Marlowe (San Francisco, CA)

Marlowe
330 Townsend St
San Francisco, CA 94107
Dining date: 12/22/11

exterior

Marlowe opened at the beginning of last year and has been a popular spot for its neighborhood bistro fare. Its consistent popularity has already led to another restaurant from the Marlowe team – Park Tavern, one of the bigger restaurant openings in SF this year. Marlowe is probably best known for its burger, often cited as one of the best in the city. It was also named one of the best new restaurants in 2010 by SF Chronicle critic Michael Bauer.

Each year for the last few, myself and fellow grandchildren take my grandmother out for her birthday. Not quite as ballin’ as my dad’s birthday dinner for her, but we put a lot of thought into it and always find something equally satisfying. Marlowe was the choice this year.

The menu is fairly focused, with a few options in various menu categories: appetizers, “pots,” snacks, soups/salads, mains and sides. We ordered a variety of appetizers/small plates as well as an entree each (plus one more burger for good measure).

Warm Deviled Egg aged provolone, pickled jalapeño & bacon

deviled eggs

Served warm, the eggs were complemented primarily by smoky, crispy bacon and a mild provolone. I didn’t really pick up any of the pickled jalapeno, but this was still a good bite or two.

Crispy Brussels Sprout Chips lemon & sea salt

brussels sprouts

Lightly crispy with smoky charred ends, these were quite tasty…though some pieces were a little oily. Because they were so thin, the leaves/chips quickly became soggy in any residual oil. Some lemon provided a nice touch of both citrus and acid.

We also ordered a few “pots” served with crostini/lettuce.

Warm Marinated Mussels & Monterey Calamari grilled country bread & green garlic aioli

calamari mussels

Duck Liver Mousse roasted Medjool dates, pickled mustard seeds & crostini

duck liver

Dungeness Crab & Rock Shrimp Louie gem lettuce, eggs mimosa & tabasco

crab shrimp louie

Of these three, I liked the crab and rock shrimp Louie best. The seafood and lettuce cups  felt light while having quite a bit of flavor, particularly with a splash of lemon or tabasco. I thought the mussels and calamari pot was difficult to eat on the crostini, with the small pieces continually falling off the toasted bread. The duck liver mousse was a good one, with the rich minerality playing well with the sweetness of the dates.

Between the six of us, we sampled three different entrees.

Grilled Niman Ranch Pork Chop spinach & ricotta bread pudding, prosciutto & parmesan cream

pork chop

My grandmother got this entree. Very juicy and quite flavorful, this was an excellent chop. A little bit of a smoky flavor was present too, adding an extra flavor profile to the pork.

Marlowe Burger caramelized onions, cheddar, bacon, horseradish aioli & fries

hamburger

burger

Ah, the much anticipated burger. The meat was cooked a nice medium-rare, though it wasn’t quite as thick as I anticipated. The meaty flavor was there, with a really good smoky char on both the meat and toasted bun. However, I thought there was too much bread (the bread:meat ratio was high) on an otherwise good burger. Overall, disappointing given expectations.

Certified Angus New York Steak Frites red wine- porcini jus

steak frites

A good steak, tender and flavorful. It was cooked right on point, and the red wine-porcini jus was quite delicious as well. The fries were the same ones that came with the burger – crispy yet fluffy, pretty good fries. Perfect for dipping in the jus. A simple dish; this was very satisfying.

TCHO Chocolate Cream Pie Graham cracker & chocolate cookie crust, cocoa nib, sea salt

chocolate

Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta Affogato Amaretto & lemon biscotti

affogato panna cotta

We were trying to save room for later, but a meal is not complete without dessert, right? We opted for these two choices, one was fine and one was very good. The chocolate cream pie had the expected chocolate flavor with some nice crumble textures. Nothing special. I thought the affogato panna cotta was more exciting, with the creamy panna cotta doused in a shot of espresso. The bitterness of the espresso countered the sweet vanilla panna cotta quite nicely – addicting!

