We haven’t been writing a lot of restaurant reviews lately, mostly because life has kept us from eating anywhere new or noteworthy. We’ve also both come to the conclusion (separately, we might add) that writing a negative review, or even a so-so one, is exhausting. You feel the need to justify every criticism, and defend every quibble. And, really, who wants to read our bitchy moaning, especially when it comes to a place that so many other foodies adore?
But a number of people have noticed our Perbacco shots on Flickr, and asked when we were going to post, so it’s getting to be more work ducking the question than it is to just… come out with it.
Let’s start out by saying we had high hopes for Perbacco. Not unrealistic ones, we hope, but strong expectations buoyed by heaps of affirmative press plus an early report that the chef, a former butcher, spends his weekends curing his own salumi. Truly, a man after our own hearts.
Our initial visit left us disappointed but convinced that the food was worthy if you steered clear of so-so main courses in favor of pastas. We both decided that it was only the colossally amateurish service that prevented us from having the sort of night that we’d gush about. But after a second visit yielded significantly better service but much worse food, we just can’t join the chorus of adulation being sung in Perbacco’s key.
To start with a positive note, the salumi options improved between our first and second visits. Our first time around, the starter menu offered only a single house-cured sausage plate and a large sampler platter, which forced a frustrating choice between a one-note (and, dare we say, stingy?) sampling and an appetite-spoiling array. On our second visit, we were happy to see some more-interesting options: both greater variety and a selection of smaller assortments, each with a different stylistic focus.
But uneven notions of scale and surfeit extend beyond the salumi at Perbacco. All through both meals, the theme continued: Too much, not enough, too much, not enough… like some practical joke played by the kitchen at our expense.
First: Overkill. On our initial visit, Anita loved the taste of her burrata appetizer, but quickly tired of its unctuous, truffled intensity. Cameron’s strongly flavored salad was another tastebud-killer: All the components hung together well, but by the time he was halfway through, the richness of chestnut honey, gorgonzola, and hazelnuts exhausted his palate. On our return trip, Anita’s beet-and-arugula salad offered just too much of the same flavors, over and over, without relief.
Next: Underflavored. Although the feta-like Castelmagno cheese on Anita’s beet-and-arugula salad provided more of a salty kick than was pleasant, the beets themselves were flat and nearly flavorless. On our second visit, Anita’s pasta didn’t appear to have any salt in the dough, and had been dressed with unsalted butter. A cauliflower passata presented a perfect, velvety texture, but didn’t actually taste like its sponsor vegetable — a cauliflower soup for people who dislike cauliflower.
We always feel sorry for chefs who present a traditional Italian three-course menu of appetizers, pastas, and mains. We Americans are so attuned to the pasta-centric dinners we grew up on that it seems almost futile for chefs to run the antipasti-primi-secondi route. We do our best to support the traditional flow when our appetite allows, but the too-variable portion sizes at Perbacco made this an exercise in futility.
We loved the tajarin (hand-cut tagliatelle) with pork-and-porcini sugo as a middle course on our first visit, but an entrée portion that we ordered on our second visit was only a smidge larger — nowhere near sufficient to serve as a main course. Likewise, the sides accompanying all three of the main courses we ordered (two the first visit, one the second) were so skimpy that you wished the chef would just offer his entrees a la carte and be done with it.
And frankly, Perbacco’s entrees are its weakest link. Anita loves milk-braised pork and she’s ga-ga for grits, so Perbacco’s pork shoulder al latte with whole-grain Anson Mills polenta and shredded Savoy cabbage seemed like a shoo-in. But the unappetizingly symmetrical chunk of pig — plated like Lean Cuisine on a small oval dish — lacked the cut-it-with-a-fork tenderness that’s the hallmark this traditionally braised dish. And again, the sides were laughably meager, a criminal offense given their peasant-like affordability. (Could there be anything cheaper than corn mush and cabbage? Why such tiny nibbles?)
Both times we opted for a trio of gelati for dessert. Presented in adorable ceramic dishes made to look like partially crushed Dixie cups, the flavors ran the gamut from delightful (a fleur de sel caramel that tasted identical to a version we made last year) to unpleasant (an overwhelming pistachio).
Sadly, we doubt we’ll take another stab at dinner at Perbacco. We can envision returning for a plate of salumi at the bar, alongside one of their well-made cocktails… especially the Rosmarino. And certainly, if friends suggested we meet at Perbacco, we wouldn’t decline. But for the price — dinner both times hovered near the $200 mark for a full complement of food but minus any blow-out wines or other additions — we can’t afford the gamble of another hit-and-miss meal.
230 California Street (near Front Street)
San Francisco, CA 94111