San Francisco, Sommeliers
I’ve been very impressed with many of the wine directors I’ve talked with in San Francisco. These are not your father’s sommerliers who are stodgy and speak in tongues you don’t understand all the while looking down their noses at you. Instead, people like Jai Wilson (Quince), Sian Ferguson-Nagan (Quince), Amy Racine (Sons and Daughters), and Gianpaolo Paterlini (1760), not only know their wine lists inside and out but are able to zero in on a guest’s level of wine knowledge and speak in a language they can understand.
Paterlini (formerly of Acquerllo) wowed me with the prices on his wine list. I told him that I thought many of the bottles were underpriced compared to his peers. He told me that rather than use a fixed multiplier (typically 2.5x retail) he just adds a fixed amount to his cost. For instance, I spied a 2011 Gros Frere et Soeur Vosne-Romanee for $125 which is only $30 or $40 over retail. He believes that wine enhances the meal and if he is able to get a bottle on everyones table it will help bring them back to the restaurant. Contrast this with (say) Auberge du Soleil where the markup can be as high as 3x (and they don’t even wipe their wine glasses clean).
You would think that the lists in SF would have a strong California emphasis, but that’s not always the case. While the California selections are strong, it’s common to see strong Burgundy and Italian selections as well as plenty of new world. This is not always ideal in terms of carbon footprint, but increasingly the clientele wants to expand their horizons.
San Francisco, Aliment
Not every meal in SF is a great one. Aliment was disappointing. I tried the “summer salad, candied walnuts, braised mushrooms, aged swiss, poached egg, truffle vinaigrette" and the " with brandy caramel & creme anglaise”. The first was trying to be a rich poached egg based salad. However, it was covered with four large slices of cheese which was way too much. Don’t get me wrong, I love a strong, stinky, powerful cheese, but this was over the top for the greens in this salad. The chocolate cake was poorly executed. Notably the whipped cream on the top was coarse and lumpy. Maybe that’s by design, but if so, I’m not getting it. The caramel lacked flavor.
Nothing to see here, move along…
Atlanta, Sobban, Korean Southern Diner
Sobban calls itself a Korean Southern Diner, which means that it’s Korean dishes with a southern angle. I didn’t get the Diner part of things, but who cares, since it was a good meal.
- Our Tofu/ heirloom tomatoes, coco nibs, peashoot, kimchi salad. The tofu was fresh, firm and nice flavor. The tomatoes in this area are excellent. The coco nibs were an interesting angle. Overall, a nice dish.
- Pearson Peaches/ HM coppa, blue cheese tofu mousse, 3 citrus honey jus, mint. An interesting dish. I love blue cheese, but I thought it was a little heavy handed in that area.
- Organic Kimchi Deviled Egg. Each of these is half an egg. The kimchi on the side and the egg filling were top drawer. This is a really enjoyable bite and next time I’d order a couple of these.
- Smoked Pork Belly Bossam/ seasonal green wraps, miso mousse, pecan ssam sauce. I liked the miso mousse and the pecan ssam sauce (there pecan halves in there). The pork belly was nicely cooked. This worked very well.
- Beef Tartare/ sesame, pine nuts, Korean pear, radish, Sobban sprouts, rice cracker, yolk, preserved lemon. I only had a few bites of this, but those were good and if I went back I’d order some of this for myself.
- Korean Tray w/ Soy Mackeral/ kimchi bok choy, rice, zucchini and peppers, tempura okra. This was a bento box style entree. The rice and the okra (essentially fried okra) were good. The mackeral firm.
- Japche/ sweet potato noodle, togorash tofu, yellow squash, asparagus, shitake. The noodles were excellent. A solid dish.
- Bibimbop/ kimchi rice, bok choy, zucchini, organic tofu, shitake, 7 min egg. L didn’t like this all that much, but I did. Hey, there are different styles of bibimbop. This style worked for me but not for her. I will say that the 7 min egg was a soft boiled egg rather than a poached egg so it didn’t mix into the whole dish in the usual way. Still, this worked for me.
Overall, this was an interesting meal with good execution in the Korean-preparations category. I’d go back here to try some other things as well as get some repeats.
San Francisco, Craftsman and Wolves
Craftsman and Wolves is worth the visit for a high end breakfast and pastries experience. Some things are better than others, but it’s worth trying the various things to see what strikes your fancy. Most of the pastries were excellent including The Rebel Within.