Marlowe was good. I can’t say anything was special enough for me to return though. Of all of the dishes we ordered, the burger had the highest expectations and fell short. However, the other plates were executed fairly well with the pork chop being the standout entree. And the panna cotta affogato was memorable.

The second part of this evening was a meal at Nopa and an even better pork chop.

The French Laundry (Yountville, CA)

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
Dining date: 11/27/11 

FL blue door

Each year, my dad takes my grandmother and aunt out for their birthdays, usually in December. The food has always been good, with past years being at The Dining Room, Cyrus, Murray Circle, Quince and Masa’s. However, it’s never been this good. I scored a 6-person reservation on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, which turned out to be an ideal time for everyone to go. So, my grandmother, dad, mom, aunt, cousin and I took the short drive up to the Napa Valley. This would be the first trip for my cousin.

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve dined here, but everything felt very familiar. The restaurant has been one of my favorites for some time, and has a sort of sentimental value to me since first dining here seven and a half years ago (I still vividly remember parts of that meal). One thing that has definitely changed is the wine list – now via iPad!

Two 9-course tasting menus are offered daily, $270 each (inclusive of service) – the chef’s tasting menu and the tasting of vegetables. There are a number of options within the tasting menu, as well as various supplements, to tailor the meal to one’s desire. We all opted for the chef’s tasting menu, which can be found here.

clothespin napkin

FL menu

GOUGERES

gougeres

This was the first amuse bouche, and a constant among my four visits. Light and airy, they displayed a warm gruyere essence.

BLACK TRUFFLE CROQUETTE

truffle croquette

My mother claimed to be lactose intolerant so as to avoid the cheese course (she’s not). The thoughtful kitchen even substituted the gougere for this croquette. She seemed to be quite pleased with it.

SALMON CORNETS

salmon cornet

This was another staple amuse bouche – salmon tartare was complemented by a light creme fraiche and chives, while the cone added a delicate texture.

Bread service has typically been strong, featuring breads baked down the street at Bouchon Bakery. Two butters were available – an unsalted one from Andante Dairy in Petaluma, CA as well as a salted, extremely creamy butter from the Animal Farm in Orwell, Vermont (ha!).

bread butter

2007 Schramsberg, Blanc de Blancs “Cuvee French Laundry”

sparking wine

“OYSTERS AND  PEARLS” “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

oysters & pearls

The classic; it was as good as ever. The creamy sabayon was rich and played well with the salty caviar. Loved the soft, delicate oysters too. So good.

ROYAL OSSETRA CAVIAR Dungeness Crab, Salsify and Garden Blossoms (50.00 supplement)

ossetra caviar

My aunt opted for this supplement and enjoyed it.

VELOUTÉ OF ROASTED SUNCHOKES Royal Blenheim Apricot, French Laundry Garden Kale and Marcona Almonds

sunchoke veloute

veloute

MOULARD DUCK “FOIE GRAS AU TORCHON” Pickled Huckleberries, Candied Orange Zest, Belgian Endive and Chocolate Brioche (30.00 supplement)

foie

choc brioche

finishing salts

Instead of the sunchoke veloute, I opted for the foie gras supplement. I’m glad I did. The foie gras was rich, creamy and went well with the tart huckleberries. The chocolate brioche was wonderful too, served hot and just oozing chocolate. Three finishing salts were served alongside, which I thought was a bit of an overkill (but I liked it!).

SAUTÉED FILLET OF GULF COAST RED SNAPPER Hawaiian Hearts of Palm, Sultana Raisins, Young Ginger, Cilantro and “Sauce Japonaise”

snapper2

snapper

NANTUCKET BAY SCALLOPS Long of Naples Squash, Oyster Lettuce, Black Truffle and Pomegranate Reduction

scallops

I went for the red snapper in this choice. It was a perfectly cooked, moist and flaky fish with a slight sweetness from the raisins. Japanese accents were a nice touch too. I tried one of the scallops and they were equally well-executed, with a sweetness from the squash and pomegranate reduction.

