Originally posted on the Tales Blog, where we’re working with many other cocktail bloggers to cover Tales of the Cocktail, 2009.
As someone who has been to my share of trade shows and conferences, I can tell you that the phrase “convention lunch” is enough to strike fear into the heart of the boldest traveler. But this is Tales of the Cocktail, which is about as un-convention-al as it gets. You can count on a good time in the seminars, tasting rooms, and party rooms, and then stroll out to some seriously good food.
Yesterday was the perfect example. We rolled out of bed, still on Pacific Time and fuzzy from the previous night’s festivities, cleaned up a bit, and then hit the bricks, aiming for the river, Cafe du Monde, and beignets with cafe au lait. The beignets come three to a plate, snuggled into a pile of powdered sugar that looks like nothing so much as the scene in the third act of Scarface where Tony Montana plunges his face into a mountain of cocaine. Instead of our noses, we plunged our beignets into the fluffy white mound while a singing, trumpet-playing entertainer performed “Down by The Riverside,” “Danny Boy,” and other feats of musical daring for the amusement of passers-by.
On our way back to the hotel, our eyeballs vibrating ever so slightly from the sugar buzz, we realized that our “lunch” break wouldn’t come until 2:30, and that we needed something a bit more substantial to carry us through the day. So, we stopped at Johnny’s Po-Boys and split an egg and bacon po’boy, washed down with a couple of Barq’s root beer sodas. Mother’s may get more attention, but for our money, Johnny’s is the spot. It’s a place of wonderful mysteries. How do they manage to get the rolls to be tender, chewy, and flaky all at the same time? How can they offer fried chicken with a homemade biscuit and white gravy for $2.50 a plate? And how am I going to manage to get here enough times this week, given all the other great places that we’ll be eating at?
Back at Tales, we soaked up some knowledge and tasted some spirits, but I have to admit that I was already looking forward to our next food foray. We roped in Marshall from Scofflaw’s Den and headed back into the Quarter, aiming for Central Grocery and its famous muffuletas.
I had my first Central Grocery muffuletta at last year’s Tales, and it was a madhouse. There was a line out the door, and every horizontal surface was staked out by someone eagerly devouring one of the sandwiches. Today, there were no crowds, which made the lunchtime experience much more civilized. But even if it were wall-to-wall people, it wouldn’t have mattered. If there’s anything wrong with loving a sandwich the size and shape of a hubcap, spread with oily, tangy olive salad and filled with all sorts of good things (salami, capicola, and provolone, just to name a few), I don’t want to be right.
The best part? The day wasn’t over, much less the week. We have got to get to Green Goddess, and there’s a slew of other stuff on the schedule. And no matter where we are I’m pretty sure that there’s another plate of beignets calling my name, down by the riverside.
A few weeks ago, we headed down to Los Angeles for a quick getaway. Ostensibly, the occasion was our seventh(!) wedding anniversary, but truthfully the real purpose of our trip was to eat at all the places we’d been adding to our ever-expanding “must-try” list.
At the very top of said list was Pizzeria Mozza, the newish joint venture from Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton. After hearing rave reviews from pretty much every newspaper, magazine, blog, and friend, we decided to schedule Mozza in a prime Friday-night slot, to make sure we were getting the A-team of cooks and servers.
I won’t bore you with the litany of every thing that went wrong that night — we’re over the tedious exercise of writing negative restaurant reviews — but here’s the short version: Unexciting food, abysmal service, and pacing so unbelievably rushed that we were back in our car just 29 minutes after our first (and only) glass of wine hit the table. Seriously.
But every cloud has a silver lining. And at Mozza, that lining took the form of a fabulous melange of slender haricots verts, sweet shallots, crunchy hazelnuts, and creamy whole-grain mustard dressing (which, ahem, arrived in place of the roasted-cauliflower dish we’d actually ordered). Amid a menu of fair-to-decent dishes, this small plate stood out, and we quickly realized that we could easily duplicate it at home. We combed through every Batali and Silverton cookbook we own, but found nothing similar. However, Googling “beans + mustard + vinegar + hazelnuts” led us to a likely recipe — not from either of the Mozza chefs, but from Chef Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill restaurants.