Atlanta, Miller Union
field pea hummus, housemade lavish. The lavish was solid, not greasy, but crispy and the right thickness and texture.
farm egg baked in celery cream, grilled bread. The celery cream was heated along with the bowl, then the egg dropped in to poach a bit and be broken up by the diner to further cook, sort of like a soondubu jjigae. This was a nice signature dish, and quite rich. The egg/cream combo was a little too liquidy to stay on the bread and the bread too crunchy to mop it up so I was at a bit of a loss as to how to eat these two elements together.
shrimp,watermelon, cucmber, hot pepper, cilantro, lime. A solid dish with interesting flavors and textures. Definitely one to have again.
rose basted fairy tale eggplant, greek yogurt, herb salad. Another solid dish with some strawberry reduction mixed into the yogurt to bring the , sweetness.
smoked trout mousse, housemade pickles, lavish. The mousse had a nice amount of smoke and the texture was excellent. The lavish was the same as with the field hummus, but that’s not a negative. A solid appetizer.
sauteed quail, basil aioli, farro, field peas and arugula. I wasn’t sure if it was the quail that they started with or if it was the execution but I have to say that I’ve had better quail in other places (e.g. Cotgona in SF). The seasoning was fine, but the meat itself was a slight bit chewy or tough, and that makes me think it might be a result of the saute preparation. Good, but not stellar.
duck leg confit, roasted peaches, oyster mushrooms, bitter greens, celery root. This was a very fine execution of duck confit and worth having.
grilled flank steak, snap beans, cherry tomatoes, new potatoes, benne tahini. The kitchen split a full portion of this and even the half was a pretty big plate. Nevertheless, this was a fine piece of meat. Don’t expect a steakhouse style steak on this. The nature of flanksteak is going to be that some parts are tougher than others. Still, the cooking and seasoning on this dish let it run with the best. The vegetables, potatoes, and tahini were nice additions. In general, the tomatoes at Miller Union were all excellent quality.
vegetable platter (fried okra, grilled summer squash & feta, sweet corn & field pea succotash, snap beans & cherry tomatoes, farro & summer vegetables). This is a platter of all of the menu’s sides and worth having. The grilled summer vegetables were excellent as was the succotash and snap beans. Worth ordering just to have a sampler of the sides without ordering each one.
We shared the desserts at the table and everyone thought they were great, especially the corn profiterole with corn ice cream and corn bread.
The food was A- and worth a visit. But the main reason to go here is the wine list. The markup was astoundingly low, somewhere between 10 and 50% versus a more typical 2.0 to 2.5x markup in other establishments. Although there were only a handful of 1er Cru, Grand Cru, or equivalents on the list, the wines we did have (2012 Mercel Servin Chardonnay Chablis, 2011 Le Ragnaie Sangiovese Rosso di Montalcino Tuscany, 2010 Michel Sarrazin ‘Sous la Roche’ Pinot Noir Givry Bourgogne and a few other by-the-glass wines) were all excellent values and enjoyable pours.
It’s worth the trip.
Il Casale, Lexington
We’ve been to Il Casale in Belmont a couple of times over the past few years and always liked it. So naturally we were excited to hear that another Il Casale would be opening in Lexington.
Unfortunately, it was a disappointment. We had:
- polpo affogato octopus Neopolitan style braised in tomato, soaked biscotate. This was only ok. The octopus was tender enough, but honestly lacked a rich flavor or seasoning. The bread crumbs were bland and the texture uninspiring.
- lasagna verde spinach, nettles, artichoke, mozzarella di bufalo, snipped herbs. The noodles were overbaked to the point that they had to be chipped off the side of the serving dish. The inside could have been a lot more moist.
- nero di sepia chitarra pasta, cuttlefish, black ink, pepperoncini, parsley. The cuttlefish was good, albeit a little too salty. The black pasta was less cooked than al dente should be.
- funghi, hen of the woods, beachwood and oyster mushrooms, caciotta. These were ok, although pretty rich both in terms of taste and price.
- cicoria, sauteed chicory, pine nuts, raisins. Sure, whatever.
I guess I don’t really feel compelled to go back given that pretty much every dish struck out.
San Francisco, Bar Agricole
This was a solid dinner.
Appetizers: The Pickled carrots and mustard seeds were acidic and interesting. The Raw local halibut with sea salt and rye was tasty and the star of this dish was the rye bread which was rich. Marinated local anchovies were drizzled with EVOO and one of the best dishes I had. The pork filling in the Pig’s head fritters with sauerkraut was moist, tender, and had a great mouth feel (read: fatty smooth). The fritter coating was a little thick, but the meat made up for it. The sauerkraut was not as acidic as most and so tasted more like a cole slaw.