2009 Hirsch “San Andreas Fault,” Pinot Noir

FL pinot

SWEET BUTTER-POACHED MAINE LOBSTER TAIL Bone Marrow, Roasted Romaine Lettuce, “Pommes Maxim’s” and Bordelaise Vinaigrette

lobster

lobster and bone marrow

An excellent piece of lobster tail. Cooked gently to just a rare/medium-rare temperature, leaving it very spongy – really nice texture. A bone marrow sauce (!) added a hearty depth of flavor, while some potato puree added some creamy potato to each bite. Wonderful.

A special supplement was available given it was white truffle season. I think I recently read somewhere that Keller stated his truffles were $2,600 per pound this season. Not cheap. For $150, these truffles from Alba could be shaved atop a risotto, tagliatelle or gnocchi. My dad went for the risotto.

CARNAROLI RISOTTO WITH WHITE TRUFFLES (150.00 supplement)

A plate of risotto came out accompanied by a wooden box.

risotto

white truffles

Inside the box were five incredibly aromatic white truffles of varying size; one was picked up and shaved tableside. What a sight!

shaving truffles

white truffle risotto

This dish seriously seemed like equal portions rice and truffle. Crazy. Expectantly so, it was a fantastic dish with a perfectly cooked, creamy al dente rice. The white truffle flavor was clear and upfront, elevating the plate to memorable heights.

The rest of us were served an extra dish as well.

WHITE TRUFFLE INFUSED CUSTARD

truffle custard

This was a very light custard with a subtle white truffle essence. A little bit of black truffle on top added more of the earthy flavor.

SALMON CREEK FARM PORK BELLY “Pain de Campagne,” Red Wine-Braised Cabbage, K&J Orchard Chestnut and Turnip “Mustarda”

pork belly

Rich and tender while not being overly fatty, this was a good piece of pork belly. There was a sweetness from the “mustarda” while the braised cabbage added a little body. A good dish, but it wasn’t quite as exciting as the previous few.

2007 Realm Cellars Farella Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon

cabernet

ELYSIAN FIELDS FARM “SELLE D’AGNEAU” Nantes Carrots, Cippolini Onions, Tardivo Radicchio and Black Walnut Purée

lamb

BROKEN ARROW RANCH VENISON Garnet Yams, Candy Cap Mushrooms, Pecans, Arugula and Bourbon-Maple Jus

venison

venison2

In this choice, I went with the venison. Both the tenderloin and loin cuts were served, and the meat was cooked quite well. Not too gamey at all, it was complemented by some sweet yams and peppery arugula. I tried some of the lamb too, and thought it some of the best I’ve had. Exceedingly tender and succulent, there was a ton of flavor in the meat. I found something in the radicchio to be overly acidic, though.

“NOCTURNES” Medjool Dates, Sicilian Pistachios and Burgundy Truffle “Blini”

cheese course

cheese truffles

A warm, creamy cheese was served with some blini, while Burgundy truffles were grated on tableside. This added a pretty subtle truffle essence to the grassy, funky cheese. Still, I’m really not a fan of the cheese course, this one included.

FRENCH LAUNDRY GARDEN SALAD

salad

My mother was served this salad and she loved it, particularly the tiny baby radishes (at center).

PUMPKIN SORBET Granola, Honey-Glazed Cranberries and White Truffle

pumpkin sorbet

This intermezzo was perfect for the season. I liked the pumpkin sorbet, along with the tangy cranberry sauce. The granola added some texture, though I was missing any white truffle flavor.

CARAMELIZED WHITE CHOCOLATE “NAMELAKA” Piedmont Hazelnuts, Toasted Oats and Sour Cherry Sorbet

white chocolate

“POMMES ANNA” Funnel Cake, “Pruneaux d’Agen,” Rum “Anglaise” and Salted Caramel Ice Cream

pommes anna

Between these two dessert options, I went for the first. The sweet chocolate was complemented by the sour cherry sorbet and actual pieces of cherries, while some hazelnuts added texture.