Although we’re still a few weeks away from finding slim haricots at our market, their larger cousins are already becoming plentiful. And though hazelnuts aren’t grown in the Bay Area, we have plenty of other local options. We opted for walnuts, but made them a little more decadent by rubbing off their skins after toasting them lightly in a pan. After that, the rest of the dish comes together in a matter of a whisk here, a blanch there. And when served with a quick-brined pork chop and the first new potatoes of the year — as we did, for our One Local Summer meal this week — it makes for a great summer side-dish.
Summer Beans in Grainy Mustard Vinaigrette
– adapted from Dan Barber
1 T finely chopped shallots
2 T balsamic vinegar
12 oz trimmed green and yellow-wax beans (about 4 cups)
1/2 T whole grain mustard
1/4 cup good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
1 T chopped chives
1 T plus 1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 T blanched nuts (we used walnuts) toasted, peeled if desired, and coarsely chopped
Soak shallots in balsamic vinegar in a small bowl for 30 minutes; set aside for later use.
Fill a saucepan with 2 quarts of water and 1T salt; bring to a boil. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with water and ice.
When water comes to a boil, add beans and cook until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain quickly and shock beans in the ice-water bowl. When fully chilled, drain beans well, pat dry, and set aside.
Stir mustard into balsamic-soaked shallots. Gradually whisk in olive oil until blended. (If you’d like a creamier dressing, buzz with a stick blender until well emulsified.) Add the chives, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper; stir until combined.
Toss dressing with beans and nuts until evenly coated; serve immediately.
Farmers and food artisans who created the ingredients for this week’s meal:
Marin Sun Farms
, Point Reyes: Pork chop
, Fairfax: Hard cider (for brine)
, Dixon: New potatoes
Dirty Girl Produce
, Santa Cruz: Shallots
, Sacramento: Olive oil and balsamic vinegar
, Brentwood: Green and wax beans
, Oakland: Whole-grain mustard
, Fairfield: Walnuts
…and our own homegrown
chives and homemade chicken stock
For the food-obsessed, there are a lot of exciting things that pop up in the spring. The first tender favas, skinny spears of asparagus, and fruit-tree blossoms that promise a sweet summer ahead. But in our circle of friends, there’s been another anticipation afoot: The long wait for the new edition of Food & Wine’s Cocktails annual.
You may recall our “Book Club” making visits to Range, Forbidden Island, and Bar Drake last year; in fact, our crew managed to hit every San Francisco bar listed in the 2008 edition, sampling a few gems amid a stunning number of failures. (Not to mention the many AWOL contenders; I wish we had a dollar for every time we heard “Oh, that? Nobody liked it, so we took it off the menu.” Sigh.)
When I crossed paths with the book’s compiler, Jim Meehan, at his NY speakeasy PDT, I gave him a fair bit of good-natured grief for our trouble. He allowed that the fleeting nature of drink recipes could be a bit of a problem, but assured me that big changes were in store for 2009, and seemed confident we would like the new direction he’d taken.
It’s still the same book — digest sized, with a clean and colorful layout. But in the biggest change from previous years, where chapters were organized by base spirit, this year’s book focuses on themed chapters: aperitifs, Latin drinks, seasonal drinks, frozen drinks, pitcher drinks, after-dinner drinks, classics, mixologists’ drinks, and mocktails. Each section has a patron bartender, who is briefly profiled and provides all the recipes. Bar celebrities like Jamie Boudreau, Julie Reiner, and (the book’s co-editor) Joaquin Simo take their turns, as do lesser-known mixmasters such as Jeff Grdinich.
The mixologists’ section is like a miniature version of previous editions of the book, a compilation of 18 drinks from top bartenders across the country. Although it’s hard to tell without actually mixing them, the drink recipes from San Francisco shakers — Absinthe’s Jonny Raglin, Neyah White of Nopa, and Jacques Bezuidenhout of Bar Drake — look great on paper. But better still, they come from bartenders who we know understand what works, not just in a highly controlled test-kitchen environment, but in everyday drink-slinging bars. It’s no surprise that some of the cocktails we liked best from last year’s Book Club came from these gentlemen; I can’t wait to give their recipes a test drive.
