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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Restaurant Review: Rubicon


When it first opened in 1994, Rubicon was considered by many to be in the upper-tier of the city’s fine dining destinations.   The dining room was always full, the food was well crafted and beautifully presented, and the restaurant had a definite “buzz.”   By the late 1990’s, however, establishments like The French Laundry, Gary Danko and Fleur de Lys had set new standards of excellence, effectively leaving many of the old guard far behind.   So, when I started hearing rave reviews about a young new chef at Rubicon with the potential to make the restaurant a contender once more, I was more than a little intrigued.

Stuart Brioza was named executive chef at the restaurant in April 2004, the same date that Nicole Krasinski – to whom Brioza is married – took over as pastry chef.   In January of this year, Brioza and Krasinski were both named by the San Francisco Chronicle as Rising Star Chefs for 2005, a distinction shared by only four others.   And two years ago, Brioza – while serving as executive chef at Tapawingo, a restaurant in northern Michigan – was selected as one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs for 2003.   With all of these accolades in mind, I was hopeful and cautiously excited when a friend and I recently sat down for a dinner at Rubicon.

Our overall experience, unfortunately, was a decidedly mixed one.   To be sure, there were glimmers of brilliance scattered throughout the evening, including in the food and in the service.   But the consistency that is needed for a
Chef Stuart Brioza
restaurant to compete at the highest levels was simply not there, and I couldn’t help but feel rather disappointed after all of the promising advance press.

I began my meal with the Sashimi of Smoked Hamachi (Taste: 8.5 / Presentation: 6.5) (Ratings Explained), which was outstanding.   The subtle smokiness of the delicate hamachi was amplified nicely by bits of salty bacon, with well-conceived counterpoints provided by the smooth creaminess of avocado slices and the pronounced sweetness of summer corn.   Despite the large number of competing flavors on the plate and the difficult challenge of balancing them properly, Brioza pulled it off masterfully.   The composed presentation of the hamachi itself was quite attractive, but the designs made on the plate with the accompanying sauces – a line across the diameter of the plate, with a circular puddle of sauce on one side of the line – seemed almost amateurish.
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There's more...
My dining companion’s appetizer was not nearly as successful as mine.   The Morel & Toasted Rye Soup (T:4.5 / P:4.0) began with a morel mushroom and cipollini onion “salsa” and a small piece of toasted bread covered with camembert cheese, all in the middle of an empty soup bowl.   A deep brown mushroom soup was then poured in, quickly engulfing the other ingredients.   The soup itself had an incredibly powerful mushroom taste, which then seemed to be further strengthened by the tanginess of the camembert cheese.   The overall effect may have been interesting for a single bite or two, but it was simply far too overwhelming for an entire bowl.   Adding some cream to the soup might go a long way toward softening and rounding out the flavors, and it would also give the soup greater visual appeal than is permitted by the dark-brown color that it currently possesses.

The entrees that we ordered were similarly uneven.   The Roasted Artichokes & Porcini Mushrooms (T:8.5 / P:6.5) had an amazing flavor, with white bean ravioli, spring onions, roasted artichokes, porcini mushrooms, and pepita crumbs.   The star ingredient here, however, was lemon verbena – which took the dish to another level by giving it a brightness that not only hit the palate immediately with each and every bite, but also lingered there long after.

The Cinnamon Skewered Alaskan Halibut (T:5.0 / P:6.5) was not nearly as impressive.   The concept sounded simultaneously unusual and enticing: a piece of halibut pierced with a cinnamon stick and then served with sweet onion, oxtail, cherries and toasted oats.   And even when the plate was placed before me , the intoxicating aromas suggested that the dish might yield something
Rubicon: At A Glance
ChefStuart Brioza
Pastry
Chef
Nicole Krasinski
Address558 Sacramento St.
San Francisco, CA 94111
Phone415.434.4100
ParkingStreet
Restaurant Website
spectacular.   It didn’t.   Not only was the halibut itself a bit overcooked, but it had no discernible cinnamon flavor – confirming my suspicion that the cinnamon stick protruding from the side of the fish might be little more than a gimmick.   Meanwhile, a rich brown sauce faintly flavored with honey and cinnamon sat to one side of the halibut, but it seemed more fitting as an accompaniment to a filet of beef than to a delicate white fish.   The oxtail, onion, cherry and oats combination was admittedly a pleasant surprise, with the different textures and flavors complementing each other well.   But the logic behind why this should share a plate with halibut still eludes me.