COFFEE & DOUGHTNUTS
CHOCOLATE COVERED MACADAMIA NUTS

coffee semifreddo

donut holes and macadamia

coffee and donuts

I was slightly disappointed to see the doughnuts had become just doughnut holes – they weren’t as moist or impressive as the last time I had them. The coffee semifreddo was still very good though, displaying a rich coffee flavor that went well with the doughnut holes. The chocolate covered macadamia nuts were just as good too, with their addicting crunch and wonderful chocolate-nutty flavors.

MIGNARDISES

chocolates

My grandmother wasn’t feeling well, so we took these home. I can’t remember which flavors I tried, but I liked the ones I had.

We also took home a bag of shortbread cookies, dusted with sugar. Delicious too!

shortbread bag

Even after four visits now, The French Laundry continues to be an exciting and delicious meal. The restaurant isn’t quite as avant garde as it used to be, and there aren’t any molecular gastronomy tricks at play; instead, the focus is clearly on excellent ingredients and perfect execution. To that end, The French Laundry excels.  There were a number of standout plates (oysters & pearls, snapper, lobster, risotto, lamb) with few lows, mostly on a relative basis. Service was, as usual, excellent though not without flaws including some miscommunication and imperfect timing on wines. Overall though, this was probably my best meal of 2011 so far. For what it’s worth, five in our party have been to Noma (sadly, everyone but me) and they all preferred this meal.

I thought it worth noting that my grandmother started to feel very sick soon after the pork belly course (and for a couple days afterward). I’m not sure if it was related to any of the food or alcohol, but it will probably prove just as memorable as the rest of the meal.

Yank Sing (San Francisco, CA)

Yank Sing
Rincon Center
101 Spear St
San Francisco, CA 94105
Dining date: 11/26/11

Somewhat surprisingly, I didn’t eat a whole lot of dim sum growing up (it’s a pretty regular occurrence nowadays). I’ve tried a limited number of dim sum spots in the city and unfortunately I can’t say I’ve found one I’ve really liked (Koi Palace is not in the city). However, I’ve heard from a number of people that the best is at Yank Sing, perhaps the most expensive dim sum restaurant I’ve been to. I’m talking $1.50 per shrimp dumpling (ha gow), $2 per Shanghai juicy dumpling (xiao long bao), and $5.40 for one slice of Peking duck. Goodness. I’ll admit I was in sticker shock.

Located in the Rincon Center, this location of Yank Sing is actually the second one. The restaurant itself is decent in size, but it’s huge when considering it spills out into the atrium of the building. Must fit hundreds. And it was packed (always a good sign!). Given the prices and sheer mass of people, this place must be making a killing.

atrium

ambiance

The service is cart-based, but ask for any menu item and someone will bring it out to you ASAP. And the servers are conversational in English. Probably the easiest, best service I’ve had in a dim sum place.

Nice teapot.

teapot

Shanghai Kurobuta Pork Dumpling

shanghai dunplings

Pretty good actually. Nice skin and juicy on the inside, these were quite tasty. Given the price, I’m glad it was kurobuta pork but honestly I didn’t notice a difference.

Shrimp Dumpling

shrimp dumpling

Pork Siu Mai

siu mai

Both were not bad. Nothing special but decent variations.

Peking Duck

peking duck

sliced peking duck

I thought the duck was quite tasty and the skin was crispy too. I liked that the bun was fluffy and warm. Worth $5.40? Not so sure about that.

Pork Spareribs

spareribs

A rather typical variation. The pork was pretty tender and the black bean sauce was a classic, yet tasty accompaniment.

Half of our party were vegetarians, so we got a selection of veggie dumplings too.

Mushroom Dumpling

mushroom dumpling

Spinach Dumpling

spinach dunpling

Chinese Broccoli

chinese broccoli

Mushroom Rice Noodle

mushroom rice noodle

I tried the mushroom rice noodle. The noodle was pretty well done, translucent and sticky. The mushrooms added their characteristic earthiness, but I thought it needed some soy poured over.

Honey Baked Seabass

sea bass

The fish was dense and  flaky but just a little bit overcooked. The sweet, gingery sauce was a good combination, but not worth $18.

