Mastro’s Beverly Hills – 1/29/11

Mastro’s Steakhouse
246 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

If I were to make a list of places that I’m most often confronted with “you haven’t been there?!” this would be at the top of the list. I always hear about Mastro’s in the ‘best steak in LA’ debate along with CUT, which is probably one of my favorite restaurants in the city, let alone steakhouse. I do consider myself a bit of a “meat & potatoes” kind of guy, so this visit was long overdue.

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This was the darkest restaurant I’ve ever been to, by far. I thought this had a negative effect on the experience (not just due to picture-taking) because you couldn’t see the food very well at all. While eating the steaks, it was hard to distinguish fat/gristle from the meat. Thanks to the iPhone flashlight, I was able to take some passable pictures.

We started with an appetizer.

Ahi Tuna Tartare

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This tartare was made up of layers of tuna, avocado, and some kind of really crispy cracker. The tuna was good, but I was looking for more fish. Only about a third of the dish was tuna. I thought the extra-crispy crackers were a little too much texture.

Next came the steaks. All steaks are USDA Prime, 28-day wet-aged and served on 400-degree sizzling plates.

Bone-in Filet, 12 oz.

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The bone-in filet is the signature cut at Mastro’s. I don’t come across too many bone-in filets, so I was glad to see one here. Characteristically tender, this was a more flavorful tenderloin cut than I’m accustomed to – presumably because of the bone. Very good as far as filets go.

“Chef’s Cut” Ribeye Chop, 33 oz.

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This steak was a little disappointing. It was juicy and tender, but not extraordinarily so. I thought the quality of meat here actually paled in comparison to one of McCall’s dry aged steaks I cooked up a while ago.

Porterhouse, 24 oz.

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The porterhouse was a strong effort. I tried the strip loin portion and it was juicy and flavorful.

We ordered a couple of sides, served family style:

Lobster Mashed Potatoes

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The sides were served alongside the steaks, so this was what was left. One of the signature sides – the potatoes were creamy, smooth and delicious. However, I found the lobster to be way overcooked. I’ll stick with regular mashed potatoes next time.

Asparagus – Sauteed (pictured with steaks)

We wanted some type of vegetable to make the meal not so meat and carb-centric. The asparagus was simply sauteed in garlic and butter.

Warm Butter Cake

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The signature dessert. The interior of the cake was pretty moist, and the vanilla bean ice cream complimented it well. Parts of the exterior of the cake were a little dry though.

Chocolate Cake

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We told the server it was someone’s birthday, and they were nice enough to bring out this slice of cake. It was pretty moist with good chocolate flavor. Fairly standard, but not bad.

My assessment of Mastro’s was that it was good but not great. Admittedly, my expectations of Mastro’s were too high. It’s more casual and lounge-y than I had anticipated, and the level of service was unremakable. However, I came for some meat, and the steaks were cooked well – for the most part juicy, tender and flavorful. As chains go, I’d definitely rank it higher than Morton’s or Ruth’s Chris. Will I be back? Probably at some point – I have a lot of friends and co-workers that love this place. But for my money, I’d rather go to the steakhouse down the street, which I think is a “CUT” above (sorry, I had to say it!).

Out the Door – 1/10/10

Out the Door
2232 Bush Street
San Francisco, CA 94115

La Boulangerie
2325 Pine Street
San Francisco, CA 94115

For my last lunch meal in San Francisco, my mother and I were very indecisive about where to go. We talked through a number of places but finally picked out this one. Out the Door is the casual sibling of famed Vietnamese restaurant Slanted Door. This is their newest outpost in the up-and-coming Fillmore area.

