by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
September 3, 2005
I recently had the good fortune to visit San Francisco for a short weekend trip. It was a mini-reunion of friends from my junior year abroad in Kyoto during college. These are the buddies who taught me how to really eat. Unfortunately, whenever we get together our bad old habits all come out, one of which is gorging ourselves endlessly. For our band of gourmet gluttons, waistlines no longer mean anything and five lunches in one day somehow becomes the norm.
Since the trip was short and intended to be purely recreational, I was not planning on doing a feature. However, I had so much fun there that I have decided to share three of my most memorable meals.
I was able to convince my friend, Jason, to share his thoughts on our dining experience at Quince, so that review is his generous contribution.
I hope that this will be a good introduction to a future full-length feature on the dining scene in San Francisco.
by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
September 3, 2005
252 California St
San Francisco, CA 94111
Aqua is one of those restaurants that just gets it. Everything is right on spot. Often you read about a restaurant — how it’s supposed to look and what it feels like to dine there, what the philosophy is and what it’s striving to do — but then you just can’t agree with what you read once you’ve tested the waters. Aqua, on the other hand achieves what it sets out to do and leaves the customer satisfied and wanting more.
The cuisine is seafood prepared in a contemporary style with French influence, created by executive chef Laurent Manrique. The decor of the restaurant itself is sophisticated, the food high-quality and the staff professional and well trained. While experiencing Aqua’s fine dining, there is no air of pretension and stuffiness, which is where I think the restaurant really succeeds. From chef to sommelier to wait staff, everyone is down to earth and easygoing and yet not overly casual or familiar. Located in the financial district of downtown San Francisco, it’s the ideal place to go for a business lunch or dinner as the large dining room seats 120 people extremely comfortably in a capacious setting with high ceilings and large windows.
Laurent kindly prepared a tasting menu for me that started out with a single Kumamoto Oyster with a touch of caviar to start. Next came two appetizers: Hamachi Crudo and Aqua’s signature Tartare of Ahi Tuna. For the entrée, I got to try the Day Boat Scallops and Petrale Sole. Dessert and tea completed my exquisite lunch at Aqua.
The tuna tartare is unique in that the tuna comes in diced cubes, with a quail egg on top. On the edge of the plate are slivered almonds, date paste and the Moroccan spice, harissa. All ingredients are displayed separately (as in the image above), then the waiter skillfully mixes them together once the plate is set in front of you. There are also little delicate dashes of lemon zest, lemon oil, mint, cumin, basil, cilantro and garlic that add to the unique flavor of the dish. The result is a refreshing combination of taste and textures accented by the crunchiness of the almonds, freshness of the tuna, and the surprisingly complementary flavor of the harissa and herbs.
The Petrale Sole was the highlight of my meal. Served over a fondue of Dungeness crab with heirloom tomato and a lime mousseline, the dish was a perfect combination of subtle flavors. The sole was tender and the crab fondue underneath bursting with aroma. I was stuffed by the time this dish arrived but I couldn’t let any of it go to waste.
My lunch turned out to be a rather luxurious three-hour affair, but I was having such a good time and felt so at ease I honestly didn’t realize that so much time had gone by. Aqua made me feel so at home that I almost made a seamless transition into the cocktail hour and dinner.
Later this month (September 2005), a completely re-hauled and redesigned Café de la Presse opens in San Francisco’s Union Square. Here, Laurent Manrique and Patrick Albert will have collaborated to develop a new menu of classic French bistro dishes. The café will be open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner while featuring European magazines and newspapers. (The newstand will carry over 500 international magazine titles and over a dozen international newspapers.) The concept of this café is so enticing, and a peek at the menu reveals classic dishes like, Pain Bagna — a personal favorite — Boeuf Bourguignon, and Tarte Flambée Classique, I can’t help but be jealous and wish that Café de la Presse were opening in my own neighborhood Union Square rather than the one in San Francisco.
by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
September 3, 2005
1701 Octavia St
San Francisco, CA 94109
As a recent transplant from New York, I had been homesick for a real “ah!” meal, and Quince gave me my first “ah!” experience in California. Although the menu is organized in a kind of Italian style with starters followed by pasta followed by entrée, Quince’s influences are eclectic and the sensibility very Californian — this last comment, meant to be a sincere compliment. I didn’t find out until after my meal that the chef had worked at one point at Chez Panisse, which I have come to think of, based on everything I have heard and read, as the seminal California haute cuisine restaurant, combining Old World techniques and flavors with a commitment to fresh local ingredients grown by real people with names on real farms and an ability to recognize that, when it comes to food, sometimes simpler is better.
