Experimental Cusine


“The hotel gives us the luxuries to have a bigger budget to be able to experiment more with ingredients and equipment…" - Chef Brett Sparman, Executive Sous Chef of Nana at the Hilton Anatole, Dallas

By Heather Sperling
May 2007

Dallas convention-goers aren’t dining on what you’d expect. Picture, if you will, a white tablecloth restaurant on the 27th floor of a hotel, upholstered in the familiar monotone rainbow of tan, taupe and cream. In the past one would expect a repertoire of French standards to follow, but the menu, reading "Blis Smoked Steelhead Caviar, Green Apples Cru, White Apple Soup, Wild Rice Popcorn," is not your average fare for a Texas Hilton’s fine dining outlet.

Anthony Bombaci's cuisine is among the most experimental in the country – so why is it being served with a backdrop of a convention hotel? In the realm of experimental cuisine, sensory deception – a purposeful disconnect between appearance and substance – is a familiar ruse. In the sense that appearances deceive, Nana could be said to epitomize avant garde dining. By all appearances, it's an anomaly, but in actuality, it's a bright point on the map for boundary-pushing cuisine, and an example of the freedom available in a new hotel setting where operators are less interested in profit, and more in the quality being delivered.

Though it is not the hotel’s full-service outlet, there is a private party or banquet every day and the restaurant is equipped to accommodate well over 300 people. The weeknight average is 80 covers, and the weekend is 150, plus private parties, making for a sum total that few restaurants of similar mind have to handle, particularly for a restaurant whose technique – from prep to plating – is so detailed.

If Nana were a free-standing restaurant, chances are they would have savvier clientele. The upside to being rooted in a hotel, particularly one as large as the 1600-room Dallas Anatole Hilton, is a budget for experimenting with ingredients and tools that most chefs only dream of. "For the most part we're able to get the things we need, whereas a free standing restaurant doesn't have all those luxuries," Sparmin says. "We are able to work with the best products and gadgets." From the Hilton’s perspective, Nana is a draw for diners who wouldn’t normally venture to a hotel for fine dining. It’s a symbiotic relationship in which Bombaci makes a compromise most experimental chefs would frown upon: banquets. But in return, he’s running a chef-driven concept that’s all his own, with the resources of a restaurant like L’Atelier or Guy Savoy.

Peter Rudolph at Campton Place in San Francisco enjoys similar creative autonomy, thanks in part to the long legacy of renowned chefs that have run the kitchen – Bradley Ogden, Laurent Manrique, Daniel Humm. The premium has always been placed on the cuisine; benefits for the guest ideally follow. Rudolph balances demands by running two outlets – the formal, 62 seat dining room, which does 80 covers on an average weekend night, and a more casual bistro-style bar serving sandwiches, roast chicken, fish and pasta with good wine. On the benefits of being in a hotel, Rudolph says: “our dry store is probably bigger than most independent places. I have so much available and I’m able to make it available to a guest, even if it’s not on the menu.”

At The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead, Atlanta, Chef Arnaud Berthelier has a veritable playground. Corporate funding, unlimited resources, and the cachet of a long history of culinary excellence (Gunter Seeger, Joel Antunes) have embedded the restaurant’s name in the vernacular of fine dining. Mandarin Oriental Hotels, with Cityzen in DC (run by French Laundry-alum Eric Ziebold), Asiate in New York (Noriyuki Sugie), and Silks in San Francisco (Joel Huff), tell a similar story. Clearly the experimental, chef-driven restaurant is of value to the hotel, and there is some amazing food being generated by chefs who balance the responsibilities incumbent in a hotel setting for the sake of financial resources. But only time will tell how sustainable they are in the context of other trends – and in the context of the general shift from fine dining to upscale casual and comfort.

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Blis Smoked Steelhead Caviar, Green Apples "Cru," White Apple Soup, Wild Rice Popcorn
Chef Anthony Bombaci of Nana – Dallas, TX
Tuna Tartar
Chef Anthony Bombaci of Nana – Dallas, TX
Asparagus Cured Egg
Chef Peter Rudolph of Campton Place – San Francisco, CA
Avocado Parfait, Coconut Carrot Ravioli, Tangerine Sorbet
Pastry Chef Boris Portnoy of Campton Place – San Francisco, CA