KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: The Ahwahnee Dining Room
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Thursday, March 27, 2008
The Ahwahnee Dining Room

The Ahwahnee is a special place for me. My husband proposed to me while cross-country skiing in the Yosemite Valley meadow and we ate at the Ahwahnee that night. A year or so later we then got married at the Ahwahnee and had our reception in the Solarium behind the Great Lounge. I love the architecture, Native American art and tapestries, and, of course, those amazing views of Yosemite Valley from every window. I also love eating in their dining room.

The Ahwahnee was built in 1927, and since that time has offered visitors a fine dining (and hotel) experience in this treasure of a National park. The hotel and dining room itself are architecturally magnificent, with high wood-beamed ceilings, stone pillars, enormous windows looking out onto the valley and the enormous granite cliffs above it, and candles hung from immense candelabras. A large Steinway piano sits along one side and the restaurant offers music during dinner and special events. On our last visit, the piano player was kind enough to include renditions of Puff the Magic Dragon and the theme to Harry Potter, which delighted my daughters, along with some nice Cole Porter and Duke Ellington pieces.

In addition to the views, architecture and ambiance, one of the things I appreciate about the Ahwahnee dining room is that they make an effort to offer organic and locally-grown ingredients. When I was there last week, the dinner menu had a paragraph at the bottom that said "We are proud to present our seasonal dinner menu featuring both organic and sustainably harvested products. We source our meats and produce as local as possible and serve seafood listed on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch List as 'Best Choices' or 'Good Alternatives.' Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts is strongly committed to working in harmony with our environment to better service our guests." Last week, the menu included local chicken, trout from nearby streams, rabbit from the neighboring community of Turlock, and grass-fed beef. They also include some sample menus online.

I have eaten at the Ahwahnee probably just under 10 times. I've had breakfast, lunch and dinner there and have always enjoyed my meal. My family and I were in Yosemite last week and spent an evening dining at the Ahwahnee followed by board games in the Great Lounge before we shuffled back to our accommodations at the Yosemite Lodge. We got to the dining room right when it opened for dinner. They sat us at a beautiful table near the back and next to a large window. Technically, long pants and jackets are required for men, but we saw plenty of people being ushered in wearing jeans and t-shirts. In some online reviews I read, a few people were irritated that the dining staff sat people who weren't dressed according to the rules, but this has never bothered me. The hotel is in a National park and I like that they don't get too caught up in the ceremony of how one is supposed to dress for dinner. Also, I've seen men seated at many other nice restaurants without jackets, so I can't get irritated about this happening in Yosemite.

During our dining experience last week, my husband and I decided that after a day of skiing at Badger Pass, we were too tired to split a bottle of wine, so we each ordered a glass from the wine menu. I then chose to start my dinner with a baby iceberg lettuce wedge that had Chiogga beets, shaved onion, and Point Reyes blue cheese dressing. The salad was crisp, the dressing creamy and sharp without being overt, and the beets were sweet and perfectly cooked. My husband ordered the Caesar salad, which looked equally delicious, although I was so focused on my own salad that I forgot to take a bite. Our daughters, who ordered from the children's menu, each received a very pretty fruit cup.

For dinner, I ordered the Braised Snake River Farms Kobe beef cheeks. I was surprised and excited when I found that they served the cheeks two ways on the plate. One piece was cooked to the point of falling apart, in some sort of reddish sauce and served on top of an heirloom squash puree. I asked our waiter what was in the sauce, but he wasn't sure. The other beef cheek was also braised, although it held its shape and was firmer than the other one. It was served with a garlic and tomato jam, which was sweet and a perfect accompaniment to the beef, and sat atop a mound of creamed spinach. Unlike most creamed spinach, which is often gloppy, this version seemed just barely cooked within the sauce, with each leaf retaining its shape and texture. It was delicious. In between the two beef cheeks were some shaved and fried parsnips, adding a crunchy and slightly salty accent to the other flavors on the plate. Overall, this was a great entrée and I really loved it.

My husband ordered the braised Niman pork osso bucco served with a soft polenta and cauliflower, which was also delicious (although I must say I think the beef cheeks were better). For our daughters, we went with the kids breaded chicken tenders. I normally hate kids' menu chicken tenders, because they are often processed bits of chicken with a tasteless coating. The Ahwahnee's chicken tenders, however, were in a kids-menu class all their own. They were real chicken breast tenders coated in a flavorful crust similar to the kind you'd find on a nice piece of fried chicken.

For dessert, I had a chocolate flourless cake embedded in a chilled chocolate ganache and served with ice cream. Although it was delicious (and very pretty on the plate) it was incredibly rich and I could only eat a few bites.

My husband ordered the boysenberry pie, which had a nicely crisp crust and great berry flavor. All the entrées were between $25 - $46. Our total bill, which included our salads, meals and desserts, along with two glasses of wine and three glasses of juice for the kids, was $140.

On each of our visits, I've found the service to be friendly and professional. The waiters sometimes are not fully informed about the food and, on a busy night, the attention you get can be a little spotty, but this doesn't bother me as the service has never been bad and I'm there for the experience of eating in a beautiful historic hotel under half dome. The staff has also always been very friendly to my children, which I appreciate.

The Ahwahnee Dining Room offers daily breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with an elaborate Sunday Brunch. They also have a few yearly dining extravaganzas, such as the Bracebridge Dinner each December, which is a four-hour Renaissance pageant in the dining room that includes an elaborate seven-course banquet. I've always thought this would be sort of fun to attend, but the cost is a bit much. A package deal that includes a two-night stay at the Ahwahnee along with the Bracebridge Dinner is $1,634 for two people. If you stay at the Yosemite Lodge, it's $1,126. With four people in my family, we won't be going any time soon.

So if you find yourself in Yosemite, and have a little spare cash for your next meal, try the Ahwahnee dining room. It is truly an experience worth having.

For more information about the Ahwahnee, or to make reservations, just go to their web site, or call (209) 372-1489.

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