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Ahwahnee Dining Room, Yosemite National Park, CA

You don’t go to National Parks with dining and hotels as the focus. They shouldn’t be. National Parks are about re-connecting with nature at destinations of unspeakable beauty, where wildlife and breathtaking vistas captivate the senses, forcing us to effortlessly forget about the troubles back in reality. They are the place to camp, and dine on baked beans and s’mores over the campfire, or at least rest in basic, television and internet free hotel rooms. To put it bluntly, National Parks are places for watching deer, not eating venison in a syrah reduction sauce.

We all have been to or at least seen pictures of the visual splendor that is Yosemite National Park, a place of arresting natural beauty. Unlike any of its fellow National Parks interesting enough, this is really the only National Park where a hotel within the boundaries is a destination unto itself, and within that hotel is a dining room that is also a destination. The now 85 year old grande dame of National Park hotels, The Ahwahnee, still looks as striking as when Queen Elizabeth, Herbert Hoover, FDR and Eleanor, and numerous other major 20th century figures stayed there, though the 85 year old hotel doesn’t look nearly as young as my 86 year old grandmother, whom we recently took to Yosemite for her first ever time. The Ahwahnee doesn’t represent a Ritz Carlton type luxury. Instead, it is a rugged grand type of beauty, for where it is and how it fits majestically amidst that nature.

The Ahwahnee’s dining room is truly alpine grandeur, as if the dining hall of Hogwarts moved to the Sierra Nevadas. Floor to ceiling windows bring in daylight during the day overlooking meadows, while at night the windows combined with the 34 foot ceiling make the dining room feel as spacious as an NBA arena. There are warm wood panels, granite pillars, chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, foot tall candles on each table, piano music wafting in the air playing everything from “Jurassic Park”s theme to Elton John hits. The gentlemen at night shall wear collared shirts and the ladies pleasant evening dresses. The children who crawl through the mud en route to Bridalveil Falls during the day wear sweater vests to dinner that they will never wear again in their life (that was me years ago). This is special occasion, formal dining, the genre that is dying as fast as our precious natural space.

This being 2012, the menu has nods to ingredients from nearby and that are sustainable for our natural habitats. That rainbow trout comes from a nearby river. The roasted free range chicken is from none other than Mary’s, the source for every organic, sustainable chicken in San Franciso. On the other hand, there is no bacon wrapped anything here nor wood fired pizza nor even a hamburger. This is not a gastropub or local, neighborhood upscale comfort food focused restaurant like everything we see nowadays. The Ahwahnee represents elegant dining in elegant environs at elegant prices without the truffle, lobster, and foie gras excess associated with the subject.

A key to dining at The Ahwahnee is to not dine from a critical perspective. If you’re comparing equally priced restaurants in New York to here, it’s not even close really, especially with the food. This is still the type of place where the servers wear name tags. You don’t leave the Ahwahnee thinking about the food, unless it’s the dreadfully raw duck I had there a decade ago. The service is not perfect, but actually very talented at pacing the meal, helping with wines and menu choices, and deftly balances a balletic formality with down home, rugged personality. Remember, they probably have to sleep in tents then go change into tuxedoes each day for work.

So if there is no bacon wrapped something dish on the menu, there needs to be at least a pork crock pot with pork belly and pork shoulder, roasted to a pillow like softness. The pork belly avoids its usual overly fatty fate, perfectly accented by mustard seed, cabbage, and the cutest tiny dijon biscuits that are shockingly moist. If you need some more bacon, go for the lone fish dish of pan roasted Steelhead trout over salsify rissole and beurre rouge, with the saltiness of the Black pig bacon, and the bitterness of rapini. The waiters kept pushing the Mary’s free range chicken over a tomato jus, which was fine with the leg’s dark meat, but the white meat sadly, as is too often the case, was somewhat dry. I appreciated the bell pepper hash beneath the bird to bring some funk to the proceedings, though.

Heartier appetites can go for the braised lamb shank over couscous or a vegetable cassoulet with pumpkin in place of duck confit. No meal though is complete without the house prime rib. Even the yorkshire pudding and garlic mashed potatoes are a notch above normal. Just remember, a little horseradish goes a long ways. This is not melt in your mouth prime rib. It is stick to your ribs meaty, tender meat for meat lovers.

The real winners and the slight flair of creativity reside on the starters side. There is a beautiful winter panzanella salad with fried brussels sprouts leaves, chestnuts, pear, crunchy celery, and bland, stale sourdough croutons. The red curry mussels could be from Gary Danko, a real hit with some fennel and cauliflower added to the bowl. The serving size seemed a bit skimpy, especially for the $16 price tag with Ahwahnee inflation considered. Baby beets with arugula, candied orange, and Cowgirl Creamery’s chevre makes a terrific starter, as does the more imaginative red kuri squash flan with anchovy, olives, sundried tomatoes, and caramelized onion.

For dessert? The apple fig tarte tatin surprises with a textbook flaky pastry. Or go for gluttony and have the red velvet cake for two. The standout is actually the homemade gelato, whether it is apple-cranberry, hazelnut-praline, Macapuno coconut, or the magnificent passion fruit. Why would anyone order Häagen Dazs ice cream, also on the menu, when you can have this gelato?

Yes it is all overpriced and the setting outweighs the cuisine, but who cares especially when the food is actually this good? Whatever you do, please avoid the El Capitini cocktail at the bar with vodka, cointreau, pomegranate, and a champagne float should you need a cocktail. This is the reason some people swear off cocktails for being too sweet and imbalanced. I’m still trying to gain back my cocktail courage from this. Do yourself a favor and have a glass of port or Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs at apértif hour.

In this valley of Half Dome and El Capitan, it is hard for anything to be more memorable than the natural sights. The Ahwahnee comes close and we are very fortunate to enjoy good food and grand dining amidst this spectacular National Park scenery.

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