For dessert, Krasinski’s Blueberry Meringue Tart (T:8.0 / P:6.5) was excellent. Indeed, the recipe for this was selected for the “Last Bite” feature of Food & Wine Magazine’s July 2005 issue, and the accompanying picture played no small part in luring my friend and me back to Rubicon.   Flaky disks of pastry are layered with a compote made from fresh sweet blueberries and then topped with a browned peak of meringue, with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream served on the side.   The flavors here were simple, clean and delicious.   The Apricot Tarte Tatin (T:1.0 / P:4.0), on the other hand, was terrible.   The pastry was soggy and chewy, and the apricots had an incredibly harsh bitter taste to them.   Furthermore, the apricot-cardamom ice cream served on the side had partially melted by the time the dessert was brought to the table, and the portion that remained “solid” had a consistency more along the lines of whipped cream.   I cannot remember the last time that I was served such an unappealing dessert.

The theme of inconsistency was carried over into the service as well.   For example, shortly after we placed our order, it occurred to our server that my friend might be a vegetarian, because she had ordered the vegetarian entrée.   Accordingly, and out of an abundance of caution, the server returned to our table just to let us know that the mushroom soup includes chicken stock – demonstrating an admirable level of concern and courtesy.   Similarly, when we asked a waitress from a neighboring table if she could summon our server, the waitress kindly proceeded to help us herself.   And yet, that same waitress, upon later spotting an empty wine glass in front of me, spirited the glass away without asking if I would like another.   Instead, I had to wait until our regular server came back on her rounds – which seemed like an unusually long time.

The décor at Rubicon is an eclectic mix.   On the one hand, the white tablecloths, dark wood and solid tableware suggest aspirations to a certain elegance.   On the other hand, the exposed brick wall, casual-looking dining chairs, and wild multicolored blown-glass sculptures suggest just the opposite.   The combined effect is more casual-plus than elegant-minus.

It is worth pointing out that the impressions set forth here are based on only one visit.   It is possible that the kitchen was merely having a bad night when I was there or, for that matter, that Brioza and/or Krasinski were not even on duty that evening.   Accordingly, further visits to Rubicon may well cause my assessment to change.   Still, any restaurant that strives to be counted among the Bay Area’s best really cannot afford to have a “bad night,” particularly when there are so many other excellent establishments out there competing for diners’ dollars.   From that perspective, Rubicon has some way to go -- notwithstanding the promising signs from Brioza and Krasinski.


Rubicon
Food Taste5.55.5

Overall
Food Presentation5.0
Service6.0
Atmosphere4.5
Price$$$
Number of Visits: 1
Ratings Explained



Saturday, June 25, 2005

Any Given Saturday: The Farmers' Market at the SF Ferry Building


Every weekend when I visit the farmers' market at the San Francisco Ferry Building, I am reminded of how fortunate we are to live in the Bay Area.   To begin with, the building itself is populated by top-flight shops selling an incredible array of items – from kitchen supplies and gourmet olive oils to organic pastries and grass-fed
Santa Rosa Plums, Paredez Farms
beef, from freshly-caught seafood and artisanal chocolate to endless varieties of wine, cheese, bread and gelato. When you then add in the numerous restaurants and cafes offering tasty food for immediate consumption – Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, Hog Island Oyster Company, San Francisco Fish Company, and Slanted Door, just to name a few – it becomes difficult to think of any other place where one can find such a rich and abundant selection of food and food-related items under a single roof.

It does not, however, stop there.   The coup de grace is the legion of local farmers – each of whom has brought his or her own unique combination of fresh produce, sometimes further supplemented by products created from the same.   Many of these individuals have traveled from far-away
Rocambole Garlic, Hunter Orchards
farming communities, and much of the produce on display was picked from a tree or pulled from the ground either that very morning or, at worst, sometime during the previous day.   Here, again, the variety is amazing: berries, cherries, citrus, stone fruits, peppers, greens, onions, potatoes, peas, sprouts, herbs, flowers, meat, honey, cheese, oil, pasta, dips and bread – you name it, you can probably find it under one of the countless white tents that sprawl across the front, back, and side of the building.