The first thing that really struck me at Quince was the amazing variety of ingredients you could assemble into just three courses. Duck, mushrooms, turnips, figs, black-eyed peas, sardines, squash blossoms, mortadella, artichokes, Dungeness crab, borage. In a very unpretentious way the menu felt like a gallery and each dish a picture. Better than any restaurant I’ve visited in recent memory, Quince managed to really give loving treatment to each ingredient and, even in the more involved items, not overdress or overwork them. The flavors and textures each have a brief moment of dominance on the tongue before giving way to the other ingredients. Also, I was grateful for the balance of each dish — nothing was too heavy or too light and there were always interesting pairings of flavors and textures. Case in point: the sardine crostata with fennel and thyme starter, which may just have been my favorite dish of the night, was a wonderful play of the rich softness of the crostata, the subtly salty unctuousness of the sardines and the tart crispness of the barely dressed microgreens that topped the dish. The contrasting characteristics of the components, instead of clashing, highlighted the other ingredients by providing a flavor and texture counterpoint.
Similarly, I thought the salad of California king salmon, lemon cucumber & mint starter also accomplished this feat. Salmon is probably my least favorite fish and has been that way for a very long time. Eating salmon feels like eating steak (in a bad way, if that makes sense), and I have difficulty understanding why so many restaurants insist on just making it heavier with preparations involving cooking in oil or dressing with some fat-based sauce. The choice of cucumber and mint in the cool soup-like dressing accompanying the salmon at Quince seemed to entirely balance out the natural richness of the fish to the point where I was enjoying my more-often-than-not ichthyological nemesis.
Moving on to the second course, all the homemade pastas we ordered were spectacular, but I have to be completely petty and make the random comment that the tomato sauce on the side of the Dungeness crab lasagnette with golden tomato and basil kind of bummed me out because the color (in the low light) tricked me into thinking that it was some concentrated saffron-flavored bouillabaisse-like butter- and cream-based sauce possibly containing crab roe. Instead, it was just tomatoes. (What can I say? It was a bummer.) My favorite pasta of the evening was the agnolotti dal plin. The pasta reminded me of tiny Turkish manti in a nutmeg-based butter sauce, vey light, and slightly sweet. The agnolotti were like perfectly textured little pillows.
After so many “ah!” dishes, our last courses of the evening were somewhat anticlimactic. The lamb and chicken entrees we ordered seemed just ordinary. They were not bad by any measure. In fact they were very expertly put together. They just seemed to lack that spark that all the previous dishes had had. I remain curious about the other entrees, however, and look forward to experiencing them.
In many ways, I think Quince is my ideal restaurant. Our server knew in refreshing detail, like someone who worked in the kitchen, not only the ingredients but the preparations of all the items on the menu, and the service was always polite and thoughtful. The restaurant is fancy enough for special occasions, but also comfortable enough to go to every week. The most important thing, however, is that I got the feeling that at Quince it’s really all about the food. All the other things are just packaging meant to allow for a less distracted contemplation of the core experience, which is simply some of the most thoughtfully designed food I have had in a long time. I will be going back to explore the menu and will be ordering for myself all those intriguing items that I couldn’t convince my friends to order and share during this last trip. Although finances will not let me make Quince a weekly destination, nonetheless, it will definitely be a place I will return to regularly.