As before, there’s a directory of top bars listed in the back. This time, the list is explicitly titled “Top 100 Bars”, though they are not necessarily correlated to the included recipes. Frustratingly, other than hat-tips to chapter hosts, there’s no cross-reference to each establishment’s recipes by page number, a detail from past editions I will definitely miss. Cantina’s blurb, for example, mentions Duggan McDonnell by name, offering that “Many of his creations are featured in the Pitcher Drinks chapter (p. 94).” But Absinthe’s listing neither mentions Jonny Raglin, nor directs readers to his recipe on page 135, opting instead for a quizzical mention of Top Cheftestant Jamie Lauren.
As far as the local bars in the Top 100, there’s only a couple of quibbles. Everyone I’ve asked is surprised by the omission of Oakland’s lovely Flora, and it’s odd that Bar Drake didn’t make the cut this year when Jacques’ recipe did. Bix, however, is a total head-scratcher. Despite reviving the classic-cocktail genre a full decade before almost anyone else in town, this stalwart has long been eclipsed in both technical merit and outright hospitality.
The visuals, always a strength of this series, continue to impress. In addition to ace prop styling and eye-popping photography found in previous editions, this year’s version includes more infographics, which should help users navigate now that the book is not organized by spirit type. Graphics show ease of construction and base spirit, in addition to the glassware icon of the past editions. The front matter is perhaps a bit basic for experienced bar aficionados, although there is some good stuff about ice, must-have spirits, and best brands taste-test winners.
Do you need Food & Wine Cocktails ’09 in your bar library? Probably not. But at $10, it’s less than the price of a drink at nearly any of the places it trumpets, and it’s bound to be a fun souvenir of the way we’re drinking in the late aughts.
Bay Area bars/restaurants in the Top 100
There are 13 of them this year, which — for those of you keeping score at home — is more than any other city except NYC (home to 14). Mixologists mentioned by name in their establishment’s blurb are shown in brackets.
- Beretta [Thad Vogler]
- Bourbon & Branch
- Cantina [Duggan McDonnell]
- Clock Bar
- Elixir [H Ehrmann]
- Forbidden Island
- Heaven’s Dog [Erik Adkins]
- Nopa [Neyah White]
- Slanted Door
San Francisco cocktail recipes in the Mixologists’ Drinks chapter:
- Jonny Raglin, Absinthe
Villa Flores: jalapeno, tequila, egg white, grapefruit, agave, orange-flower water, Sichuan pepper garnish
- Neyah White, Nopa
Cherry Samba: cachaca, cherry Heering, Islay Scotch, lemon, simple, egg white
- Jacques Bezuidenhout, Bar Drake
Black Friar’s Pint: gin, cardamom-cinnamon Guinness, sherry, bitters, agave, egg white, cinnamon garnish
San Francisco recipes for Party Food:
- Warm Marinated Olives, Seasons Bar & Lounge
- Queso Fundido, Tres Agaves
- Polpette in Spicy Tomato Sauce, Beretta
And one San Francisco chapter host: Duggan McDonnell of Cantina
Meeting a friend you’ve only known online can be a nervous affair. Will you get along? Will they be cool in person? What if they have a funny voice and a big nose? When the moment comes and they turn out to be even more fabulous than you’d hoped, the elation feels like a glassful of Champagne… or cava in this case.
Elation was definitely the order of the evening Saturday night when we finally met Contigo, the new Spanish restaurant from our friend, Chef Brett Emerson. If you’re a fan of his blog, In Praise of Sardines, you’re probably familiar with the saga of Contigo’s opening, from the thrill of Brett’s snagging of a rare new-restaurant permit in Noe Valley, through the agony of multiple construction delays. I don’t know how Brett feels, but after tasting his food at a friends-and-family dinner before Contigo’s formal opening, I think all the drama was all worth it.
The space is beautiful, simultaneously contemporary and cozy. It’s not large, but it feels expansive thanks to five distinct dining zones — chef’s counter, lower dining room, cava bar, upper dining room, and a heated, covered outdoor patio surrounded by herb gardens.
Contigo’s ingredients are locally sourced, but not slavishly so — there’s jamón from Spain (and Iowa), alongside meat and vegetables from the usual assortment of local farms. And the food on the plate is every bit the equal of its gorgeous environment. We had a devil of a time deciding what to order; everything sounded appealing. Like an Iberian version of our favorite SPQR, Contigo offers an assortment of small pica-pica plates ($8 each, or $21 for three). Venerable tapas like crisp patatas bravas and marinated sardines take their place alongside an assortment of salads with Spanish twists. In the latter category, we loved the remojon: salt cod, oranges, and olives atop white radicchio.
