Observations on Food in the Bay Area
website - located on Jackson St, just off of Columbus in the oddball land of old brick buildings known as Jackson Square, tucked between the Financial District and North Beach, your first impression is of the cool and vaguely aggressive entrance, an alcove inset into the wall with a massive, dark wood door set at an angle. It's reasonably unique, and certainly a striking first impression. Beyond the door, you walk through a nice equally dark buffer curtain into a warm yet modern atmosphere of hardwood floors, dark wood chairs, and various shades of brown and tan throughout the walls and beamed ceiling. A dark bar lit by old-fashioned large filament bulbs dominates the left end of the space, and the dining area is sunken to the right. It's an intense yet classy space.
We were a bit early, so started at the bar - there's a reasonably interesting list of specialty cocktails, and my Manhattan was well made and plentiful.
Moving on to dinner, our first sample of the food to come was a basket of delectable little biscuits - warm, moist, and chock full of buttery goodness. A promising start, though we soon discovered that our place had been set sans napkins, the first of a few quirks.
This being the Dine About Town month, we went with the prix fixe menu, which offered 4 selections for each course, all of which looked quite good. They also offer a $15 2-glass wine pairing, but it (this evening) was the 2 cheapest wines by the glass, one white, one red, and represented a savings of $2 over ordering them individually. Seeing a pleasantly long and non-standard selection of bottles (with an impressively large selection of Pinot Noir, and offering a full spread of wines from around the world - fun to peruse), we chose 2003 Anne Amie Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (largely at the recommendation of the sommelier). A fabulous selection - ripe, bright cherry and berry fruit well mixed with earthy and tobacco complexity and plenty of acidity. A wonderful wine, it worked very well with everything we ate.
Carrot broth with chervil sabayon and black truffle oil - when the bowl of intensely orange liquid was placed in front of me, it was as if I'd been punched in the nose by a truffle. What an aroma! The soup was awesomely rich, much like the sweet shredded carrot dessert often found in Indian restaurants, but the intense earthy flavor of the truffle oil added a whole layer of fascinating complexity. Delicious.
Smoked trout with truffled egg salad and crostini - egg salad the way you've never had it. Served as 4 small baked (and olive oiled) crostini, topped with a dollop of egg salad and covered in a slab of trout. These develop through a full range of flavors, with the initial being the subtlety of the white fish flavors enhanced and intermingled with the equally subtle egg salad, enhanced by the crusty crunch of the bread and (in this case) a light application of truffle which is but barely noticeable as an additional note of flavor. This then slowly morphs into a smooth rich smoky aftertaste.
Scottish salmon with shallot confit, black trumpets, fingerling potatoes and curry buerre blanc - I was slightly hesitant to order this as Scottish salmon is almost all farmed and generally not terribly flavorful, but in this case I chose very well. The fish was, while not of the intensity of while Pacific salmon, very fresh and of plentiful rich flavor, served with the charred skin up. The curry sauce was a marvel of subtlety (subtle curry? who knew?!) and unless tasted on its own was hardly identifiable except as a fascinating enhancement. The mushrooms nearly commanded more attention than the salmon, with an intense dark earthy richness.
Maine scallops with maitake mushrooms, saffron sauce and potato puree - just as the carrot soup was the ultra-intense counter to the subtlety of the smoked trout, the scallops were the absurdly strong counter to the subtlety of the salmon. Neither of us had ever experienced scallops with such strong and rich flavor, and this seafood magicking was the only way they could have been paired with the sauce and not wholly overwhelmed the way an avalanche buries a hapless skier. It's as if they took a half stick of butter, added some saffron and pureed potato, and decided it wasn't rich enough, so poured in a half cup of heavy cream. Delicious? Oh yeah, but even though there were only 4 scallops, the dish was so rich as to be nearly overpowering. I'm not sure I could have finished, had it been mine.
Warm chocolate cake with raspberry sauce - honestly, this marks the first time a warm chocolate cake has come close to the perfection of that served by the Wild Hare back when it existed. Dark, rich, fully molten in the middle, topped by a dollop of cream, and accompanied by a sauce of pure sugar and berry, this couldn't have been much better.
The other quirks - for some odd reason, while our appetizer and main course came out in short order and very well timed, it took something like 20 minutes or so after our dinner plates had been cleared for dessert to appear, and at one point while waiting a random cheese plate was placed in front of us, before being swept away a couple of minutes later when it was discovered to have been deposited on the wrong table. Not sure if they were having an off night, but it felt like something you'd expect from a restaurant that had only been open a couple of months, not more than a year.
But otherwise service was quite helpful and friendly, and they did a remarkable job of never allowing our wine glasses to empty which is relatively (and suprisingly) rare. They also cleared the finished plates as soon as a fork was placed upon them upside down, a bit of etiquette I hadn't been aware of, and which might have been coincidence, but which was impressive nonetheless.
In all, even if the service was a bit quirky, the food was plenty good enough to convince me it's worth returning for. And when you can get 3 courses for only $32, it's damn hard not to.