Commonwealth – 12/28/10

Commonwealth
2224 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

exterior

In my opinion, one of the most exciting dining trends is chefs cooking serious fine dining in reasonably-priced, casual environments. These chefs are focusing on putting good food on the table – that’s what everyone’s there for; and, because they’re cutting out the expensive decor and extra waitstaff, the prices are very reasonable.

Commonwealth opened in August and immediately became a hot restaurant in San Francisco. SF Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer said about the food: “what lands at the table could have come from the playbook of the four-star Manresa or Coi.” Those were some pretty bold words – and Commonwealth is less than half the cost of either of those two.

So, when I was able to get a reservation for 2 on a (very) stormy evening, my mother and I ventured out to try this cuisine. We opted for the six course tasting menu which is priced at $60, with $10 of each menu going to a rotating charity (Meals on Wheels, in this case).

Instead of bread, Commonwealth serves these potato chips with seaweed.

chips

They were normal potato chips (think Lay’s) with just a little bit of seaweed in them. Unique.

Dungeness Crab, green apple gel, Jerusalem artichoke, tarragon

crab

I would have liked the tender, sweet chunks of crab on their own. Add to it that it was paired with the acidity of the pickled sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) and creme fraiche, and had a little bit of herbaceous complement of the tarragon, and this was a nice first course.

salt cured foie gras, umeboshi, seaweed brioche

foie

I really liked this dish. The foie gras was delicious – rich and creamy as a spread to go with this wonderful seaweed brioche. Toasted to a crisp, the subtle sea flavor of the seaweed brioche went together nicely with the foie gras.

kabocha pumpkin, black kale, yuba, broccolini, coconut milk, peanut

pumpkin

This was my mother’s favorite dish. The ingredient list was very unusual; I was wondering how everything would go together. Even though there was no meat in this dish, it had a savory feel to it. The pumpkin and broccolini were cooked to an al dente texture, contrasting the tender, squishy yuba (bean curd). I thought the coconut milk foam was an interesting touch too. The flavors melded pretty well together.

sweetbreads, chestnut veloute, celery, asian pear, truffle cream

sweetbreads1

sweetbreads2

I am a fan of sweetbreads, and these were no exception. They were fried, giving them a crispy exterior and a soft, rich interior. The celery added a little bit of crunch, while the chestnut veloute added a little bit of richness and sweetness.

quince-rooibos sorbet, vanilla soda

sorbet

This was a bit of a palate cleanser. The quince flavor was definitely front and center, and the sorbet had a nice richness to it as well.

cinnamon mille-feuille, cardamom marshmallow, burnt honey ice cream

mille feuille

Lastly, we had a deconstructed mille-feuille. The layers consisted of, from left to right, cinnamon cookie, chocolate ganache, cinnamon cookie and caramelized cardamom marshmallow. I thought this was a pretty cool presentation and delicious too. Putting them together was kind of like a s’more, and the burnt honey ice cream was a nice accompaniment.

I was impressed with this meal; I think it was the strongest of my week-long San Francisco stay. The menu was fun, inventive and executed well. Chef Jason Fox successfully melded together flavors that aren’t commonly seen on the same plate. The fact that he can put a menu like this together for $60 ($10 goes to charity), with a la carte dishes all being $15 and under – it’s no wonder this has been such a popular spot in the city.

Luce – 12/27/10

Luce
InterContinental Hotel
888 Howard St
San Francisco, CA 94103

One of the chefs I was most highly anticipating at Test Kitchen was Dominique Crenn. Unfortunately, her sole Dec. 5th appearance conflicted with the finale of LudoBites 6.0, which is where I ended up dining. However, I stumbled upon a happy coincidence – BlackboardEats had a 30%-off promotion to Luce (where she is executive chef) just as I would be in town. Score!

