Bucking the trend

Posted by Anita and Cameron on 04.11.07 7:57 AM

Perbacco (c)2007 AECWe 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

downtown SF, Italian, restaurants



Comment by Eric

I just ran into your site via Blog Soop, and what coincidental timing, as I just posted a follow-up review of my last dinner at Perbacco on my blog today, as well!

This is a really nice review. I think that overall, I come away with a more favorable impression of Perbacco than you do (perhaps because a lunch I had there a few months ago I found to be really good), but a lot of what you’ve said is spot-on, when I compare it to my own experiences. I tried the beet salad on both visits, and while the first time was great (including the beets), the second time was more in line with your description. Similar reaction, too, on the tenderness of the pork shoulder — while I found some parts to be very tender, other parts of it weren’t very tender at all.

The “Lean Cuisine” comment made me laugh. Sometimes I sort of overlook plating issues (usually, good ones catch my attention, whereas average ones just don’t register), but now that you say it, you’re absolutely right. At this price point, they probably ought to have done more with this aspect of the dish.

Anyway, you have a really nice site, so I’m very glad to have run into it. :)

Posted on 04.11.07 at 12:26PM

Comment by Anita

Eric: Thanks for stopping by. Isn’t Blog Soop great for finding other local blogs you might have overlooked? I’m looking forward to reading your restaurant write-ups, as we’ve been badly slacking off on our reviews over the last few months.

Posted on 04.11.07 at 12:55PM

Comment by Chubbypanda

I had that problem with a negative review I wrote on Monday covering a Vietnamese restaurant popular with several of my food blogger friends. I knew I was going to take some heat for it and considered just not writing the article. However, I tried the restaurant on three separate occasions on three different months and ended up with two negative experiences and an ok one. After much thought, I decided that given how much positive buzz the place had gotten, it was my responsibility to present my honest, negative opinion about my experiences there.

Chowhound, Yelp, and food blogs often serve as an echo chamber for popular restaurants. It gets to the point where you’re afraid to say you didn’t like a place because you know someone is going to get angry at you. But, even if we’re in the minority, if we don’t like a place we should just say so and lend our voices to people with similar tastes who may think they’re the only ones who don’t “get” a trendy eatery. Otherwise, aren’t we just contributing to the tyranny of the majority? Look where that’s gotten us as a country.

Posted on 04.11.07 at 5:48PM

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