by Jason Lee
I love food. More accurately, perhaps, I am in love with food. At the one extreme, food can be simply utilitarian. A Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip sandwich is food. It is caloric, surprisingly palatable, and, eaten regularly with a good multivitamin, could probably even sustain life for a middling period of time. It is also, however, too simple and, as a result, though maybe entirely deserving of love (having been a regular snack of my childhood, it has mine), perhaps not universally inspiring it. My closest friends and I live to eat (and, fortunately for all of us, are not averse to sharing). Food is not just sustenance — it is an object of adoration. It is a joy of color, aroma, texture and flavor. Often powerful, at times mysterious, and always wondrous, I am convinced it remains one of the most primal ways of connecting with and gaining an understanding of peoples, places and cultures. It is also a beautiful medium of communication. At its best, food can impart, in a most subtle and intimate way, information about a cook’s personality, history, philosophies, travels and moods. The best restaurants do not forget that food should communicate, and it is always my hope that part of what is conveyed be love — of the food, its history, how it is grown, the intricacies of its preparation and, perhaps most of all, the “ah!” moment of the person in the dining room after his or her first mouthful.
Jason is a dear eating buddy of mine who recently moved to the Bay Area. His obsession with food and his precision in technical explanations of obscure culinary knowledge is unparalleled. He is also a genuinely wonderful cook who enjoys concocting delicious meals when not working at his day job. — Celia Cheng
by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
September 3, 2005
2534 Mission St
San Francisco, CA 94110
After much deliberation on where to have brunch on Sunday, especially after a very mediocre, disappointing and expensive dim sum experience on Saturday, my eating entourage and I decided to try Foreign Cinema. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, considering that the restaurant shows foreign films on one of the outdoor courtyard walls while simultaneously serving dinner. Don’t get me wrong, since my three main passions are good food, design and film, but I just wasn’t sure it could be pulled off well. Some restaurants can’t make it on the merit of their cuisine and so they introduce gimmicks. However, in this case my apprehension was completely unfounded. Foreign Cinema offers fresh and delicious meals at reasonable fares and the restaurant setting is simply divine, indoor and out. The overall vision is well executed and definitely deserves to be commended.
Located in the Mission District, Foreign Cinema is unassuming from the street entrance — you walk through a long and dim concrete corridor to emerge at the outdoor patio that is bustling with life and the laughter of cheerful diners basking in the sunlight. I really believe that dining outdoors is one of the most pleasant delights. It certainly puts me in a good mood.
We did have to wait at the bar a little before we were seated, which gave us an opportunity to start drinking and check out the gorgeous indoor dining room. While the architectural features of the interior feels very industrial, the arrangement of tables, use of woods and the nice floral arrangements give it a warmth that is further complemented by the elegant fireplace. I would have been equally happy to dine indoors as out.
For starters, we ordered six half dozen oysters from the oyster bar: “Belon” Bestcott Bay, Beau Soleil, Effingham, Hog Island “Sweet Water,” Marin Atlantic, and Miyagi. The last three all being from Point Reyes, CA, I wanted to taste the difference. Alas, the Beau Soleil and Effingham were my favorites. And though these six were slightly brinier than the creamier oysters I prefer, they were all wonderfully fresh and delicious.
The highlight of my meal was definitely the “Fried eggs deglazed with balsamic, French rose potato and roasted garlic hash with gypsy peppers.” When I see key words on a menu like “fried eggs,” with “potato-garlic hash” I am instantly sold. Though the name is long, there is nothing complicated about the dish — it comes as it’s described and achieves perfection because of the juxtaposition and combination of ingredients that work so well together. The balanced flavors allow one to enjoy the potatoes as much as the eggs or balsamic vinegar.
Foreign Cinema’s bloody mary is spicy and potent, a good choice for BM lovers, but the few and not so interesting champagne/sparkling choices leave something to be desired.
The waiters/waitresses wear sunglasses, not as a point to be cool or snooty but because the courtyard is so bright. I found the service to be entirely pleasant.
There is also a small gallery space across the dining room that serves as a private dining space.
What can I say? Foreign films at dinner, good food, wonderful oyster bar, gallery, outdoor dining space, excellent brunch, and a casual atmosphere — Foreign Cinema seems to have it all.