Observations on Food in the Bay Area
website - located in the Hotel Adagio on Geary between Taylor and Jones, also known as right on the edge of the ugly part of the Tenderloin (one of SF's rather less savory parts), it's not what you'd expect on viewing from the outside. Cortez is a modern Mediterranean (fusion, perhaps) restaurant, focusing mostly on small plates, though they've added some larger main course options to their menu as well. Upon walking in, you're greeted by a long dark space, dominated by a swank bar along one wall, candlelit couches and small tables, and funky modern lighting hung from the ceiling. And the bar is worth its own entry. They've got a full page of specialty cocktails, and they're damn good. The Mojito #4, made with Calvados, is pure tasty brilliance. Also of note is the Chef's Bloody, a custom Bloody Mary made with celery sorbet - you have to taste it to believe it. Quite possibly the best version of this cocktail classic I've ever encountered.
They also have a reasonably large wine list, including nearly 30 selections by-the-glass, with a significant focus on Spanish producers, and a number of unusual entries you aren't likely to find elsewhere. My only comment is that you pay a bit of a premium in markup for the creativity and breadth of their selection, but I'd argue that their sommelier has done such a good job in picking outstanding values, that at many restaurants you'd pay just as much for many poorer bottles.
And now a brief note about our visit, to help explain its absurdity: We had a group of 15 people, and for large groups Cortez offers a number of different pre-set menus, for varying price points, ranging between $45 and $70/person. Ours was $55, and included 9 dinner courses and 3 desserts. This was an amazing way to really experience what the restaurant had to offer, and I cannot recommend them enough for large groups. For the amount we had to eat and drink, the price simply can't be beat for the quality.
One more brief note about presentation: for groups, all the food was served family style, usually with 5-6 portions per plate. Everything was presented quite attractively, but I'm late enough with this posting that I can't recall what they looked like in sufficient detail to do them justice, so I'll just be commenting on the flavor.
We started with a bottle of '04 Merlin Sancerre ($48) - light, crisp, dry, with bright acidity and a great pairing with our first set of dishes...
- Gougere amuse bouche - made with a delicious, nearly liquid cheese (which I've unfortunately forgotten), these were a great indicator of how the night's dining would proceed.
- Soup Shots: Roasted tomato with English pea & bacon emulsion - Served in a tall double-shot glass, mostly red with a green foam on top, it's a wonderfully fun and creative way to do soup. The emulsion/foam was an amazing combination of peas and bacon, and both enhanced and contrasted in fun ways with the richness of the tomato soup. It only would have been nice had there been a bit more, because the contrast only really happened on the first taste.
- Yellow fin tartare with ginger sprouts, perilla, mustard seed oil & cracked fennel seed lavash - while the tartare was good, there was nothing truly unique or stand-out about it, but the lavash really made this dish. The flavorful, crispy crunchy flatbread was a great contrast to and vehicle for the melty tuna.
- Frisee salad, smoked trout, apple & avocado with warm fingerling potatoes & mustard beurre blanc - some people declared this the best dish of the evening. The smoked trout was incredibly good, and a unique and unexpected addition to a salad.
At about this point, we moved on to an '03 Bobal Tempranillo, which was bright and very fruit-forward, while maintaining a hint of traditional European earthiness. A medium bodied wine, which didn't overpower that which followed...
- Katafi crusted crab cake with tarragon aioli, citrus marinated cabbage - the Katafi made for a fun and slightly different take on a traditional crab cake, offering a bit more light crusty crunch, enveloping a richly flavorful cake. I would have perhaps liked larger chunks of crab, but these were really very tasty, and the aioli was delicious.
- House made ricotta ravioli with creme fraiche, English peas, & basil sauce - this dish seemed to provoke the most discord, with some of us professing intense love for it, and some claiming it wasn't their thing. Personally, I found the ravioli tender, delectable, and of just the right amount of richness in the sauce.
- Fries with harissa & zaatar spiced aioli - Wow. Best French Fries Ever. About this, I have no doubt. I generally don't much enjoy fries. They're either too limp, too fried, too potatoey... But these. Pure addictive goodness. There was some very intense debate over what they were fried in. Me? I'm guessing it had to be beef fat; there's just no way they could be that good otherwise. The dipping sauces were great as well.
Finally, my favorite wine of the evening, an '03 Tinto Pesquera Tempranillo ($61). Dark, rich fruit mixed with dark earth in a dry nose; fantastic medium-dark red fruit and spice in flavor, medium-body, very dry, light, fine tannins, and a long, dry, delicious finish. This went with...
- Organic roasted chicken breast with chestnut puree & pan roasted brussel sprouts - remarkably moist, richly flavored breast meat made simply astounding by the intense, crispy skin edging it. Some of the best chicken I've had.
- Hazelnut crusted natural Long Island duck breast with vanilla glazed baby turnips, & creamy sunchoke puree - Wow for a second time. In the past, I've not been impressed with duck. It's often very fatty, and to my palate overly gamey. Here, fat was almost not in evidence, and the level of gameyness was just sufficient to provide a fascinatingly complex flavor without overpowering. Astounding. This dish was the winner of the evening for me.
- Painted Hills Farm roasted flat iron (steak) with caramelized potato puree with glazed salsify & bordelaise - the steak was perfectly medium-rare and almost meltingly tender, but the real standout here was the sauce, which elevated the dish from simply good slices of steak to really making you wish there was more.
Unlike the previous 9 dishes, 3 of these were served simultaneously.
- Bourbon glazed banana with maple ice cream, buttermilk waffle, pecan & salted butter foam - my memory gets a bit hazy at this point, but I recall the banana being good.
- Pinenut caramel tart with bay leaf ice cream & roasted black mission figs - the standout here was the figs; addictive!
- Warm double chocolate truffle cake with madagascan vanilla bean ice cream & salted cocoa nib crunch - a very liquid-middle warm cake, very rich, and well matched with the ice cream.
So this was dinner. All told, it was basically a 10-course meal, served over the course of 3 hours. Not including some extra dishes which were ordered, and all our cocktails, the meal + wine (2 bottles of each) came to roughly $100/person total. I can't see a large group finding a better or more impressive deal, especially with such fantastic food, anywhere in the city. The value/price was simply astounding. Everyone in our entire group was hugely impressed. There was enough food for everyone to have some of everything, and by the end of the evening, everyone was pleasantly sated without being at all overfull.
The service is helpful, knowledgeable, and quite courteous, and the sommelier knows his wine list very well, and is happy to discuss the options.
In all, cool, slightly modern romantic atmosphere, great food, and great drinks. I'll certainly be back again.