Mains: Grilled pork belly with nectarines, fennel pollen and arugula was an interesting combination of sugar, salt, and fat but some bites of the belly were a bit dry. Cedar plank king salmon with cucumbers, dill and tarragon was an excellent combination of protein and greens using 3 kinds of cukes all of which were enhanced by the herbs. The salmon had the slightest edge of smokiness and was pretty much sashimi. The Ferinata with porcini mushrooms and herb salad was a bit on the heavy end. Of the cheeses, the Chirboga Blue had a great balance of texture and salt, the Comte was good (not great), and the Tomales Farmstead Creamery Kenne goat cheese stole the show.
Desserts: The Spearmint panna cotta with cocoa cream and amaretti was good, not stellar. I noticed they cheated on the panna cotta by leaving it in a jar, thereby avoiding the issue of getting it on a plate unscathed. The Strawberry and tarragon ice creams with black pepper-lemon cookies was the winner of the two with the execution on the tarragon ice cream being fantastic.
San Francisco, State Bird Provisions
Believe the hype…
I made one quick visit there and liked pretty much everything I had. I’ll have to return to get the details.
San Francisco, Rich Table
Food: B+. There were a lot of highs and a few lows (see below). In general, pacing was sporadic. There was a wild flury of small plates at the beginning and then long pauses between some courses. While it is true that they warned me up front that it would be a 3 hour meal for the chefs picks (it was more like 2 hrs), the fast and slow, on and off, delivery was a little strange.
Service: B+. I sat at the bar and the two bar tenders plus the other staff took good care of me. But I have to ding them on the failure to show a little love in return. I won’t go into details, but a simple “thank you” would have been nice.
Wine: A-. They had a pretty good wine list and it was not excessively priced. I had a Kermit Lynch selection and enjoyed it a lot. Somewhat better knowledge of the list would have been nice, but not necessarily expected.
Overall: B+/A-. For $80, it was a pretty reasonable tasting menu. I have mixed feelings about whether I’d go back. It’s definitely a good place to try once just to see what interesting things they’re plating. If it were in my neighborhood, I’d probably be a regular. But I’m a visitor and with so many other interesting places in SF to try, I’m not sure I want to go back.
Amuse Bouches and Small Bites
Although they arrived in a too fast a flury (there wasn’t enough space at the bar for all of them), they were all solid. Sardine Chips. horseradish, creme fraiche had a nice combination of that fatty fried taste (sardine) with crunch (chips) and fat (creme fraiche). It worked. Dried Porcini Doughnuts. Raclette seemed to be one of their signature dishes as everyone around was ordering them. The raclette was kind of a froth, foamy, whipped version and was quite interesting as a dip for the doughnuts which were more like Porcini balls than doughnuts. These were quite tasty and it’s good that they came at the beginning of the meal since they were pretty rich. Sliced Tomato. Sorghum, sorrel. This was a big juicy slice of tomato with interesting powders on top including the sorghum and some white chocolate. This worked well, especially with the sorrel. I enjoyed this but I bet a lot of people miss it because it’s only “tomato”. The oysters (Island Creek, CA) were excellent, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. Shrimp: excellent. Several other small bites and amuse bouches appeared but they rolled in so quickly that it was hard to remember what they were. In general they were very good.
Hamachi crudo. Rich Table Furake worked well and I liked the puffed rice in the Furake.
Seared sea scallops. Peas, bok choy. This was a bit of a disappointment, especially when so many chefs seem to have cracked the code on sea scallops. I can get behind a sashimi-like center for scallops but at the same time, the outside has to be really hot. I didn’t sense that they got the pan hot enough and so the overall cooking was just not on a par with (say) Quince’s uncooked-center style. The peas and bok choy could have been an interesting combination, but this dish was served without a spoon (I asked for one of course) and so it was hard to get much of the somewhat liquidy sauce in the same bite as the scallop.
Grilled New York Strip Steak. Stone fruit, aru gula coffee. This was pretty nice overall when taken all together as one bite (steak, fruit, herbs, sauce). The strip steak was not all that tender, but that’s mostly because it was such a lean cut. This is the trend in beef for better or worse.
Lemon verbena soda, cream cheese ice cream, pate de fruit. This really fell flat but I give them credit for trying something quite a bit different. Sorry. I guess this was supposed to be the kind of sorbet course. The soda was too thin in flavor. This tended to water down the ice cream which did not really have enough of the sweet creaminess that most pastry chefs have learned to make. As the soda broke down the ice cream, it left little lumps in the glass. Where was the pate de fruit through all of this? Down at the bottom of the dish waiting to be discovered after I drank off the soda (it had to be sipped because the spoon didn’t really get the job done).
The chocolate torta dessert — almost a parfait kind of deal — tended to be less sweet than most. This reflects the seeming trend of less-sweet, more bitter desserts that are popping up (like at Coi). It was nice, but if you’re going to do chocolate, then make it chocolatey and sweet please.