Observations on Food in the Bay Area
website - 1075 Sutter St at Larkin in an area of SF sometimes known as the Tendernob. Thankfully, it's far enough from the real Tenderloin to not have the feeling of being an unpleasant neighborhood. Located in the Hotel Carlton, it's a pleasant space defined primarily by a red and white theme, including some intriguing globe lamps, skylights, and gas lanterns. It's a pleasant, mildy romantic atmosphere. The wait staff is very friendly, knowledgeable about the menu, and as helpful as you want them to be, perfectly happy to offer suggestions about the menu and wine list.
The wine list itself is reasonably small (perhaps 20 entries or so), but quite reasonably priced, with most bottles falling between $20 and $50, and composed of quite a range of styles and countries, though I was suprised by the lack of a pinot noir. We selected a '98 Faustino V Rioja Reserva for $42, which turned out to be a fantastic choice. Dark, rich, earthy spices with leather and tobacco and the faintest hint of barnyard make for a wonderfully compex nose. All of these are present on the palate, along with some bright cherry fruit, and a very long finish with some pleasant oaky spice. A fantastic wine which paired flawlessly with nearly everything we ordered.
Upon our entry to the restaurant, we'd mentioned to the hostess that we were starved and eagerly awaiting the chance to put some food in our undernourished bellies. Not long after this, we were suprised by the arrival of a dipping sampler plate which we later learned was sent out by the chef, who took pity on our state of desperation. And what a sampler! It had 5 different spreads, and was served with a hearty dark bread (a suprise, given that the menu says the sampler comes with pita, and to be honest I would have preferred pita as it wouldn't have been as filling, especially considering all the food we'd order later!). There was a very smoky baba ganoush with walnuts that was marvelous - perhaps even better than the one served by Kan Zaman in Upper Haight, another flavorful eggplant-based spread, a rich roasted salsa, a basic yoghurt/cucumber type, and an over-lemoned hummous. The hummous was the only dissappointing entry, mostly because I found it to have too much lemon juice relative to the other flavors.
We both opted for the $27 prix fixe option, which includes one entree, one soup or salad, and one small plate. Considering how full we were at its conclusion, I might recommend to them that they allow diners the option of replacing one of those items with a dessert, or else the dessert selections will likely remain woefully untried.
Ravioli in fresh Mango sauce - wow! First, this is a real mango sauce, a beautiful yellow color and bursting with mango flavor. Add to that flawlessly cooked and flavorful ravioli (that we believe may have been stuffed with mushrooms), and some mild yet enhancing spicing and you've got a sublime dish. It's a shame there are only 2 ravioli, but it's a small plate.
Seafood Kibbeh - a very traditional Middle Eastern food, except that it's traditionally stuffed with ground lamb or beef, not shrimp and shellfish! A great example of the chef's creativity. The kibbeh itself was suprisingly spicy and intensely flavorful. This was the exact opposite of the mild flavors of the ravioli. It was further surrounded by a rich creamy sauce, and drizzled with some of the yoghurt sauce from the sampler. While I personally preferred the intense, mouth-attacking flavors without the yoghurt, it was clear that the yoghurt was there to mellow the intensity of the dish and encourage the spices to blend together more, which it accomplished well.
Fattoush - bearing more in common with tabouleh than a traditional salad, it has romaine hearts, cucumber, tomato, feta, olives, mint, cilantro, red onion, sumac, and toasted pita, tossed with olive oil and lemon juice. This would have been quite good except that I felt that the quantity and strength of flavor of the feta overpowered many of the more subtle ingredients, and I've never been a fan of black olives, which I also consider to be a bit overpowering. This was my only real disappointment of the evening (largely due to personal preference, no fault of the dish), and the only dish to interact poorly with the wine (probably the lemon juice).
Lamb Tagine - basically a lamb stew with carrots, bits of rice, prunes and wonderfully crunchy almonds, in a prune reduction sauce. First, the sauce was absolutely fantastic. Wonderfully rich, slightly sweet yet not overpoweringly so, and with a truly intense flavor complimented by the various spices added to it. The lamb was perfectly tender and of good flavor (though hard to distinguish on its own through the power of the sauce). The crunchiness of the almonds made a continually fascinating contrast to the tenderness of the other ingredients. Flawless.
Rack of Lamb - grilled to order, and served with green beans and new potatoes, all over a light mustard sauce. The quality of the lamb couldn't be better - the exact lamby flavor you desire, without any of the slightly off flavors bad lamb can acquire. Perfectly tender. The mustard sauce made a flavorful addition, but to my mind the lamb was so good on its own the sauce was quite unnecessary.
Oh, if only we'd had room. They offered a chocolate fondue, a warm chocolate cake, a tasty sounding pear dish, and an absolutely fascinating mix of fruits and other things all wrapped in filo that was truly tempting. But we were so stuffed we couldn't even contemplate eating more. Guess we'll just have to go back.
We did, however, have a very interesting Zinfandel Port from Rosenblum. Closer to a dessert wine than a true port (or even most zin ports I've had in the past), it was hugely sweet with only the faintest hint of port flavor on the lingering finish. The grapes had clearly been left to hang until they were nearly all raisins, given the intense raisin, plum, prune, and jammy flavors. The nose was so reminiscent of fruit gone to almost rotting sweetness as to be nearly off-putting. It did grow on me as time wore on and I became used to it, but it was definately strange and much closer to a very late-harvest zin than a real type of port.
At this point, I am obligated to mention that there were a couple of minor mistakes - a fork that wasn't entirely clean put in an appearance, and the rack of lamb was confused with a lamb shank (which looked quite large and tasty before it was returned to the kitchen), but both were quickly remedied, and with a good sense of humor from the staff. One really can't complain when they handle their errors with such good grace and aplomb.
So in review, it was an absolutely wonderful meal, which I look forward to repeating as soon as I get the opportunity. As an added bonus, Saha is only about 4 blocks from the AMC Van Ness Theatre, which makes for a good dinner/movie combination. We'll both be back. All told, the meal came to about $100 before tip.