Typical dessert-ish items came around on a cart and we opted for a few.

dessert cart

Tofu Soup

tofu soup

Egg Custard Tart

egg custard tart

Sesame Ball

sesame balls

These were all pretty good. The tofu was light, silky and sitting in a warm gingery soup. Both the egg custard tart and sesame balls were served pretty hot and were good variations.

Compared to what I’ve become accustomed to in Los Angeles, Yank Sing was good (not great) but rather egregiously priced. Hell, I might as well have dim sum at WP24 for those prices. Still, I’d have to say this may have been the best I’ve tried in San Francisco Nothing was bad, and a number of items were quite good. Plus, it’s one of the cleaner dim sum places I’ve been to and the service was excellent. I could see this being a very viable option for a special occasion or for a large party (they take reservations) that was too lazy to make the trip to Koi Palace. Just don’t park in the underground lot; the Rincon Center garage is the most difficult parking lot I have ever seen. The spaces are incredibly small and it’s difficult to even navigate without hitting anything. The irony still amuses me.

Delfina (San Francisco, CA)

Delfina
3621 18th St
San Francisco, CA 94110
Dining date: 11/26/11

delfina sign

It’s hard to believe that Delfina has been open for 13 years. It’s as popular as ever, still being a very busy restaurant and oft-difficult dining reservation. Its popularity as a quintessential neighborhood Italian restaurant has helped Craig and Anne Stoll open up two other concepts, equally as popular: Pizzeria Delfina and Locanda.

I first dined here a long time ago and don’t remember much. I remember it being crowded. I also remember having the spaghetti and thinking it was too al dente. That’s about it (hey, I was pretty young). I’ve been wanting to return, particularly for some hearty pastas and just to check out the local scene. At the last minute, I was scurrying for a reservation on the day after Thanksgiving and a Delfina spot popped up. Bingo!

delfina interior

Grilled Monterey Bay Calamari warm white bean salad

squid

We started with this appetizer. The squid was tender and really benefited from some lemon zest and a nice smoky char from the grill. The warm bean salad was a nice touch too, adding some creaminess and body to the dish.

Spaghetti plum tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and peperoncini

spaghetti

A good spaghetti, the noodles had a delectable chew while the sauce had a bold tomato flavor, slightly on the acidic side. It’s no Scarpetta spaghetti, but it was an excellent pasta.

Pappardelle pork sugo

pappardelle

Seeing this on the menu, it was a must-order. The pork helped to create a rich sauce that really went well with the pappardelle. I wanted just a little more sauce and some bigger pieces of meat though. The pasta was perfectly cooked, while a little bit of cheese added some extra richness. Tasty.

Paccheri all’ Amalfitana rock cod

rock cod pasta

The pasta was chewy and the sauce creamy, but thought the fish was kind of fishy. Also, I thought the fish and sauce could’ve been better incorporated; they just didn’t seem to come together as well as I expected.

Liberty Duck in Guazetto polenta Valsugana, cipollini

duck polenta

I thought this was a pretty hearty entrée with two duck legs smothered in a rich braising liquid. The meat was tender, though not particularly moist or dry. Really nice depth of flavors. The polenta was fairly dry on the outside making me wonder if it sat under a heat lamp for a little while; however, some of the polenta underneath its shell was light, creamy and delicious.

Black Pepper Buttermilk Panna Cotta barolo and huckleberries

panna cotta

Soft and delicate, the panna cotta had a great smooth consistency and was a nice ending to the meal. Personally though, I don’t like a lot of tart flavors and the buttermilk definitely came through. As it should. The huckleberries were a nice touch too.

The meal at Delfina was a pretty good one. The food had a warm and comforting feel to it and I could see why it’s still such a draw. The prices were quite reasonable, with the food coming out to under $50 per person. Overall it was pretty delicious and I’d love to try more, particularly the small plates and pastas.