We tried a couple of larger platillos as well. The juidones a la segovia were a dreamy assortment of delectable pork parts (belly, ears, yum!) atop creamy butter beans. The chorizo-y txistorra burger was fabulous, but be ready to share it with a friend; it’s too good to miss, but a little too rich to eat as an entree.
We weren’t sure how we managed to save room for dessert, but we were happy we did. We made short work of the not-too-sweet almond cake, filled with a dollop of pastry cream and a schmear of olallieberry preserves, a sweet nod to the restaurant’s history.
Contigo opens tonight, and there’s sure to be a line; reservations are accepted only for parties of 6 or more. But there’s a stand-up drink rail along the entryway, where you can enjoy a glass of cava and a nibble or two while watching the cooks work their magic in the beautiful open kitchen.
Contigo Kitchen + Cava
1320 Castro Street (x 24th Street)
San Francisco, CA 94114
I don’t think it’s any secret here that we’re big fans of puns, wordplay, and other clever banter, so you’ll probably guess that I’ve been gaga about the wittly named Nopalito — the casual Mexican offspring of our beloved Nopa — since the day I first learned it was coming to town.
It’s also no great surprise that an authentic Mexican restaurant would be a huge draw for me, the girl who would happily scarf chilaquiles for breakfast, tortas for lunch, and a big cheesy combination platter for dinner. But here’s the icing on the cake: Nopalito follows the same local-seasonal-sustainable-organic-ethical blueprint as its older sibling, and it does it in style.
Now, we’re not much for restaurant reviews these days, but I will say this: Nopalito is off to a running start, and we’re looking forward to many return trips. As Cameron said: “This place is pretty much the restaurant you’ve been waiting for… forever.” He’s right: There’s very few places like Nopalito in the Bay Area — Doña Tomas is about the nearest equivalent — and certainly nothing of its type within The City proper.
Do I like the hour-long waits? No. (But I’m soothed by being able to call ahead and put my name on the list.) Do I like perching on barstools, elbow-to-elbow with perfect strangers at a communal table? Not one bit. (But on the other hand, it’s prime Eatsdropping territory, and a not-bad way to decide what you want to order next.) Am I enthralled with everything I ate on our first visit? Not by a long shot.
But there were enough promising tastes on our first visit — the gordita de picadillo first among them — that absolutely transported me. I’m looking forward to seeing what else they have in store, especially once the weather warms up enough to enjoy a Michelada or two on the covered patio.
306 Broderick Street
San Francisco, CA
Even in the foodie heaven that is San Francisco, there’s no place like Konstam at the Prince Albert. A Victorian pub that’s been converted to a high-design jewelbox restaurant — it would take an entire paragraph just to explain the chandeliers-slash-draperies — Konstam toes the eat-local line with none of the obfuscation inherent in the standard “….whenever possible” disclaimer of Bay Area menus.
Even more impressively, Konstam’s sourcing radius is dramatically smaller than the usual 100-mile American definition: 85% of the kitchen’s ingredients, including flour and protein, come from the area covered by the London Underground and/or bounded by the M25 beltway, depending on where you’re reading. Either way, we’re talking about more or less 25 miles from central London.
One more thing: It seems that the idea to source ingredients locally was written into the restaurant’s plan before Chef Oliver Rowe really knew it was possible — but after a television deal had been signed. As a result, his tiny temple to seasonal and local food was well-known to British foodies even before the first meal was served. A two-week BBC miniseries called The Urban Chef documented the trials and tribulations of opening Konstam and finding suppliers. Watching video of Chef Rowe scouring the outer reaches of London feels like nothing so much as a giant, £300,000 dare… with the entire country watching each night on the telly.
But enough about the schtick: How’s the food? Rowe wisely chose Northern and Central Europe as his inspiration, so even in the dead of an English winter, there’s sense to be made of the menu. A bowl of celeriac and apple soup came scattered with abundant hazelnuts, chunks of blue cheese, and a sprinkling of dill; the portion was far too large for such a dense porridge, but the flavors were lovely. Cameron enjoyed a starter of grilled Sevenoaks ox tongue, perfectly buttery-soft but meaty, garnished with a piquant pickled peppercorn relish atop a slick leek salad. It’s hard to choose which of our mains was the winner: Cameron chose perfectly charcoal-grilled leg of mutton, served with intensely vegetal chard and comforting colcannon. My own moan-inducing roast pork belly — complete with scored crispy crackling — came with both picture-perfect roast potatoes and a too-sweet cabbage compote.