Luce was named as one of the best new restaurants in America by Esquire when it opened in 2008, and first garnered a Michelin star in the 2010 guide (which it retained in 2011). With a victory over Michael Symon on Iron Chef America, the buzz surrounding Crenn has never been greater. As a result, she’s opening up her own restaurant (Atelier Crenn) in mid-January, leaving her position at Luce in doubt.

This may be one of the last meals Luce serves with Crenn as executive chef, and it was a strong one. We started with an amuse from the kitchen.

Lobster, Citrus, Beets

I enjoyed the slightly tart citrus (clementines and grapefruit) paired with the sweet lobster – promising start to the meal.

No tasting menus are offered on Sundays or Mondays (something I didn’t see publicized anywhere, not even on the menu), so we opted for a selection from the a la carte menu.

Abalone, Pork Belly, Yuzu Kosho and Enoki

The abalone was cooked perfectly, leaving it quite tender. The pork belly was pretty lean (which I like), yet tender with a crispy exterior. I enjoyed the pork-abalone combination. The broth, with yuzu kosho and enoki mushrooms, was just…in a word…addicting. Excellent dish.

Black Ink Trofiette “Carbonara,” Baby Squid, Smoked Pancetta, Egg

I found this dish to be strong as well. The al dente pasta was combined with tender calamari, the meatiness and smokiness of pancetta, and the richness of an egg. We were instructed to stir everything together – the result was a layering of distinctive and delicious flavors.

Lobster, Heirloom Carrots, Fennel, Cumin, Quinoa and Uni

The lobster was cooked well, and I enjoyed the fennel’s complementary flavor. The quinoa was executed well, and served as a nice accompaniment.

Venison Mosaic, Fall Vegetable, Coffee and Grains

The venison was cooked sous vide yielding a very tender piece of meat. The mosaic of daikon and beets was a nice presentation, though I didn’t think it added a whole lot of flavor. However, the bulgur salad and coffee did add a lot of flavor – yes, coffee. I thought the coffee-venison combination was pretty bold and worked well.

Chocolate Semifreddo, Raspberries, Hazelnuts

This was the classic chocolate and raspberry combination. The semifreddo was smooth and creamy with a good chocolate flavor. I didn’t think this was outstanding really, but was a little bit of a letdown considering the strength of the previous courses.

Coconut, Mango Sorbet

This was a really light dessert, which I appreciated. The coconut was like snow – light and airy, and the coconut and mango flavors were both evident and paired well.

I thought this was a pretty strong meal. The desserts were just okay for me, but the appetizers and entrees were very good. The restaurant was surprisingly rather empty on this night; it’s unfortunate that more people aren’t enjoying this cuisine. The restaurant will undoubtedly change as Crenn transitions to her new project (whether she stays at Luce or not), but I’ll be interested to see what she’ll be cooking up there.

Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge – 12/19/10

Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge
Orange County Performing Arts Center
615 Town Center Dr
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

I tend to think of Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge as a sort of “Patina of Orange County.” The Patina Restaurant Group runs the gamut between fast casual and fine dining, and both Leatherby’s and Patina represent the latter. Plus, they both occupy a corner of large concert halls (in this case, the OC Performing Arts Center). Leatherby’s occupies the bottom left in the picture below of the stunning concert hall.

I’ve been to Leatherby’s once over a year ago and was unimpressed. With a new manager and new chef (Ross Pangilinan), this promised to be a new restaurant; thus, I obliged when I was invited to come try the new menu.

Two tasting menus were prepared – one for me and one for vegetarian Angie.

Heirloom Tomatoes burrata and a tomato foam

Japanese Hamachi seared with seven flavor chili pepper, avocado sorbet, green apple, jicama, ice plant, ponzu, Filipino pink salt

I thought the hamachi dish was one of the highlights. The textures of the jicama and green apple meshed well with the tender fish, and the avocado sorbet was very nice. The sorbet was not overpowering at all, and had a clean, fresh flavor. I thought it really went well with the hamachi.