Koi Palace (Daly City, CA)

Koi Palace
365 Gellert Blvd
Daly City, CA 94015
Dining date: 11/28/11

When I try to think of my favorite place for dim sum, a number of places come up. I really enjoy Sea Harbour, Elite and Lunasia in SoCal, but I think of only one in the Bay Area: Koi Palace. I’m not saying it’s the best in the Bay Area (I really haven’t tried nearly enough to make that sort of statement), but it’s a really good one. Heck, Jonathan Gold even recently said it might be the best HK-style restaurant in America.

My dad was craving Koi Palace so we dropped by on a Monday morning (there’s always lines on the weekend so a Monday was actually a very good time to go).  This would be my last meal in the Bay Area over the Thanksgiving weekend; given it’s on the way to SFO, it was an ideal stop.

koi palace

I’ve been to Koi Palace a number of times, located in Daly City just south of San Francisco. Most of the dim sum places in SF are cart-based; I prefer ordering from the menu. I think the food comes out fresher and allows for better planning…but you do lose out on the spontaneity of the carts. Koi Palace has a combination of both, a menu to order from while servers come around hawking other items. Perfect!

The restaurant’s stance on shark’s fin is quite clear. At the front entrance is an advertisement offering the fins for sale – $550/lb.

sharks fin

interior

Love this teapot setup! I’m not sure why I haven’t seen this elsewhere, but it’s such a practical idea to have a candle underneath keeping the tea warm.

teapot

Steamed Shrimp Dumpling

shrimp dumpling

These dumplings, or ha gow, are one of my standard-bearers at any dim sum restaurant. It’s so simple and easily comparable across restaurants. Kind of like a margherita pizza at a pizza place. The skin was translucent and slightly glutinous while the shrimp plump and moist. Passed the test!

Shrimp, Pork and Mushroom Dumpling

siu mai

These siu mai were good as well, served piping hot. Flavorful chunks of pork and shrimp made up the bulk of flavor.

Shrimp Rice Roll

shrimp rice noodle

shrimp rice noodle2

The noodle here was good, not great. It wasn’t quite as…sticky and glutinous as I was looking for, but the shrimp was spot on.

Deep Fried Crab Claw with Shrimp Paste

crab claw

These were fried to a nice crisp and I liked the moist shrimp filling. The small crab claw on the inside was slightly overcooked, but I find that’s true almost everywhere.

Shanghai Style Juicy Dumpling

shanghai dumplings

These were embarrassingly bad. The wrapper was mediocre – soggy and mushy, and the juice was leaking from many of them. The meaty interior wasn’t particularly memorable, either. Not sure what happened here.

Dried Scallop and Meat Sticky Rice, Lotus Leaf Wrap

lotus leaf rice

lotus leaf rice

A good lotus leaf rice dish, albeit nothing special.

Glutinous Dumpling with Pork

gluttinous pork dumpling

This is one of my dad’s favorite items. I liked the fried, sticky wrapping in tandem with the salty pork.

Tofu in Sweet Ginger Soup

tofu soup

Soft, silky tofu in a warm lightly sweetened gingery soup. Not bad.

Hand Roasted Suckling Pig

suckling pig2

suckling pig

This was outstanding. I’m not sure how they prepared this, but I think they removed the skin beforehand, skimmed off much of the fat, and crisped it up separately…then put it back together. What resulted was relatively lean pieces of really flavorful and moist pork with extremely crispy pieces of pork skin. Wow. Packed with a porky flavor and a very subtle sweetness (I think from some beans on the bottom), if there was one flaw it was that it was served lukewarm.

Sugar Egg Puff

beignets

These were served fresh and warm, and were light, airy and covered in sugar. The interior was so soft and moist while the outside was sweet and yielding. It was basically like a fresh sugar doughnut. A really nice way to end the meal. My mom had three.

I thought this was a good meal and typical of my past visits. It wasn’t perfect (I’m looking at you, xiao long bao), but everything was quite good with some very high ‘highs’ (the pork was phenomenal).  Everything was served rather hot and fresh (aside from the pork, intentionally) with rather clean flavors. Pretty tasty and satisfying. I’d have to say this is my favorite in the Bay Area from my somewhat limited experiences, and compares favorably to some of the best I’ve had in SoCal.