Although the wine list includes mostly Continental offerings, you can opt for a well-balanced choice of English wines from Kent, about 60 miles away, or pick from a great assortment of local ciders and ales from artisanal producers. We sampled the Sauvignon Blanc-like Chapel Down white and the funky Burrow Hill extra-dry cider; neither required the expected “pretty nice… for a local product” caveats.
Dessert was a modern take on traditional Victoria sponge — cake layered with cream and preserves — drizzled with vanilla syrup. Simple and exceedingly sweet, it would have been lovely with the espresso we ordered, but never received. And on that note: London will never be known for its stellar table service, but Konstam’s was even a step below the usual indifference. We were so happy with our food that we weren’t too troubled, but I can conjur a mood where we would have been furious at all the many issues with poor pacing, forgotten items, and long stretches of time where waitstaff simply disappeared — no mean feat in a restaurant the size of a large living room.
You could imagine Konstam being a worthwhile destination simply as a curiosity, a stunt-piece of a restaurant built on a conceit that might age poorly. But even without its locavore angle, the food delivers without offering (or requiring) any apologies for its constraints.
Konstam at the Prince Albert
2 Acton Street
London, WC1X 9NA
020 7833 5040
Here’s a recipe for a magical midwinter’s afternoon: Take the Tube to Richmond, a village on the fringes of London, then hop a red double-decker bus for a ride along the Thames. Alight in front of the cheery half-timbered pub, walk down the church lane past the Celtic stone crosses, left at the split-rail fence, and bob’s your uncle: You’ve arrived at Petersham Nurseries.
Now, even if an afternoon at a garden centre is not your idea of holiday time well spent, bear with me. Remember that the English excel at creating magical places, at planting beautiful gardens, at the eternal joy that is lunchtime. So it should come as no surprise that a mid-day repast inside a converted greenhouse — complete with dirt floors, mismatched chairs, and waitresses wearing muckboots with skirts — would be just the sort of adventure that would pay off very handsomely indeed.
Take your seat under the heater, and start with the seasonal sparkler — say, vanilla-rhubarb prosecco — then pick an appetizer to share. (If the chorizo starter with with lentils, caprini fresca, and agresto is on the menu, please order it; you won’t be sorry.) Pick your mains from a short list, one of which always seems to be vegetarian and another fish. Chef Skye Gyngell’s team “sources the best-quality seasonal ingredients that we can lay our hands on”, so you might opt for a whole roasted partridge with farro, chard, and salsa verde, or perhaps a fillet of sea bass served with clams, fino, arrocina beans, and aioli. Make sure to save room for dessert: The hazlenut tart comes with a generous drizzle of chocolate sauce and a dollop of airy crême fraiche.
Should you need to freshen up, you’ll find the loos in the hobbit-like wooden structure that houses the cafe kitchen and the teahouse. The latter — if you’ve neglected to book ahead, or just fancy a lighter nosh — offers a daily soup served with good bread and a hodgepodge of sweet cakes. And tea, of course. Always tea.
The nursery yard itself is full of all sorts of treasures, so if you’re a gardening buff — or, really, even if you aren’t — be sure to budget enough time to stroll and browse. The last lunch reservation is taken at 2:45, but the retail side remains open until 5pm, although in the dwindling light of wintertime you might plan to come early rather than stay late.
Bundle up and stroll back down the lane to the bus stop, where the diamond-paned windows of the pub now glow with holiday cheer. Your bus will be along promptly — this is England, after all — ready to whisk you back up the hill to Richmond and the real world… full, happy, and content.
Petersham Nurseries & Cafe
Church Lane, off Petersham Road
Surrey TW10 7AG
020 8940 5230
When a chef friend tells you that every dish she tasted at a new restaurant ran from “extraordinary to just great”, you take note. When a second foodie friend exclaims that this same place offered “one of the most enjoyably pleasurable meals I have had in some time”, you start to get excited. And when a big-paper critic fawns that this restaurant “has a soul, evident from head to tail,” you move that place to the top of your must-try list. Restaurant Eloise, the new-ish Sebastopol venture of Ginevra Iverson and Eric Korsh — former sous-chefs at NYC’s much-lauded Prune — clearly has a diverse and well-subscribed fan club.
