Quince (SF) – A Tale of Four Meals
The paradox of this San Francisco-based blog, and author, is the lack of San Francisco restaurant reviews. When I meet a foodie in SF, we often talk two different languages. They might start espousing the glory of a Sunday brunch at Zuni, rattle of their 54 favorite ethnic restaurants, or recall the glory of their meal at The French Laundry; I admit Bay Area ignorance and talk of far-off lands. We are strangers passing in the night.
What are the reasons for this disconnect? Contrary to the adventures of this blog, I don’t eat out that often. I’ve been on a rigorous exercise regime where the quality and quantity of calories is important – protein, complex carbs, lots of salad, and more protein. I also refuse to play reservation games where I have to plan my life three years in advance for a trendy restaurant (unless I’m eating in France of course.) I very much prefer long meals, none of the appetizer/entree/dessert and you’re out business. After experiencing some of the best food in the world, I have less tolerance paying for sloppy and haphazard dishes. Rather than subject myself to a ton of meals that will disappoint me, I’d rather practice my cooking technique, disappoint myself, and save my money for the restaurants that truly strive for something.
And there are philosophical reasons – when was the last time you heard of a SF restaurant opening that had a shred of originality? Organic this, California cuisine that, a dab of fusion for good measure, small plates, etc – all of the cliches that wrap up the SF dining scene. Better-than-average Bay Area produce drives the restaurant scene but what’s the point of participating when I can procure ingredients of a similar quality? There is a dearth of chefs willing to take their cuisine past the ingredients; and, of these restaurants, Manresa is so far beyond the others, there’s hardly a reason to eat elsewhere except for the occassional French Laundry visit (though I have hopes for Marinus and Plumpjack Cafe.)
My first meal at Quince came off the heals of an excellent visit to Il Grano in Los Angeles. Il Grano is the model of a perfect casual restaurant I could frequent weekly if there ever was one – high-quality raw fish (crudo), home-grown veggies, and well done pasta. The Italian-loving-friends were in town, and while I refused to fight Quince for reservations, their concierge got the job done. I was in, I was excited, and I hoped it would live up to my high expectations.
I read pastas were the restaurants’s specialty so they shaped our menu. We started with some seafood-based starters – passable scallops and a cuttlefish in its own ink (a formula that always works with me) that was quite tasty. We then moved on to the pastas – Agnolotti dal pin (good), Raviolono with ricotta and egg (better), and Nettle gnocci (best.) We finished the meal with Mortadela (good), Devil’s Gulch rabbit, and 1-2 other meat dishes.
The meal was good but it failed to impress me. The pastas hinted at something special but ultimately failed to completely win me over. My general attitude was that I’d go again but, considering the difficulty I had in obtaining a reservation in the past, it wouldn’t be anytime soon. Of course, this opinion was at odds with others who loved the restaurant.
My Italian-eating-friends were coming to town for the Manresa/L’Arpege dinner. The husband, who has eaten with me in France and Spain, would argue Quince was a must-go weekly destination and I’d tell him “sure, if i could just call and go.” Sometimes we would get in heated arguments but then we’d order our 5th or 6th bottle of wine and peace would ensue. Gastroville heated the coals again by proclaiming Quince one of the Bay Area’s best (they also proclaimed Olivetto equal status and my Italian-eating-friend soon learned that was certainly not the case.)
So my friends ate at Quince, apparently ate quite a bit, loved it, and made an impression on the chef for their endurance feat. Fast-forward a few days later when, as chance would have it, Michael Tusk was sitting next to our table at the Larpege/Manresa dinner. He was quite friendly, enthusiastic in his own subdued way, and offered to cook for me if I were to visit again. Fair enough.
This second meal lived up to the chef’s promise. From the first course, it was clear this menu would have an attention to nuance and detail that it (or I) was lacking the first time. Every dish outdid the last. It clearly reminded me of my first Chez Panisse meal where the blank space was just as powerful as the color. Minimalism was the modus operandi – ingredients are kept to a minimum and sauces that do not drown. The highlights of that meal:
Lobster / Asparagus / Black Truffles – a very good to excellent dish. Perfectly cooked asparagus, cold sweet lobster, and a faint black truffles taste (they were the last of the season, and this was on the heels of my truffle trip.) The asparagus was the backbone – both its flavor and texture served as an arc from beginning to end. Simplicity at its finest.