Commonwealth (San Francisco, CA)

Commonwealth
2224 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Dining date: 11/26/11

exterior

Given that I only spend a couple of weeks a year in San Francisco nowadays, I don’t return to restaurants as much as I’d like, opting instead to try as many new places as I can.

I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at Commonwealth last December…so much that I wanted to make a return trip during the Thanksgiving weekend. Opentable was not on my side having only a 5:30 reservation available, but I must’ve checked that site dozens of times during the course of the week and stumbled upon a 9pm slot (seats at the bar are available on a first-come basis, though). The timing would be perfect; it was just enough time to see USC take a 29-0 lead over UCLA at halftime.

Commonwealth offers an a la carte menu of plates ranging from $6 to $16 as well as a 6 course tasting at $65. It’s a great value, made even more impressive by the fact that $10 from each tasting menu goes straight to a local charity (currently, it’s Mission Graduates). Additionally, the restaurant was willing to add any a la carte items to our tasting, splitting it evenly into three equal portions at no extra charge. Effectively, extra courses were at most $5pp – awesome. We opted to tack on three extra courses to our tasting (it amounted to $77pp), and the kitchen was kind enough to add an additional one on the house.

housemade pear-star anise soda

Pear-star anise soda

This was a fun soda. Star anise was definitely front and center, but there was a subtle pear flavor as well.

potato chips with seaweed

seaweed potato chips

More exciting than a typical bread basket, these were tasty and addicting. The seaweed flavor was fairly subtle but you knew it was there, and each bite had a wonderful crunch.

grilled chicken tsukune, umeboshi, shiso, sushi rice cracker

grilled chicken tsukune, umeboshi, shiso, sushi rice cracker

This was one of the a la carte dishes. Basically meatballs, the chicken was moist (dry chicken meatballs are the worst!), and I tasted a little bit of lemon essence and spiciness. The rice cracker added some delicate texture. A nice start, for sure.

The kitchen then brought out two amuse bouche.

geoduck crudo

geoduck crudo

chestnut & celery root soup, chestnut creme fraiche

Chestnut and celery root soup w/ chestnut creme fraiche

The bite of geoduck was chewy, slightly fishy and smoky. The soup was very comforting with warm, earthy flavors and a lingering sweetness. A little bit of creme fraiche countered with a tart flavor that also added some richness.

foie gras bon bons, quince, tonka bean, Szechuan peppercorn
GRENACHE BLANC > Domaine Fontanel > ’99 Rivesaltes, France

foie gras bon bons, quince, tonka bean, Szechuan peppercorn

foie gras bon bons, quince, tonka bean, Szechuan peppercorn2

Amazing. The creamy foie gras was encapsulated in a shell of hardened chocolate. I thought this was a great combination of flavors and textures, totally resembling one of my favorite desserts. The quince was a nice touch as well with a refreshing, complementary sweetness. The grenache blanc pairing was one of the best I’ve had in recent memory.

Jerusalem artichoke, onions cooked in hay, chickweed, quinoa, quail egg
ALBANA > Tre Monti > ’10 Emilia Romagna, Italy

Jerusalem artichoke, onions cooked in hay, chickweed, quinoa, quail egg2

Jerusalem artichoke, onions cooked in hay, chickweed, quinoa, quail egg

The artichoke was prepared in two ways, a creamy heart portion and a fried, crispy portion. I thought both of these were tasty, while quinoa added some extra body and earthy tones. Texturally, this dish really intrigued. The quail egg was fun, providing a little more richness. This dish had a lot of components that really came together.

carrot, sprouting broccoli, yuba, puffed buckwheat, coconut milk, thai spices

carrot, sprouting broccoli, yuba, puffed buckwheat, coconut milk, thai spices

This dish (from the a la carte menu) was compliments of the kitchen. The carrots were clearly spotlighted, crunchy and sweet. I liked the extra texture of the crispy puffed buckwheat and I’ve been loving yuba lately.