With this much positive buzz, we were surprised to have our pick of tables, even for a same-day Saturday-night reservation. When we arrived, the dining room was nearly empty, but it glowed with the light of candles on each table, and we were warmly welcomed by the host and our waiters. I knew the setting would be pretty without being precious; Shuna’s gorgeous photos told its story so well. We were charmed by Eloise’s simplicity: Whitewashed walls adorned with mismatched gilt-framed mirrors and botanical prints, and a tiny bud-vase on each table filled with flowering herbs.
As we got settled, we were presented an amuse on a pretty toile-print plate: Crostini topped with a frothy mousse of a “trifecta” (said the waiter) of poultry livers, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chives. I’m not terribly fond of liver, but if it tasted like this all the time, that would change.
Every starter on the menu was appealing; I settled on an order of fresh local spot prawns, a special offering. Cameron opted for the marrow bones, a dish he can never turn down. A trio of large prawns arrived, roasted and simply dressed with lemon and oil; one of the three was bursting with coral. Though perfectly fresh and firm-textured, the prawns were a little bland, and I wished I’d followed my initial urge to try the truffled mushroom toast instead.
The marrow bones were generous and tasty, although the quizzical and utterly awkward use of an upended teaspoon handle as serving implement caused some ill-disguised grumbling from the other side of the table. An accompanying St John-style parsley salad was a tad unorthodox — the kitchen flagrantly disregards Fergus Henderson’s dictum regarding the sparing use of capers, but the end result was delicious.
Unfortunately, we didn’t enjoy our main dishes nearly as well. The much-raved-about ricotta-and-chard gnocchi were as decadent as promised, swimming in a pool of sage brown butter. But they were so monotonously rich that I could barely manage more than three or four bites.
Cameron’s veal chop was a good news/bad news story. The accompanying creamed spinach and sorrel was a delicious riff on the steakhouse classic, but the billed “crispy potato” turned out to be a ho-hum hash-brown. The chop itself — ordered medium-rare — came out with a glorious crust but a nearly raw center. Sent back to the kitchen, it returned a little closer to rare, still not as ordered, and messily propped back on the same plate with its now-cold sides. Maybe this quick fix would be OK at a neighborhood joint, but for a $32 entree at a white-tablecloth destination restaurant, it seemed ungracious.
And even though we’d specifically saved room, there was nothing on the dessert list to tempt us. The sweets seemed dropped onto the menu from a great height, with little thought to seasonality or diversity. After 7 days, I can only remember one of them: a baba au rhum.
All in all, Eloise seems like a place with promise, but a little unpolished… especially for a place where you can spend $13 for starters and $30 for mains without batting an eye. It’s likely that the missteps we experienced were an anomaly, given the heaps of praise we’ve heard from others. And the service was lovely enough that we left feeling hopeful, rather than disgruntled. We hope Eloise finds her groove soon.
2295 Gravenstein Highway South
Sebastopol, CA 95472
To say that we were not predisposed to appreciate SPQR would be a bit of an understatement.
We visited A16 — the original Cow Hollow venture from the same restaurateurs — a few months after its white-hot debut, and found nearly everything wanting. Which was probably just as well, because in those days getting a reservation was nearly as difficult as finding a parking spot in this notoriously fussy neighborhood.
So when its sibling SPQR opened up, a little more than a year ago, we rolled our eyes. When the rave reviews came rolling in, we reminded ourselves that the same hype followed A16 for ages; obviously, our tastes were not in line with those of the buzz-makers. And when we heard about their no-reservations policy, that was the final nail in the coffin. I couldn’t imagine schlepping across town just to end up cooling my heels for what were rumored to be multi-hour waits. Nuh-uh, no thanks.
Fast forward to June. I’d left work early and caught the bus to a food event at Fort Mason. As soon as I walked in the door, I realized that there were three times as many guests as there were servings of food, and the claustrophobic crush was unpleasant. I called Cameron and told him not to bother parking, and we sat outside and pondered where to eat on this (to us) foreign side of the City.