The best way for me to describe Slanted Door/OTD is probably as “Vietnamese cuisine catered to the Americanized palate.” The menu is a mix of some of the typical dishes you’d find at an authentic Vietnamese restaurant, as well as some more modern creations. Chef Charles Phan does focus on using high quality ingredients including a number of local purveyors, so the prices are higher as well.

crispy imperial rolls, shrimp, pork, mint, rice vermicelli, peanuts

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I’ve had these rolls before and enjoyed them. Same story here – they were really crispy with a good filling of pork, cabbage, carrots and herbs.

beef phô, prather ranch eye of round, thai basil, thin rice noodles

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My mother was feeling like pho, so she got this bowl. I’m pretty confident you won’t find many bowls of pho with such high quality beef (Prather Ranch, in this case). The broth had a nice, deep flavor and the noodles were good as well. Definitely on the pricier side for a simple bowl of pho, but a really good one.

grilled lemongrass pork over vermicelli noodles, crispy imperial rolls

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I liked the tender, meaty chunks of pork here – they were grilled and slightly charred, giving them a little bit of smoky flavor as well. I liked the cool noodles, as well as the crispy carrots for some texture. The restaurant’s fish sauce is definitely less pungent than normal, which I liked here. And…more of those imperial rolls! Yum.

chicken porridge, rau ram, crispy shallots, black pepper

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This was the last dish we ordered. This was one of the best (okay, and most expensive) rice porridges I’ve had. It’s a pretty simple dish, but there were a number of different flavors within each scoop – the crispy shallots, the rau ram (like cilantro), and the tender chunks of chicken. It had the perfect amount of salt and the consistency was spot on.

For the flight back to LA, I picked up both “dessert” and “breakfast” for the next morning at one of my favorite bakeries in the city – La Boulangerie of the Bay Bread Co.. It’s just a block away from the restaurant.

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The breads are great here, but I really like the croissants. I picked up a chocolate and hazelnut chocolate croissant. Eaten fresh or warmed up quickly in the oven, these were delicious.

I was pretty happy with this meal at Out the Door. It definitely met, and probably exceeded expectations a little. The food was comforting, tasty and executed well. Yes, it’s a little more expensive for Vietnamese, but I thought it was worth it.

Masa’s – 12/29/10

Masa’s
648 Bush Street
San Francisco, CA 94108

I posted a little while ago about The House, where my cousins and I took my grandmother for her birthday. My father also organizes a birthday dinner for her (and my aunt), typically at a little bit more of a “special occasion” restaurant. Prior year examples have included The Dining Room, Cyrus, Murray Circle and Quince.

Masa’s has been in San Francisco for over 25 years; as a pioneer in the early fine dining scene, it helped launch the careers of numerous notable chefs. Past chefs have included Julian Serrano for 14 years (Picasso, Julian Serrano in Las Vegas), Ron Siegel (The Dining Room), and Richard Reddington (Redd, Yountville). Gregory Short, a French Laundry alumnus, currently mans the stoves, maintaining the restaurant’s one Michelin-starred rated food.

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Masa’s is the only restaurant in the city that requires jackets for men, a dress code I tend to greatly dislike. I understand that they’re trying to set the atmosphere, but the food better be damn good.  The main dining room is pretty nice – fresh pink roses are the centerpiece for each table.

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Crispy Escargot and Parmesan Gougeres

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We started with this amuse bouche from the kitchen. The escargot had a crispy texture and tender meat, but there wasn’t a whole lot of flavor.  The gougeres, however, had a great cheesy flavor contained in the light, airy dough.

Tuna Tartare lime segments, hearts of palm

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We actually had a second amuse here. I thought the lime wasn’t really ripe, and it overwhelmed the dish with its tartness. I couldn’t taste the tuna at all.

Dungeness Crab “Cannelloni” celeriac, tomato fondue, shellfish bisque, parmigiano-reggiano

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This was kind of an interesting dish. The ‘cannelloni’ wrapper was actually celery root, cooked to an al dente texture. The crab was sweet and tender, though I thought the parmesan wasn’t necessary.

Sauteed Filet of Pink Snapper fennel ‘cuit sous vide,’ golden chanterelle mushrooms, navel orange emulsion

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This snapper was first cooked sous vide then seared to a crisp.  It was moist with good flavor, though the chanterrelles were a little bit strong for the dish. I thought the fennel was a good accompaniment though.