Macaroni w/ Foie Gras sauce – as decadent and simple as it sounds. Some derivation can be found on a few Bay Area menus, like the sad Myth; but the pasta, not the sauce, made this dish. The sauce provided richness and some mouthfeel but it was the pasta that was near sublime.
This was the magic I had been missing from the Bay Area Italian scene, including my last meal at Chez Panisse (essentially an Italian restaurant), Rivoli, and Olivetto. This was a cuisine I could appreciate.
This was a larger group dinner with the Teich’s and a few other friends. Again, the chef offered to cook for us and we accepted. We had about 8 courses with nary a mis-step. There were exceptional dishes and the meal formed an arc of progression that very few succeed in accomplishing.
The interesting aspect of this meal was the use of fetishitc ingredients – single origin grain Italian spaghetti (with uni sauce) and hand-massaged octopus (which was exceedingly tender.) It’s hard to take such ingredients completely seriously, and we all had a chuckle, but their quality was exceptional. Tusk didn’t come out to talk that night but he was truly inspired – certainly one of the better meals of the year (2007) so far.
I couldn’t expect to top the third meal but I secretly wanted it to. Social hour was in full effect but the chef offered to cook again.
The meal started strong with 2 appetizers – squash blossoms filled with burrata cheese and fluke carpaccio. The squash blossoms were fried delicately, complemented with fava bean puree, and oozed the essence of spring. The carpaccio was cool and refreshing – summer on a plate – with a surprising textural quality thanks to green almonds, cucumer, and raw sunchokes.
The pastas came throughout the next few courses. The conchiglie w/ cauliflower puree, creme fraiche, egg, & herring caviar was near sublime – creamy yet faint; again, the pasta and not its accompaniments drove the dish. The rofie della casa with Genovese pesto (fetishistic?) was fragrant and simply a dish for the love of pasta; fortunately, the mushy shrimp were served on the edges of the plate (see below.) If Tusk wasn’t such a great cook, I’d argue that one should stick with my initial strategy from Meal One – pasta, pasta, and more pasta.
The seafood on this Sunday night was off. The hand-massaged octopus was watery and some shrimp far too mushy. Fortunately, the shrimp were accompaniments and didn’t affect the dish. A black bass dish was seemingly out of place with the entire Quince catalogue to date – strong flavors that overpowered the fish.
The meal ended with the Devil’s Gulch rabbit and Paine Farm squab – the same pedigree as similar dishes at Oliveto and French Laundry. I believe they are mainstays on the Quince menu and rightfully so – juicy and full of flavor. They let the meal end on a high note.
The full menu:
1. Squash Blossoms filled with burrata cheese & fava bean puree
2. Fluke carpaccio w/ green almonds, Willey Farm cucumber, raw sunchokes, & lemongrass
3. Warm “hand massaged” octopus salad w/ cicerchie puree, aceto balsamico tradizionale & olio verde extra virgin olive oil
4. Conchiglie w/ cauliflower puree, creme fraiche, egg, & herring caviar
5. Trofie della casa w/ Louisiana white shrimp & Genovese basil
6. Egg Tagliolini w/ Country Line Farm egg & shaved porcini mushroom
7. Black sea bass w/ caramelized fennel, garlic confit, & extra vecchio balsamico
8. Devil’s Gulch rabbit loin filled w/ borage omelette & San Daniele prosciutto, wild asparagus, & morel mushrooms
9. Paine Farm squab breast & stuffed leg w/ grappa roasted Frog Hollow Farm bing cherries & bintje potatoes
I’ve done an about-face – Quince is a legitimate Michelin 1-star restaurant that can reach true 2-star levels. It’s a shame it is grouped with restaurants like Rubicon, Range, Bouchon, Boulevard, and others in the SF 1-star class because it is clearly better – it is striving for much more. It has a soul that few other restaurants do. There is no cutting-edge technique; instead, you will find a refinement and attention to detail rarely found in American restaurants. And when the stars align, you might eat a magical meal.
Official Site: http://www.quincerestaurant.com/