Butternut Squash Soup macchiato essence

Next up was this seasonal soup. The butternut squash flavor was mildly sweet, countered by a slight bitterness from the macchiato foam. I thought that the butternut squash and subtle coffee flavors worked pretty well together. Perfect for a rainy evening.

House Made Fettuccine white wine Parmesan sauce, roasted mushrooms, shaved black truffles

Next we had this fresh pasta dish. The pasta was a perfect al dente texture, and the alfredo-like sauce had a good buttery, cheesy flavor. To top it all off, the earthiness of the mushrooms and black truffles added more complexity and depth of flavor.

Vegetarian Risotto market vegetables

Beef Short Rib, Viking Village Sea Scallop raclette potatoes, mushroom red wine sauce

Next was a bit of a surf-and-turf combination. First of all, the scallop was huge! It was a little undercooked for my liking, but I thought it had a nice sear. Really meaty, which I liked. The short rib was very tender and had great flavor, and its richness contrasted the light, clean flavors of the scallop.

Cheese Plate selection of imported and domestic cheeses, dried fruit and nut bread, honeycomb, chutney, candied nuts

Any regular readers would know I’m really not a fan of the cheese course. Of these, I probably liked the triple cream camembert most (second from left). Kind of brie-like with a soft, creamy texture. Also, the fresh fig was very good!

Chocolate Symphony opera cake, flourless chocolate cake, crunch bar

This was a trio of chocolate desserts (three is better than one, right?); from left to right: opera cake, molten chocolate cake, crunch bar. All three of these were quite good. I actually liked the smooth, moist opera cake most.

Panna Cotta vanilla bean, pistachio

Lastly we had a couple of panna cottas. These were a little more dense than I preferred, but the flavors were spot on. Fresh berries were a nice touch, and I especially liked the nutty brittle accompaniment, which added good nutty flavor and texture.

The wine pairings, from right to left.

I was pretty pleased with this meal – it was easily one of the strongest I’ve had in Orange County.  I think more people need to give the restaurant a chance (at the time of writing, there have only been 42 Yelp reviews). Its yet to really draw in customers outside its primary target of concert patrons, but with more attention, I think this could easily be one of the top fine dining establishments in the area.

Note: This was a sponsored dinner.

Wayfare Tavern – 11/29/10

Wayfare Tavern
558 Sacramento St
San Francisco, CA 94111

Wayfare Tavern is Food Network star Tyler Florence’s first restaurant – opened in June. Florence has been on Food Network for a while, and the only restaurant I remember him being associated with is Applebee’s. Honestly, that didn’t inspire too much confidence. I do enjoy the show Tyler’s Ultimate on occasion, so I was interested in trying this place out. That, and I’ve generally read pretty strong reviews of the place.

My mother and I came in for a weekday lunch stop. We were first served these popovers. Light and airy, with a crispy exterior, they had a subtle cheese flavor. Quite nice.

POUTINE braised short rib, French fried potato, truffle Jack cheese, veal jus

We started off with the poutine – always a heavy appetizer. The fries were nice and crispy, but I thought there wasn’t enough meat. There was one large chunk, and smaller pieces spread throughout, but I felt most of my bites were just the fries and cheese. I liked the addition of the black truffles, though scant. When I could get a bite of fries, meat, cheese and truffles altogether – this was really good.

SEARED WILD ALASKAN SALMON mustard braised brussels sprouts, chanterelle mushrooms, ham hock, smoked honey

I thought it was interesting that they cut this into small chunks before cooking it instead of serving a larger fillet. It was nicely cooked and the addition of the chanterelles was a key component, adding an extra earthy flavor. I liked that the skin was crisped up into something like a chip! The brussels sprouts were tasty – tender and well-seasoned.

POTATO PUREE shaved truffles

We ordered this one side. The potatoes were very smooth and creamy – nothing exceptional, just a good plate of mashed potatoes. Similar to the poutine, the truffles were primarily an aesthetic feature; there weren’t a lot and their flavors were not really evident in this dish.