Seared Ahi Tuna hard-poached quail egg, kizami wasabi, black lava salt, tamari pudding, aji amarillo

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This wasn’t a visually stunning piece of ahi – it almost looks too cooked. I didn’t order this and did not try it.

We supplemented our meal with a couple orders of this special winter dish.

White Truffle Risotto carnaroli rice, white truffles from Alba

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I haven’t had a white truffle risotto since The French Laundry’s amazing version.  This one paled in comparison. The cheese and onions were rather strong in the risotto, which was overly creamy to me. In addition, the white truffles weren’t very apparent in the rich risotto – a big disappointment.

Sauteed Breast of Paine Farms Squab “croquette de saucisse de pigeon,” melted leeks, celery root puree, perigord truffles, confit leg, squab sauce

squab 500x335 Masas   12/29/10

The squab was very tender, moist and quite delicious. If cooked well, it’s really hard to go wrong with squab.

Roasted Ribeye of Colorado Lamb ras el hanout spiced potato gnocchi, king trumpet mushrooms, roasted sweet turnips, lamb sauce

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The lamb was tender, flavorful and perfectly cooked. The sauce was very rich and tasty, and I thought the mushrooms and gnocchi both worked well here.

Pan Roasted Ribeye of American Wagyu Beef green leek and potato confit, vegetables “a la grecque,” aged sherry vinegar

wagyu 500x335 Masas   12/29/10

The beef here was surprisingly not too tender. It was fairly unremarkable and I don’t think it was cooked too well. The gray area (which tends to be dry and flavorless) took up too much of the meat and was clearly concentrated on one side (the right of the picture). An inexcusable preparation for such a high quality piece of meat.

Concord Grape Terrine tahitian vanilla panna cotta, grape gelee, golden raisin verjus, peanut butter powder, peanut shortbread

grape terrine 500x335 Masas   12/29/10

The grape terrine topped a vanilla panna cotta. It was very smooth, and I liked the vanilla-grape combination.

Chocolate-Caramel-Walnut Tart fleur de sel, chocolate-orange sauce, chocolate-walnut crumble, earl grey ice cream

chocolate1 500x335 Masas   12/29/10

Here we had a chewiness from the caramel, some crunch from walnuts, and decadent, rich chocolate flavor – all in a tart. Hard to go wrong with that. I really enjoyed the earl grey ice cream as well.

Masa’s was fairly disappointing. There were a few very good dishes (lamb, squab) and some pretty good (snapper, crab), but a number of disappointments as well (wagyu and risotto). It was especially disappointing that the risotto wasn’t good because it had so much potential…and were the most expensive things we ordered. I was a little shocked to find the execution of the menu to be so poor – given its Michelin starred status, I thought this would be a strength. I don’t know if this was an off-night, but I likely won’t be back to find out.

Wolvesmouth – 1/15/11

Wolvesmouth Underground Dining
Wolvesden – Various Locations

In my opinion, one of the most exciting dining trends in 2010 was the pop-up restaurant (think LudoBites and Test Kitchen). In a similar vein but yet, entirely different, is “underground dining” – the most notable of these in LA is Wolvesmouth. Wolvesmouth (aka Craig Thornton) is the chef behind this unique dining experience. He creates 10-15 course market-driven meals, constantly changing for each dinner party. The food is imaginative, thoughtful and artistic. Oh, and I’ve heard it’s delicious too.

Why underground? Well, it’s not a restaurant; it’s more like an organized dinner party. It’s invite-only (get on the mailing here). You don’t know where the location is until the night before. You don’t know what the menu is until you get there. You don’t even know who you’re dining with until you get there (well, I did know one person – Christina of food, je t’aime also came). For legal reasons, there is no set price to the menu. It’s cash donation-based, so you pay what you think is fair.

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Tonight’s dinner was set in a downtown loft. One of the things that immediately struck me was the intimacy of this meal. The dining table was just a few feet away from the kitchen which, by the way, was completely open. This led me to my next observation – this whole dinner would be created in a modest kitchen with four burners and one oven. A ton of organization and planning was necessary to put together these ten courses at a consistent pace.