Last, but certainly not least, are the people.   Thousands of Bay Area residents can be found milling about the stalls, coursing through the building, or seeking a quick or relaxed, simple or fancy, meal or snack at a café or restaurant.   The young, the old, singles, couples, families, friends – all are there on any given Saturday, taking in the sights, sounds, aromas, tastes and tactile sensations of this quintessentially San Francisco destination.   Some are professional chefs, some are gourmet home cooks, and others are still learning their way around a kitchen.  But everyone who is there understands, at a deep level, the true importance of procuring quality produce and delicious food, of supporting our local farmers, and of communing with other like-minded individuals from around the greater Bay Area.

It has often been said that San Francisco is a food town.   The next time you have an opportunity, pay a visit to the farmers’ market at the Ferry Building, and you will see the unmistakable evidence of this for yourself.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Food & Wine Magazine: America's Best New Chefs 2005


Each year, the editors of Food & Wine Magazine scour the United States in an effort to identify the country's best new chefs.   Only those who have less than five years of experience in charge of a kitchen are eligible, and the winners are identified after an extensive nomination and evaluation process.   The July issue of F&W has just come out, and the results are in.   Here, in alphabetical order, are the F&W Best New Chefs for 2005:


ChefRestaurantLocation
Tyson ColeUchiAustin, TX
Seth Bixby DaughertyCosmosMinneapolis, MN
Christophe EmeOrtolanLos Angeles, CA
Shea GallanteCruNew York, NY
Colby GarreltsBluestemKansas City, MO
Maria Hines Earth & OceanSeattle, WA
Daniel HummCampton PlaceSan Francisco, CA
Lachlan Mackinnon-PattersonFrascaBoulder, CO
Tony MawsCraigie Street BistrotCambridge, MA
Eric ZieboldCityzenWashington, DC



The sole award winner based in the Bay Area, Daniel Humm of Campton Place, has had a very impressive couple of years.   In August 2003, at the age of 26, Humm earned Campton Place a 3.5 star rating from Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s food critic.   As Bauer put it:

“The new chef, Daniel Humm, is a miracle worker.   In a sluggish economy that has created many headaches, Humm has challenged the status quo and lifted the bar with his contemporary brand of European cuisine.”
Now, I must note that Bauer’s reviews themselves are never beyond critique, as some of them appear to be driven by wholly extraneous influences or entirely irrelevant factors.   Nevertheless, Bauer gives out 3.5 stars relatively rarely, and the other local restaurants that currently enjoy the same rating include Gary Danko, The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton, Michael Mina, Terra, and Aqua.   Just being included in the company of such excellent chefs as Gary Danko, Ron Siegel, Michael Mina,
Chef Daniel Humm
Hiro Sone, Lissa Doumani and Laurent Manrique is an accomplishment, especially for somebody as young as Humm.

In February 2004, the Chronicle identified Humm as one of that year’s Rising Star Chefs, an honor bestowed on only four others.   Similarly, the James Beard Foundation nominated him for its Rising Star Chef of the Year award in both 2004 and 2005.   And while Humm did not walk away with the top prize of the competition in either year (Allison Vines-Rushing of Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar in NYC won in 2004, and Christoper Lee of Striped Bass in Philadelphia won in 2005), it is a testament to Humm’s talent just that he was nominated twice.

The F&W Best New Chefs award is therefore just the latest in a string of achievements for Humm, and an arguably important one at that.   After all, F&W has established a pretty good track record of recognizing individuals who have gone on to make significant contributions to the culinary arts.   For example, past Bay Area winners of the award include:   Thomas Keller (1988), Gary Danko (1989), Ron Siegel (1999), Hubert Keller (1988), Melissa Perello (2004), Hiro Sone (1991), Lissa Doumani (1991), Nancy Oakes (1993), Traci Des Jardins (1995), Gerald Hirigoyen (1994), Lance Dean Velasquez (1996), Craig Stoll (2001), Stuart Brioza (2003), Mark Sullivan (2002), and Marsha McBride (1997).   Needless to say, this is a veritable who’s who of our local chefs.

