visit to visit, the menu contains a not-so-subtle subtext, if you read between the lines. Eat up. Drink up. Worry not. And don't lose those receipts.

We ordered that $29 chicken, expecting it to be the best chicken we've ever had. Maybe it was an heirloom breed. Perhaps this bird roamed free and nibbled on nothing but rare beetles and organic chestnuts. Perhaps it could cluck in three languages. Alas, it was overcooked, shriveled up, bland and $24 more than something comparable I would have ordered through a garbled-microphone encounter at a drive-thru.

The cioppino had a little of this and a little of that – a hodgepodge of musty mussels, fresh crab meat, some tender chunks of white fish, shrimp with the heads left on, a modicum of overall flavor. But I kept sifting through the disappointing broth in search of the Cracker Jack prize that would justify the $38 price tag.

Restaurants like this, overpriced and rather smug about it, should actually come with improved signage out front: a welcome sign for fat cats, a warning sign for everyone else.

That frantic and apologetic employee turned out to be our waiter, and he attempted a move right out of the phony-waiter playbook once he finally stopped at our table, took a deep breath and looked us in the eye.

He pretended to recognize us from an earlier visit.

Of course, we must seem familiar. People who dine on $35 pork chops and think nothing of paying $9 more for watery creamed spinach are a rare breed. We like to feel important. We love to be recognized and remembered.

Except: He had never seen us before in his life, which we were quick to point out. The service was professional, but there was no style or personality that would distinguish this place from any other Hyatt eatery in any other city.

There was no one to chat with about the decent but unexceptional wine list, which offers several wines by the glass but does not have the breadth of selections we expected. When we asked for suggestions, little thought or originality went into the answers. By then, we were looking for palate cleansers more than wine pairings.

During one visit, we were pleased to find Cedar Knoll by the glass. It's a cabernet sauvignon from vaunted Napa producer Palmaz Vineyards.

On our next visit, another waiter took a different approach. He wondered what we were doing here. Was it a special occasion? No. In town on business? Nope. Guests at the hotel? Nada.

OK, so you must be here, he insisted, because you're downtown and wish to wait out the rush-hour traffic. He really, really wanted to know what nice folks like us were doing in a place like this.

In other words, no one in his or her right mind would come to Dawson's who wasn't getting all this expensed or who wasn't caught entirely off-guard.

Dawson's is not hip. It lacks soul, it's plenty stiff, and the restaurant makes no effort to connect with the authentic Sacramento I know. There's no sense of the wonderful midtown vibe that you'll find at, say, Mulvaney's, or the colorful mix of charisma and eccentricity you'll encounter at Moxie, the modernist artistry of Enotria, the rich legacy that is the hallmark of the Firehouse or the genuine elegance and polish that distinguishes Ella.

The only thing Sacramento-ish at Dawson's is the collection of paintings by renowned local artist Fred Dalkey.

Foodies? Folks looking for good food, a great time and a meaningful experience that adds up to something that makes sense?

Not here, not even if you're trying to wait out the afternoon traffic.


Dawson's

At the Hyatt Regency

1209 L St., Sacramento

(916) 321-3600

www.sacramento.hyatt.com

Hours: Daily 5:30-10 p.m.


Beverage options: Full bar

Vegetarian friendly: No

Noise level: Quiet


Overall ★ ★ (out of four stars)

This overpriced, under- performing and unoriginal restaurant has stagnated for years while its competition throughout the region has raced ahead. You'll have a decent, reliable meal. You may even have a decent time. But there is no "wow" factor, no creativity and, in the end, no justification for the exorbitant prices.

Food ★ ★

At this level of dining, we expect superb execution, but we also look for touches that distinguish the kitchen from all the others. We found little. The menu seems designed by committee at corporate headquarters. Local, seasonal, creative, thoughtful? It was all left wanting. Highlights include the toothsome pork chop and an over-the-top carrot cake you'll want to try once (and probably never again).

Service ★ ★ 1/2

They're pros here, but there are also signs of complacency and, frankly, a lack of warmth, sincerity and sense of purpose that we so often encounter at the best fine-dining restaurants.

Ambience ★ ★

OK, we get it: Dark wood paneling somehow signals that we are upper-crust, clubby and pretty darn special. In other words, it's decorating by 1980s cliché. It's quiet with a lack of energy and very little effort to connect to the real Sacramento all around it.

Value ★

We were blown away by the prices for rather ordinary, if not uninspired, cooking. It rose to the level of gouging when we realized that everything is extra, including vegetables. If you're not visiting on an expense account, hold on tight.

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