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The affair is strictly BYOB (no corkage). Thinking that the alcohol would be wine heavy (it was heavily weighted toward reds), we opted to bring a selection of craft beers. Not knowing what the menu would be, I selected an array of beers: The Bruery Orchard White (Orange County), Ballast Point Sculpin IPA (San Diego), La Chouffe (Belgium), Stone Double Bastard Ale (San Diego), and Rogue Chocolate Stout (Oregon).

squash, cotija, crema, nopales, white onion

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We started with this soup. The squash was very sweet on its own, and I thought the tangy crema and sauteed white onions did a good job of tempering this.

Dungeness crab, meyer lemon, malt vinegar sabayon, old bay profiterole, mustard mizuna

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One thing that Chef Thornton had talked about, when serving this dish, was how you always wish there was more crab in your crab dish. He responded by giving a generous portion of Dungeness crab here, complemented with an “old bay” profiterole stuffed with a malt vinegar sabayon. Some meyer lemon added nice citrus notes to accompany the chunks of sweet crab. The malt vinegar was a good accompaniment to the crab as well, and I thought the profiterole was a fun “vessel” for it.

John Dory, swiss chard, sweet and sour shallot

6193615184 cc941ff32b Wolvesmouth   1/15/11

John Dory is a firmer fish, one that I usually don’t find as moist as other lighter white fish. This was an example here – I thought the fish was cooked well, but just wasn’t as moist as I would have liked. The sweet and sour shallot was really nice, and thought it matched well with the fish.

snails, wild mushrooms, black walnut, crouton, pine

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This dish had a bunch of components that could be found in a forest (perhaps by a wolf?). Three kinds of mushrooms (black trumpet, chanterelle, and hedgehog) were plated with snails, toast, walnuts and maple syrup. I’ve never had snails in such a “natural” state (it’s often slathered with garlic and butter), and they were actually quite mild in flavor on their own. The mushrooms added to the earthiness of the dish, but I thought the maple syrup really brought this together for the sweet/savory combination.

squid, 38-day aged steak tartare, creamed kimchi, Asian pear

6193615274 46786d456b Wolvesmouth   1/15/11

Excellent dish here. The squid was perfectly cooked, leaving it very tender. The creamed kimchi (kimchi cooked in some pureed kimchi and heavy cream) was a revelation – the creaminess tempered the spicy kimchi a little, so as not to overwhelm the mildly-flavored squid. The Asian pear was crucial in adding some fresh fruit flavors. I probably didn’t even need the steak tartare (it was seared rare then chopped up) for this dish to be successful.

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verjus, yuzu ice

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This next dish was a bit of a palate cleanser. I thought the yuzu and unripened grape juice was a good pairing, and I appreciated its lightness.

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veal tongue dumpling, trotter and bacon relish, black vinegar, cabbage

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This was probably my favorite dish of the night. When we talked about this dish, it sounded like an incredible amount of time and preparation for one dish (especially when it’s one person).  The pork trotter was soaked for four days in order to remove impurities. The veal tongue was braised a day ahead. The dumpling dough was made fresh – the dumplings were filled, steamed, then slightly boiled until done. The result? A delightfully chewy pasta and a rich, meaty filling. The relish lent an extra dimension of pork flavor, while the raw cabbage did a good job of cutting some of the richness. An excellent dish; I just wish there was more!

roasted chicken home style, glazed carrot

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Chef Thornton explained this dish as a fairly simple one that the home cook could make. This was a roast chicken (seasoned with salt in a hot oven) that was cut up in small chunks. The drippings were turned into a pan sauce, and then the chicken was tossed in this sauce and served. What separated this dish from other roast chickens was that he removed the skin immediately after roasting and tossed it back in the oven to crisp up. It resulted in a very nice crispy skin. The chicken was a little bit on the salty side for me, but was still quite good. Both the white and dark meat were moist, and the sauce really added that extra layer of flavor.