So, keep your eye on Chef Daniel Humm in the years to come, and congratulations to him - and the others - on being named as one of F&W’s Best New Chefs in America for 2005.


Saturday, June 18, 2005

Restaurant Review: Tartare


Update:  Tartare has closed. George Morrone, Executive Chef at the restaurant at the time of the below review, is now Executive Chef at Boca -- an Argentinean steakhouse located in Novato, California.

George Morrone is certainly no stranger to those familiar with fine cuisine in the Bay Area.   He first rose to fame in the early 90’s as executive chef at Aqua, where his uniquely creative approach to seafood propelled the restaurant into the upper echelons of San Francisco’s competitive dining market.   He achieved similar success when he subsequently opened Fifth Floor, the signature restaurant in the Hotel Palomar.   At both establishments, Morrone earned the highly coveted four-star rating from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Morrone’s latest venture is Tartare, which will celebrate its one year anniversary in July.   At Tartare, Morrone has carved out a unique niche in the Bay Area’s restaurant scene – serving food that often competes quite well
Chef George Morrone
with that offered by top-tier restaurants, but at prices that compete fairly well with those of upper-midrange restaurants.

The menu, not surprisingly, includes several different tartare appetizers – including beef, ostrich, hamachi, suzuki and ahi.   On each of my visits, however, I have been unable to resist George’s Ahi Tuna Tartare (Taste: 9.5 / Presentation: 7.5) (Ratings Explained).   Just a few bites of this dish, and you will instinctively understand why it became so famous when it was first unveiled at Aqua over a decade ago.   Morrone starts with perfectly-cut miniature cubes of ruby-red ahi, mixes in small bits of pears, chopped mint, and pine nuts, and then tosses the combination in a habanero-infused sesame oil.   After plating, the tartare is topped with a raw quail egg and delivered to the table.   Diners are advised to mix the tartare thoroughly before eating it with accompanying slices of thick, toasted brioche.

The overall flavor is truly outstanding.   The silky smooth tuna contrasts amazingly with the slight crunch of the pine nuts, while the sesame oil, quail egg and pear combine to yield a complex – and yet harmonious – taste sensation.   The infusion of habanero, meanwhile, is at precisely the right level – giving just enough kick to the dish without becoming overbearing.   And the brioche acts as a wonderful accompaniment.
Tartare: At A Glance
ChefGeorge Morrone
Pastry
Chef
Jake Godby
Address550 Washington St.
San Francisco, CA 94111
Phone415.434.3100
ParkingValet
Restaurant Website
  On my first several visits, the tartare was served in a square-shaped bowl having vertical edges – facilitating the task of stirring up the ingredients, and then lifting the tartare onto a fork.   On my recent visit, however, the tartare was mysteriously served in the middle of a flat plate – making these tasks considerably more difficult.   Nevertheless, this is a selection that – barring a serious aversion or allergy to tuna – you simply must order.

Another menu item that must not be missed is the Truffled Foie Gras Pasta (T:10.0 / P:6.5), available in both half- and full-order portions.   Morrone tosses freshly-made fettuccini in a sauce containing butter, cream, truffle and foie gras.   While the combination of just the last two ingredients alone would be enough to create an earthy, rich and utterly heady taste, the butter and cream round things out and make the overall sensation that much more luxurious.   In the end, this dish can only be characterized as pure and unadulterated decadence, one of the few items that I have had anywhere that truly attained perfection in flavor.   The presentation is fine, but it's difficult to do anything particularly impressive in plating a mound of fettuccini.   In sum, the overall message here should hopefully be clear: order this dish!
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There's more...
Other entrees also fare well, though none reaches the heights of the pasta.   Atlantic Cod “Tom Kha Kai” (T:8.0 / P:5.5) consists of tender pieces of white fish and vegetables, set in a thin layer of flavorful almond-milk broth that covers the surface of the plate.   Although the menu unappetizingly describes the broth as “sour and spicy,” the overall flavor is much more mild – almost akin to coconut milk.   Maine Diver Scallops (T:7.0 / P:7.0) are well cooked with a crisp, brown surface and are served with olive oil, cilantro and garlic.   A small number of Manila clams on the plate, while tasty, seem like a distraction from the rest of the flavors.   Nevertheless, the dish is satisfying.