ORGANIC FRIED CHICKEN buttermilk brine, roasted garlic, crisp woody herbs, lemon

This has to be Wayfare Tavern’s most popular dish. It’s a generous portion of a half-chicken cut up. I thought it was pretty good – the batter was crispy on the outside, and the chicken was pretty moist. However, the white meat wasn’t too juicy, but I wouldn’t call it dry. Not exactly memorable, but good.

In all, I would say my meal at Wayfare Tavern was solid. Nothing was particularly memorable, but everything tasted good and there weren’t any real disappointments. This is just the first of Florence’s planned restaurant openings (Rotisserie & Wine has already opened in Napa) as he builds up his presence in the NorCal area. It’ll be interesting to see what else he comes up with.

Frances – 11/27/10

Frances
3870 17th St
San Francisco, CA 94114

While just under a year old, Frances has already received so much attention and critical acclaim that it can’t be ignored. Bon Appetit, Esquire and Forbes have all named it one of the best new restaurants in America in 2010, while the James Beard foundation named it a finalist for Best New Restaurant. Restaurant critic Michael Bauer had another rave review, awarding it 3 stars; to cap it off, Frances received one star in the 2011 Michelin Guide.

Chef Melissa Perello’s background is fine dining (Aqua, Charles Nob Hill, Fifth Floor); but Frances is something different. Inspired by and named after her grandmother, Perello’s Frances uses her formal training to prepare California cuisine in a comfortable, casual setting.

Some persistent OpenTable stalking yielded an available reservation, and I quickly snatched it up.

We started off with this amuse bouche of sorts.

Rosemary Lavender Almonds

I found these to taste like regular almonds, with no trace of rosemary or lavender. Odd. I thought it was just me until my dining companion agreed too.

Applewood Smoked Bacon Beignets – maple creme fraiche and chives

Warm and fluffy, these beignets had a strong, but not overwhelming, bacon flavor. They were a little denser than I had expected, but were still good.

Salsify and Pacific Oyster Chowder – creamed leeks and creme fraiche

There weren’t any chunks of oyster in this soup, but the flavor was evident. Light and creamy, the soup had a deep “sea” flavor, with some sweetness from the leeks and a little tartness from the creme fraiche. Very enjoyable, especially on a very cold night.

Parmesan and Ricotta Gnocchi – Boccalone pancetta, chanterelles, napa cabbage

The gnocchi were pretty dense, though very soft. The chanterelles were fantastic and, in tandem with the pancetta, added the bulk of the flavor to this dish.

California Black Cod – roasted winter squash, melted leeks, chanterelles

The fish was very moist, flaky, and had good flavor. I liked the creamy squash, as well as the return of the wonderful chanterelles.

Braised Liberty Farm Duck Leg – Italian butter beans, chicories, Sicilian olives

This duck was very tender with a crispy skin. The meat was moist and flavorful, and I thought the creamy butter beans worked really well alongside. The rich and deeply flavored jus really brought everything together quite nicely.

Creamed Winter Greens – broccoli di ciccio & red russian kale

I was pleased to find that these vegetables weren’t soaking in a thick and heavy cream sauce; instead the cream was quite light and did not overpower these delicate greens.

“Lumberjack Cake” – bartlett pear, medjool dates, maple-walnut ice cream

I’m not really even sure what was in this cake, other than the bits of pears and dates. It looked rather plain, but was surprisingly moist and sweet. The maple-walnut ice cream (from Humphry Slocombe) was delicious.

The Boozy Affogato

This affogato was an amalgamation of two of San Francisco’s more notable gourmet purveyors: Humphry Slocome (for the ice cream) and Blue Bottle Coffee (for the espresso). I enjoy myself an affogato – add a little liqueur, and you’ve got something pretty special.

Frances was a very good meal, though I found it a little underwhelming. Granted, given all the critical acclaim, I had very high expectations coming in. While I thought the food was definitely strong, it didn’t really stand out in any way. The entrees (the cod and duck) were probably the highlights for me, as both were perfectly cooked with spot-on flavors.

