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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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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
Nicole Krasinski
Address558 Sacramento St.
San Francisco, CA 94111
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.

Food Taste5.55.5

Food Presentation5.0
Number of Visits: 1
Ratings Explained


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A second visit is definitely in order... the scallop/mussel dish with sake sauce and african melons makes me fall out of my chair.

Agree with the decor statements, but I just like to close my eyes and suck the flavor out of everything...

I also had the halibut, and was very happy with it, perhaps it was an off night?

July 12, 2005 1:16 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Thanks for the comment, fettucini. I will definitely plan another visit to Rubicon, as the Hamachi appetizer and Artichoke/Mushroom entree were enough to convince me that the kitchen has a lot of talent. And even the dishes that I thought fell a bit short were still good (other than the Apricot Tarte Tatin). I'll be sure to check out the scallop/mussel dish, which sounds great.

July 12, 2005 8:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to Rubicon last year since I had seen it appear consistently in the top 20 of Zagat's. If I remember correctly, the food was average and definitely not close to a "top 20", but what still lingers in my mind to this day was the serivce. We were constantly ignored by our waitress... it was so bad that she began to take away our appetizer silverware and replaced it with our entree silverware assuming that we were finished with our appetizers - only one problem... we had not received our appetizers yet.. and it had already been 30 minutes since we ordered! That basically sums up the service - disorganized, slow, and be prepared to be ignored

April 09, 2008 4:08 PM  

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