Desserts are less reliable.   The Toasted Pistachio Souffle (T:5.5 / P:6.5) itself had a good flavor, but the accompanying nectarine and lemon sauces were too overpowering and clashed with each other as well.   A crème anglaise might have worked better.   The Lemon Meringue (T:4.5 / P:5.5) looked fine, but the flavors on the plate – including the interplay between the extra tart lemon and the bland yogurt sorbet on the side – were uninspired.   Only the Chocolate Cake and Bananas Foster (T:8.0 / P:8.0) really shined, with nicely caramelized banana slices, a dense chocolate cake, and an incredible bourbon ice cream harmonizing very well.

The dining room at Tartare is nicely appointed, leaving no trace of the cold and soulless décor that reigned when the site was occupied by the restaurant Elisabeth Daniel.   A large lattice canopy runs the length of the room, with orange hues and glows filling the surroundings.   Other colors in the room are equally warm, giving the space an elegant but cozy feel.   Some of the tables – particularly the two-tops – may be placed a bit too close together.   The small size of the room as a whole, however, may make this unavoidable.

Nearing its one-year mark, Tartare seems to have found a valuable place within San Francisco’s crowded restaurant market.   And while Tartare certainly was not created to become another Fifth Floor or Aqua, George Morrone's talents are clearly once again on display at this unique restaurant.


Tartare
Food Taste7.57.5

Overall
Food Presentation6.5
Service7.0
Atmosphere8.0
Price$$$
Number of Visits: 4
Ratings Explained



Saturday, June 11, 2005

Restaurant Reviews: Overview


It's no secret that the restaurant scene in the Bay Area is one of the most dynamic and exciting in the nation, constantly evolving in new directions, incorporating influences from around the globe, and infusing local sensibilities to arrive at a cuisine unlike any other.   It should come as little surprise, then, that a significant portion of this site will be devoted to critiquing and discussing dining establishments.

From time to time, I will post an assessment of a particular restaurant here on the front page.   I have long believed that the reviews done by most major publications suffer from one important flaw, and that is that the evaluation scales used (e.g., 1 to 4 stars, or 0 to 3 points) are so compressed as to make meaningful comparison between restaurants virtually impossible.   For example, a 1 to 4 star system often results in a large number of restaurants -- of wildly differing quality -- all being given 3 stars.   To avoid this, I will use a 10-point scale with 0.25 point increments.   Here is the basic significance of the numbers on my scale:

Ratings Key
9 - 10Spectacular
7 - 8Excellent
5 - 6Good
3 - 4Average
1 - 2Not Worth Revisiting

I will provide ratings in five categories: Food Taste, Food Presentation, Service, Atmosphere, and Overall.   I will also evaluate each restaurant in terms of price, using the following scale:

Price Key
$$$$$Over $125 per person
$$$$$100 to $125 per person
$$$$75 to $100 per person
$$$50 to $75 per person
$Less than $50 per person


You may notice immediately that both of the above keys are skewed in an upward direction.   That is, eight of the ten numerical scores on the ratings key correspond to average or better; and virtually all of the price key categories correspond to dollar amounts beyond what most of us spend on a typical meal.   The reason for this is that the reviews on this site will tend to focus on fine dining establishments, not places that are merely mediocre or restaurants at which one can grab a quick and casual meal.

In order to allow readers to attach the proper significance to each review, I will indicate the number of times that I have been to the restaurant using the format “Number of Visits: X.”   A review posted after several visits should obviously be accorded more weight than one submitted after a single visit.   Note that for present purposes, I will only count visits that were made during the tenure of the current chef and - unless otherwise noted - those that were made during the restaurant's dinner service.   Once I have been to a restaurant more than 15 times, I will stop providing a precise numerical count.

