When preparing coastal cuisine, it helps for a restaurant to have a coast at hand, to get both the kitchen and the patronage in the mood. Navio, which serves this sort of cooking in the baronial Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, does enjoy the services of a rather scenic bit of coast, with heavy surf beating rhythmically at the edges of a links-style golf course that unfurls itself like a gray-green ribbon beneath the restaurant’s windows.
The Bay Area is often compared with many places around the world Italy, France, Greece, and Australia, to name a few but Scotland is not one you hear mentioned too often. Yet during the glide down 280 on a misty and lowering winter afternoon, with the Crystal Springs reservoirs gleaming silver, like a string of lochs nestled at the feet of brooding green highlands, one did find oneself thinking of kilts and bagpipes. And the Half Moon Bay Ritz, which commands its stretch of craggy coast like the clubhouse at St. Andrews, strengthened this pleasant illusion.
The hotel’s long axis runs parallel to the shore, a straightforward design technique that gives an ocean view to the largest number of windows. Navio, accordingly, is long and narrow, like the dining car on some huge railroad train of yesteryear. If you want a table next to a window, you’re likely to get one, and if you’re interested in a little more privacy, one of the cabinetlike booths (complete with drawable curtains) along the inner wall might well suit. There is a third line of tables running along the dining room’s spine, and maybe being seated here is something like being assigned to the middle rows on a wide-cabin airliner today’s version of steerage, and good-bye to the civility of travel by rail. But Navio’s windows are big enough so that even those consigned to these least-exalted seats have a good view of sea and sky.
We wound up in a far corner next to a window, from which vantage point I could easily observe the golf course. The weather was apparently too blustery for golfers and their speeding carts, and the course was lonely; the only sign of movement was a couple walking their golden retrievers along a path near a fiendishly positioned sand trap.
Coastal cuisine. Thoughts turn to seafood, of course. Fritto misto ($14) is probably not the most imaginative way to prepare marine delights, but it is a crowd-pleaser, and Navio’s kitchen (under the command of chef Aaron Zimmer) manages to get out of the way without tripping over its own feet. We found, in our amply heaped dish, a wealth of nongreasy but nicely battered calamari rings and tentacles, along with carefully peeled shrimp, while on the side sat a stainless-steel ramekin of pungent, fat-cutting garlic aioli, ready for dipping duty. The leftover aioli would have gone beautifully on the warm bread (from Bay Bread), which they will keep bringing to you, so be careful. We stopped the procession after two basketsful.
This restraint was something of a loss, since the soups are also bread friendly. Given the kitchen’s nonradical intentions, it wasn’t surprising to find a clam chowder ($11) on offer, New Englandstyle, milky, with chunks of potato and clam. The chowder was rich and elegant if not quite striking; also pricey, but that is the new Half Moon Bay, a onetime fishermen’s foggy enclave now abloom with luxury housing.
A better soup, I thought, was the carrot-ginger version ($9), a puree the pastel shade of tangerine sherbet and thickened to a velvet smoothness by a bit of potato. Carrot soup sounds like something Gerber might put in little jars for the nursery school set, but in the right hands, like Navio’s, it becomes memorable, a blend of earthiness and (thanks to the ginger) ethereal twinkles.
Beautifully crisped confit of duck leg ($20) might not be coastal, exactly (though why not?), but it certainly is classic, especially when nested in a bed of Puy lentils and featherings of braised frisée. As a recent dabbler in the art of confit, I was impressed not only by the crinkly golden skin but also by the meat, lasciviously moist and well seasoned. (Seasoning is perhaps an underrated aspect of making confit; all the hullabaloo is about the slow cooking in the fat, but how liberally the uncooked flesh is rubbed with salt and spices makes a big difference in how the dish turns out.)
As for wild mushrooms: I see them as being at least as seasonal as spatial, and it rains as much at the coast as anywhere else, perhaps more. Certainly the rainy season is the season for wild mushrooms. They turn up, in a jumble sweaty with butter, as the sauce for a plate of hand-cut linguine ($17), noodles (of flour and egg) whose soft texture and subtle absorbency set them apart from macaroni pasta.
The dessert menu is a trove of comfort foods cobbler, cake, toffee, crème brûlée but it might be idle to point this out, since most desserts are comforting in some primal sense. (Either that, or they are ambitious disasters strewn with spun sugar.) An apple cobbler ($10.50), capped by crumbly crust and with slices of fruit still firm enough to evoke their once-fresh state, was like a treat pilfered from Grandmother’s windowsill while still cooling. And for the ultimate in shareable desserts, there is the cookie jar ($10.50), an impressive array of handmade delights including macaroons, chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies, and brown sugar sticks. Only the oatmeal raisin cookies disappointed, and they disappointed only me, who inexplicably just didn’t like them. Had they been made with Irish oatmeal?
Breakfast: daily, 6:3011 a.m.
Brunch: Sun., seatings at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.3 p.m.; Sat., noon3 p.m.
Dinner: Mon.Fri. and Sun., 69 p.m.
1 Miramontes Point Road, Half Moon Bay