Prospect – 11/26/10

Prospect
Infinity Towers
300 Spear St
San Francisco, CA 94105

exterior

Prospect is the latest restaurant opening by the team behind Boulevard, which has been a fixture in the SF dining scene for over a decade. One of the highly anticipated openings this year in the city, it features a contemporary American menu with an emphasis on local and sustainable ingredients (though, who doesn’t nowadays in San Francisco?).

We started off with a few appetizers.

Yellowtail Crudo seaweed rice cracker, pickled cucumber, white miso

yellowtail

This yellowtail, pounded thin, was accompanied by crunchy pickled cucumber and a little bit of a mild miso flavor. These clean, bright flavors were complemented by the textural addition of the crunchy seaweed rice crackers.

Handpicked Dungeness Crab chilled beets, vadouvan yogurt, spiced onion rings

crab

The crab was in nice chunks, sweet and tasty. The beets were also good, while some onion rings provided a nice crunch. I would have liked a little more crab in this dish, however.

Seared Calamari & Octopus house made chorizo, savory clams, aillade, confit garlic potatoes

octopus and calamari

This dish looked really interesting, and it didn’t disappoint. Squid, octopus and clams were all present in this dish, and I really liked the slightly spicy, smoky chorizo.  The potatoes added some heaviness to this dish making it a filling, yet delicious, appetizer. I thought the octopus was a little chewy though, especially compared to the tender calamari.

Black Cod shiso shrimp fritter, shiitakes, snap peas, red curry

<black cod

The black cod was extremely moist and flaky. Very nice. The curry added some extra depth of flavor.

Roasted Quail wild rice, broccoli romanesco, fuyu persimmon, almonds, brown butter

quail

Very nice preparation of quail here with a good char on the outside and a very juicy and moist interior. Lots of flavor.

Next were the entrees.

California White Sea Bass chanterelles, celery root & sunchoke puree, oyster bisque emulsion, crispy sunchokes

sea bass

This was much denser and less moist than the black cod. I wouldn’t say it was dry, but it didn’t have the same moist flakiness as the cod.

Lamb Loin fingerling potatoes, artichoke, marcona almond romesco, green olive, mint & tongue relish

lamb

This was a nice preparation of lamb – very tender and flavorful.

Wagyu Zabuton butterball potatoes, creamed cippolinis, smoked trumpet mushrooms, spinach, mustard seed jus

wagyu beef

I ordered this medium rare, and this turned out to be sort of on the lower side of medium rare. As a result, the meat was kind of chewy (not tough) for my tastes. The flavor of the meat was good though, with the mustard seed jus adding depth of flavor. The spinach and buttery potatoes were great accompaniments.
Next we tried three of the desserts on the menu.

Petit S’mores house made peppermint marshmallows, graham wafers, melted ganache, crushed candy canes

smores

I really enjoyed these holiday s’mores. The cookie was gingerbread, the marshmallows were peppermint, and there were some crushed candy canes on top, all adding to the holiday theme. The ganache and marshmallows were warm and gooey – in tandem with the gingerbread cookie, these were comforting and delicious.

Ice Cream Sandwiches chocolate cookies, eggnog ice cream

ice cream sandwiches

I love ice cream sandwiches so this was a must-try. In keeping with the holiday theme, eggnog ice cream was the choice. While the cookie and ice cream were both good individually, the cookie was way too hard; as a result, the ice cream just squeezed out after each bite…defeating the purpose of the sandwich. I don’t understand how this was overlooked.

House Made Ice Cream chocolate brownie chunk

ice cream

Lastly, we tried this ice cream. A very good ice cream with a deep chocolate flavor, though not exceptional.

I was pretty happy with this meal. I thought the menu was interesting, and offered variety of appealing dishes that tasted good. While nothing was mindblowing, all of the dishes “worked” for me and were things I’d come back for. Though, probably not for the ice cream sandwich.