french toast ice cream

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This was pretty much as advertised. It was a french toast ice cream done very well. It was appropriately sweet with a hit of cinnamon spice; it totally tasted like french toast. Just as important was that it was served at an ideal temperature. It was a few degrees above frozen (almost slightly melted) so that the flavors were very apparent at that temperature. I really liked this one. We drank this with the Rogue Chocolate Stout…this would be perfect for a beer float.

chocolate panna cotta, chestnut purée, coffee shortbread, pear ice, coffee meringue, warm pear

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There were a number of components here. The flavors that stood out to me were the chocolate and pear, as well as some coffee with the shortbread. When I first tried the chocolate panna cotta and pear ice, I thought to myself, “Hmm…that’s interesting.” As I ate more and more of it, the flavors really started to meld well together. The chocolate flavor was kind of mild, so that it didn’t overwhelm the pear. The coffee shortbread was fantastic; it had a rich coffee flavor that went well with both the chocolate and pear.

We were given these puffed rice crispy treats to take home. I think we were the first group to get something to-go.

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These had a nice crunch, yet were still chewy – I enjoyed them the next day with a cup of green tea.

At the end of the meal, Chef Thornton talked about some of his inspiration behind the dishes and to answer any questions.

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This was one of my more memorable dining experiences in recent memory. The food was fun, inventive and, most importantly, tasted good.  I loved being able to watch all of the action in the kitchen; I’m still amazed at how Chef Thornton and his three assistants were able to put all of the dishes together so efficiently.

Listening to Chef Thornton talk about the dishes (how and why he did everything in that way) was fascinating to me. Everything was so meticulous and deliberate, you would think he’s been planning and refining this menu for months…which isn’t the case at all. His cooking finds a medium somewhere between what he wants to cook and what he thinks the diner wants to eat. Without any of the restrictions that having a restaurant brings with it, Chef Thornton is able to let his creativity run wild and keep the menu fresh and exciting.

Bar Agricole – 1/8/11

Bar Agricole
355 11th St
San Francisco, CA 94103

window sign 500x335 Bar Agricole   1/8/11

I’ve been curious about Bar Agricole for a little while. Opened in August, much of the hype was around the fresh, artisanal cocktails. I wondered – how about the food? It’s called a ‘bar,’ so it sounds like the emphasis is on drinks first, food second. However, a lot has been said about the food as well. Food critic Michael Bauer just named it one of the 11 best new restaurants of 2010. Given my newfound appreciation for cocktail pairings (fostered at Los Angeles’ Test Kitchen), this was a must-try place on my list.

It took me a while to notice it, but the napkins are actually denim. Soft denim. Weird.

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Tequila Cocktail with sweet vermouth, stonefruit bitters and orange

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We started with this small cocktail compliments of the bar. It had a strong citrus and peach nose, and actually went down rather smooth with a pretty strong orange flavor.

Moonraker Cocktail with brandy, peach whiskey, cocchi americano and absinthe

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This cocktail had a strong caramel flavor; slightly sweet, yet slightly savory too.

Ti Punch with white agricole and lime zest

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The punch had a noticeable lime flavor and an interesting sweet/bitter interplay.

Grilled squid with meyer lemon, potatoes and cilantro

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The squid was cooked well, yielding tender and rather meaty pieces of squid. The meyer lemon was instrumental in adding a little bit of citrus and acidity to accompany the squid, as well as the savory potatoes. Yum.

Dungeness crab with farro, dandelion greens and chili

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The farro had a really nice chew to them – perfectly cooked. The crab chunks varied in size, and the smaller pieces were rather overwhelmed in the farro. However, when the ratios were correct, this was a delicious bite. A little heat from the chili and some extra body from the greens rounded out the dish.

Spaghetti alla puttanesca with a meatball

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Next was this rather ordinary looking spaghetti. However, this was a very good pasta. The pasta was al dente with a sweet and tangy tomato sauce. The meatball was moist and had some good fresh herb flavor; this was a surprisingly strong pasta, especially after having some good ones for lunch at Cotogna.