“Well…” Cameron ventured tentatively, “There’s SPQR.”
“Oh please,” I sneered. “The food’s going to be terrible, and the line of smooth-haired people will be unbearable.”
But really, we couldn’t think of anywhere better, and we’d developed a serious appetite.
“Let’s just head over that way, and if the line’s too long, we’ll regroup.” (A wise man, this husband of mine.)
We went. We found Doris Day parking. There was no line, but also no open tables — just two seats at the end of the kitchen counter. We pounced.
The all-Italian wine list was a mystery to our California eyes, but with a little help from the staff we found our way to a couple of nice glasses. The decor was right up our alley, all creamy walls and dark-glazed woods and marble countertops, with soaring ceilings and wooden tables. The cooks joked with each other in their close, corral-like space under the watchful gaze of the chef expediting orders at the side of the bar.
I relaxed just a bit, still half-bracing myself for disappointment.
Antipasti — grouped into cold, hot, and fried sections — tempted us. Taking up half the menu, they’re the heart of SPQR’s offerings, and special pricing ($8 each but just $21 for three) encourages you to try a little of a lot. The simple perfection of fresh romano beans sizzled on the griddle with fried chile and breadcrumbs; golden-crisp bocconcini with fresh tomato sauce — a highbrow take on that middle-American favorite, fried mozzarella — and a plate of shaved La Quercia smoked proscuitto and cubes of fragrant melon. Sold!
I turned to Cameron and busted out laughing: “This is my new favorite restaurant!”
Down the other side of the menu we went, ordering what turned out to be far too much food. From the antipasti grande section — which are really entree-sized portions, minus the sides — we opted for saltimbocca with a garnish of piquant giardinara. A generous bowl of rigatoni Amatriciana followed, perfectly chewy tubes bathed in a funky (in a good way) porky tomato sauce. And as soon as we saw the grill guy press a softball-size hank of pork sausage onto the flat-top, we knew we had to have our own order.
Since that sunny summer evening, we’ve returned to SPQR many more times than we can count. We’ve sat at a table or two, and held up stools at the wine bar. But given our druthers, we’ll always opt for those two end seats at the kitchen counter, right in the heart of the action.
The garnishes have changed with the seasons — corn salad changing to braised fennel, or briny olives swapped for canteloupe — but heart of most dishes persists. As fall rolls in, we’re loving the fried brussels sprouts — especially with their new, more-tart dressing — though they can be overdone and greasy now and then. The tuna conserva salad with garbanzos I would happily eat all on its own for lunch, perhaps with a slice of crusty bread. A rotating choice of griddled mushrooms is paired with enchanting grace notes. (Last night, it was chanterelles with tiny pieces of pancetta and a handful of spinach… swoon!) There’s an every-Tuesday special of a local fried chicken, and some eye-popping seasonal additions.
This week’s newest option was the most over-the-top of all: A triple-pork sandwich made of bacon and ham, draped over a breaded-and-fried patty of pigs trotters, served on a chicken-liver-mustard-smeared potato bun. “The kitchen calls it the Widowmaker” our waiter laughed, as she found us yet another stunning wine pairing. Like all of the restaurant’s genuinely warm (and mostly female) front-of-the-house team, she somehow made us feel like her favorite customers while dealing with eight different, difficult tasks.
Oh, and that no-reservations policy? With the exception of one last-minute visit we made late in the evening, we’ve never had to wait. I don’t know if it’s the economy, our timing, or just the natural ebb and flow of restaurant trendiness, but we count ourselves lucky to be able to call SPQR one of our new old standbys.
1911 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA 94115
Aside from grinding and stuffing a few pounds of sausage now and then, curing meats is a task — much like beer-brewing and bread-baking — that I am more than happy to leave to the experts. Don’t get me wrong: I love getting up to my elbows in fatty meat and curing salts and aromatics. But when you have local artisans like Fatted Calf, even the most enviable meat-curing skills become obsolete.
To say we’re big fans of the work that Taylor Boetticher, Toponia Miller, and the rest of the Fatted Calf crew are doing is a huge understatement. We’ve spent the last two years gleefully eating our way through their entire offering, and there’s barely a thing we’ve tried that didn’t make us squeal with delight. Their smoky bacon is heaven in a frying pan, their rind-on pancetta is nothing short of funky-fabulous. Their beef jerky is addictively awesome, and their pâtés and terrines are a slice of savory joy. Their sausages — especially the Toulouse and the andouille — are light-years better than anything we make at home.