Finally, I will provide a brief narrative description of my experience at each restaurant.   I will discuss pertinent aspects of the atmosphere, service and food, and I will give each particular dish a numerical rating for taste and presentation, using the same 10-point scale described above.

Restaurant reviews are, in some sense, a subjective exercise.  What one person views as phenomenal, another may consider to be merely good.   Accordingly, I fully expect that others will disagree with my evaluations, and I certainly hope that everybody will feel free to contribute his or her thoughts and comments in this regard.   And over time, through the input of several voices, we can hopefully arrive at a collective consensus on just how well our local restaurants truly measure up.

A Few Words About Me


For those who are curious, let me take a moment to tell you a bit about myself.
I’m 39 years old, I live in San Francisco, and I’ve been in the Bay Area for the past 12 years.   By day, I work as an attorney in a large law office located in the heart of Silicon Valley.   In my limited free time, however, few things give me greater pleasure than fine dining, gourmet cooking and other such gastronomic pursuits.

I spent my formative years in the Midwest, at a time when the very notion of gourmet cuisine was a foreign concept reserved for the coasts.   When I moved to San Francisco in 1993, I was immediately struck by the breadth and depth of the city’s culinary offerings.   Every price range had a corresponding panoply of restaurants, and every conceivable ethnic cuisine was well represented.   Even more remarkably, a large number of establishments were competing at the highest levels - using fresh ingredients, innovative flavor combinations, and classical techniques to create exquisite food unlike anything I had ever tasted.   After visiting just a few of these restaurants, I was hooked.

In the years since I arrived, dining out has become a regular habit for me.   In any given year, I will likely end up visiting a good percentage of the restaurants in the Bay Area that serve truly outstanding cuisine.   Some are top-tier establishments with prices to match; others are more affordable spots that simply know how to prepare excellent food.   Yet, it's not only about dining out.   Another deeply-held passion of mine is creating dishes at home.   I cook for friends and family as often as my schedule will permit, even trying my hand at a multi-course “tasting menu” once or twice a year.   Maybe I'm just a glutton for punishment, but there's something about the grueling challenge of conquering a difficult recipe or successfully presenting a complex menu that I find thoroughly invigorating.

For purposes of interpreting the material on this site, you should know that there are few food items that I truly dislike and even fewer that I will not try.   In that sense, I am not particularly picky.   At the same time, it probably wouldn't be inaccurate to call me somewhat discriminating, in that I hate settling for food that is simply mediocre or average.   In a city like San Francisco, with great food at every price point, why should anyone?!

Finally, some closing words about my onscreen moniker.   After giving the issue considerable thought, I came to the conclusion that – at least for the time being – I should post under initials only.   One of my primary hopes for this site is to be able to provide unbiased information about the experience others can expect when patronizing various restaurants, shops, or food purveyors.   In order to do this, of course, I would like to maintain some semblance of anonymity as I interact with each of these players.   And in that regard, you should know that I have no affiliation with, or financial interest in, any of the restaurants, shops or purveyors that I review or mention on this blog.

With all of that said, those who are truly determined to find out my identity will probably be able to do so without too much difficulty.   And anybody who needs to contact me can do so at any time by simply emailing me at sf_gourmet@yahoo.com.

Welcome!


The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the country’s true epicurean centers.   The best restaurants, the freshest foods, and the most innovative chefs – all can be found right here in Northern California.   None of this would be possible, of course, without the most important ingredient of all: a populace that has a profound appreciation for, and sophistication about, fine dining in all of its forms.   Whether it’s in a four star restaurant, a neighborhood spot serving cutting edge cuisine, or a home kitchen, Bay Area residents thoroughly enjoy a great meal.

This site is intended to be a forum in which visitors can obtain information, exchange ideas, and offer opinions about all things culinary – whether it’s a spectacular restaurant, an outstanding dish, a talented chef, or a favorite recipe.   In the coming months, you will find a variety of posts on these and other topics here, and you are cordially invited to contribute your thoughts and comments as well.   It is my hope that together, we can build an online community of those who appreciate fine cuisine.

So, welcome – and enjoy!