Long Rhum Buck with ginger and lime

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This next cocktail was probably my favorite of the night. Ginger and lime flavors were both evident, and worked very well together.

Wood oven roasted pork chop with savoy cabbage and scarlet turnips

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The pork chop was cooked to a medium temperature. There wasn’t as much of a sear as I would’ve liked, but we still have a lot of food flavor. The pork chop was pretty juicy too, and I liked the savoy cabbage to go along with it.

Chicken al mattone with chickpeas and purple carrots

chicken 500x335 Bar Agricole   1/8/11

We were thoroughly enjoying the food, so we ordered one more entree. The chicken was cooked okay – it wasn’t dry but not that moist. However, the skin was nice and crispy, and the chickpeas and carrots combined for a little bit of sweetness and earthiness.

For dessert, we opted to head out to my favorite ice cream shop anywhere. It was about 10:30pm and 40 degrees outside – still, the line was out the door. The honey lavender at Bi-Rite Creamery is so good.

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I was impressed with the food at Bar Agricole. This is in some part due to the level of expectations (I was cautiously optimistic going in), but the food here really is quite good. And the cocktails? I had high expectations and they did not disappoint. I expect Bar Agricole to remain a popular spot for the foreseeable future, drawing in both cocktail-seekers and foodies.

Cotogna – 1/8/11

Cotogna
490 Pacific St
San Francisco, CA 94133

exterior3 500x335 Cotogna   1/8/11

Cotogna is Michelin-starred Quince’s sister restaurant next door, opened in November. Serving the same type of rustic Italian food, Cotogna is a much more accessible way to sample some of Michael Tusk’s food. The restaurant just started Saturday lunch service a couple of weeks ago; given that I was in town for the weekend, this would be a perfect opportunity to drop by. I’m a big fan of pastas in general, so our menu choices tended to lean towards these dishes.

Tagliolini with dungeness crab

tagliolini 500x335 Cotogna   1/8/11

This was the first pasta we tried. All of the pastas we sampled were cooked a perfect al dente, lending a nice chew with each bite. The sauce was richer than I anticipated; I could have used a little bit of acidity or lemon zest.  Still very good though. Large chunks of sweet crab meat were all over. An excellent pasta.

Farm egg raviolo with brown butter

farm egg raviolo 500x335 Cotogna   1/8/11

The filling of this ravioli was a creamy, cheesy mixture. The runny egg on top, in tandem with the nuttiness of the browned butter, made a rich and satisfying sauce.

Lamb pappardelle cooked in the wood oven

lamb pappardelle 500x335 Cotogna   1/8/11

The first thing I noticed about this pasta was the meaty chunks of lamb dispersed throughout. Tender and flavorful, these were excellent. The pappardelle was good, but I was missing a little bit more of a ragu; this felt a little too much like meat and noodles, without the sauce to bring it together.

Pizza with wild nettle, egg & pecorino

pizza 500x335 Cotogna   1/8/11

The last savory item we tried was this pizza. I’ve been eating a lot of pizza in San Francisco over the last couple of months (probably too much). Compared to some of those, I thought this was just okay, but really it’s a pretty solid pizza. The wild nettle provided a strong vegetal quality to the pizza, while the egg added a really nice richness to it. I probably could’ve used two eggs on this pizza, as I thought this was the difference-maker.

Bonet with caramel & amaretti crumble

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Lastly, here we had dessert. A bonet is kind of like a flan – a smooth custard. The almond flavor of the amaretti crumble, in combination with the caramel, was quite good. The amaretti crumble had a sort of macaron texture, providing a mild chew as well. Served cool, I thought this was a nice way to end the meal.

My meal at Cotogna was very satisfying – I’d say it met expectations. I was a little picky on the pastas, and that’s because Quince serves some of the best in the city. Cotogna isn’t quite at that level, but it presents a much more reasonably-priced way to try some of this hearty Italian fare. I would return, but not before returning to Flour+Water.