So when we heard that Piccino — a jewelbox cafe/restaurant in Dogpatch, the next neighborhood over — was hosting a supper featuring Fatted Calf products, cooked jointly by Taylor and the Piccino crew, we reserved two slots as fast as our little fingers could email the RSVP.
I should add at this point that Cameron and I have mostly given up on these sorts of one-night foodie extravaganzas. It’s too easy to get your expectations set impossibly high, or to calibrate each bite to the fantastic sum of money you’ve spent. We went against our usual stance this week for two reasons: Piccino is precisely the kind of restaurant we love — a cozy neighborhood space with a short, ingredient-driven menu that actively supports local farmers and food artisans — and because we can’t get enough of Fatted Calf.
On the night of the meaty meal, we gathered on the sidewalks in front of Piccino’s corner doorway. Happy gaggles of diners shunned the interior and spread down each street, glasses of deep-pink rosé in hand as we savored a rare, warm San Francisco summer evening. We hung back for another reason, too: We weren’t sure how we would all fit into the small dining area. Eventually, we were called to the communal table, so we squeezed onto the banquette, tried not to knock elbows with our neighbors, and wondered just what we’d gotten ourselves into.
We needn’t have worried. By the time the second course (and third glass of wine) rolled around, we’d been utterly, completely won over. There were some service mishaps — one end of the table missed out on a pizza that somehow got misdelivered not once but three times — but these were forgivable, almost-funny oversights. We were chatting with our neighbors quite amiably by this point, companionably sharing platters of assorted charcuterie and a casuela full of lightly pickled, jewel-like vegetables.
For the next course, we each got our own plates… a wise move, as I suspect that riots might have broken out otherwise. Who could be trusted to share a perfectly ripe Hamada Farms peach, draped with tissue-thin lardo, accessorized with a bitter-crisp salad of baby dandelion greens? (Hint: Not me.) Next up came an inspired riff on pork and beans: Shelling beans cooked to a toothsome creaminess, garnished with crisp-chewy pork rillons and melted Early Girl tomatoes.
Then, the main course platters filled the table: unctuous smoked lamb; bowls of fregola with charred young onions and baby potatoes; marinated eggplant with roasted gypsy peppers and capers; golden beets with their own sauteed greens, tarragon, and ricotta salata; and an out-of-this-world mint chutney. After hours of joyful din, passed platters, copiously refilled glasses, and a bevvy of spontaneous toasts to the kitchen, we were struck dumb. Everyone, all down the table, sat nearly silent, in awe of the fabulous food.
We hardly had room for dessert, but we bravely soldiered on. Plates of figs in various stages of caramelization arrived, dolloped with sheep’s milk fromage blanc, decorated with strawberries, and accompanied by an almond tuile. We lingered in the candlelight, talking with new acquaintances and exchanging plans to run into one another at the market next weekend. When I looked at my watch, I was stunned to see it was nearly midnight: We’d passed 5 hours in a magical space that somehow seemed to have grown larger, filled with conversation, light, and laughter.
To me, the most amazing thing about the whole meal was that (with the exception of the fregola and the wines) everything we ate came from within our local foodshed. The lamb was grown on the same Napa homestead as the shelling beans, both brought to Taylor as part of an over-the-fence trade with a prolific neighbor. Like all of Piccino’s regular meals, the vegetables and fruits for the evening were sourced from local farmers; many of their names graced the menu.
Although this was a one-time event, we’re already looking forward to going back to Piccino often. (I’ve stopped in a few times for a glass of wine and a bite to eat after picking up my Mariquita mystery box, but I haven’t really tried a whole meal there. That’s going to change.) And, if you’re in the mood for an epic food evening like ours, check out the Piccino schedule; there’s another meat dinner scheduled with RoliRoti’s Thomas Odermatt in October, and a mushroom feast with Far West Fungi in November.
Piccino Café and Pizzeria
801 22nd Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
Fatted Calf Charcuterie
Oxbow Public Market
644-C First Street
Napa, CA 94559
- Also sells most products at:
Berkeley Farmer’s Market
Saturday, 10 to 3
Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market
Saturday, 7:30 to 2