scallop, pumpkin, vadouvan, black rice, nasturtium, nettle emulsion
GRILLO > Di Giovanna > ’09 Sicily, Italy

scallop, pumpkin, vadouvan, black rice, nasturtium, nettle emulsion

Again a duo of preparations for the main ingredient: a seared scallop was paired with dehydrated slivers. Interesting. The scallop was good, nicely seared, and I liked it in tandem with the sweet and creamy pumpkin. The black rice added some extra body while the dehydrated scallop was a nice touch – it tasted of the sea but had a chewy, almost leathery texture. Fun, but I probably won’t be craving a whole bag of them. Colorful presentation.

petrale sole, wrapped in feuille de brik, nicoise olive, celery root, grape, spinach, verjus

petrale sole, wrapped in feuille de brik, nicoise olive, celery root, grape, spinach, verjus2

petrale sole, wrapped in feuille de brik, nicoise olive, celery root, grape, spinach, verjus

I thought the fish was cooked well here, and the feuille de brik wrapping provided a very delicate texture (almost resembling crispy fish skin). I thought the olive filling may have been slightly overpowering though, as the fish’s flavor was pretty mild. I wasn’t sure I was going to, but I enjoyed the celery, grape and spinach flavors here.

quail, parsnip, chicories, beurre rouge, fig leaf, vanilla
CARIGNAN > Broc Cellars > ’10 Alexander Valley, California

quail, parsnip, chicories, beurre rouge, fig leaf, vanilla

I thought the quail had good flavor, tender and cooked well. Also, I liked the sweetness of the vanilla and parsnip in tandem with the bitter fig leaves. My dad thought the meat was slightly overdone though, and I did think one of my four roulades fell into this category (the other three were perfect). He also found a few pieces of bone/cartilage within his meat…yikes. Disconcertingly, I’ve been finding bones/shells in a surprising number of higher-end meals in SF lately (ahem Benu, Coi) and it’s just not fun.

coffee rubbed beef cheeks, salsify, pickled walnut, beet-horseradish gremolata

coffee rubbed beef cheeks, salsify, pickled walnut, beet-horseradish gremolata

This was our last savory course and another from the a la carte menu. The meat was expectantly very tender, and the coffee rub definitely came through, adding some depth. I didn’t think the salsify and beets were able to stand up to the richness of the beef and coffee flavors, but I didn’t mind too much.

green apple sorbet, honey-coriander granita

green apple sorbet

The sorbet was as advertised; the flavor of green apple was bright and clear. The slightly sweet, slightly herbal granita was a nice touch.

peanut butter semifreddo, chocolate ganache, frozen popcorn
TAWNY PORT > Quinta do Infantado > Douro, Portugal

peanut butter semifreddo, chocolate ganache, frozen popcorn

The peanut butter flavor was clearly upfront, and I enjoyed it with the chocolate and butterscotch. Classic flavor combinations. The frozen popcorn was interesting but I didn’t think it added much flavor.

bruleed marshmallow infused with douglas fir

Bruleed marshmallow w/ infused douglas fir

Lastly, we were served one more thing. A marshmallow was caramelized and poked with a twig, and a pine essence really came through. How seasonal!

The wine pairing was very reasonable at 5 pours for $30. The restaurant even refilled the glass a number of times for our supplemental courses. Of the pairings, the grenache blanc was easily my favorite, paired with the chocolate and creamy foie gras.

wine1wine2wine3wine4

My meal at Commonwealth was both interesting and delicious. In fact, it was one of the more interesting meals I’d had in some time. For some reason, I can’t think of anywhere in LA that has the same combination of such refined dining in a very casual atmosphere. I liked the way that chef Jason Fox would take the central ingredient and often prepare it in multiple ways on the plate.  Accompaniments were well thought-out but never took away from the focus of the dish. This was quite possibly my favorite sub-$100 meal of the year. Now, why doesn’t this restaurant have a Michelin star?

Service was very attentive; silverware was changed and the entire table wiped down after every single course – twelve times. Even when I’m pretty sure it didn’t need it. The French Laundry didn’t even do that.