Friday, July 1, 2016

Quince Restaurant | San Francisco

Quince Restaurant is something of an anachronism. In these days of bare tables and and backless stools and leather-aproned servers, here there are still white linens and cushions and tailored suits. Refinement. Elegance.

I wasn't so sure I cared about such things so much any more, but a solo meal there a few months ago left me feeling happily coddled like a soft, warm, perfectly cooked egg. It's not just the trappings, it's the entire gestalt of the place: you don't feel so much like a customer as the guest of a wealthy, thoughtful friend. If fine dining is dead, Quince never got around to reading the obituary.

I was basically killing time before a red-eye flight home from San Francisco, and Quince might not have been on my radar but for several people mentioning it when I went fishing for suggestions on twitter. Then I recalled that on our last visit to San Francisco, we'd stayed just up the street from its more casual sibling, Cotogna, right in the path of a cloud of intoxicating aromas which emanated from the kitchen every afternoon. So I'd booked an early reservation, and now settled into a banquette (one of the joys of solo dining is getting to sit in the comfy seat) and watched as the room slowly filled. A cut crystal coupe was also filled with champagne, as an assortment of amuse-bouches was brought to the table.

(You can see all my pictures in this Quince Restaurant flickr set).

A finely minced steak tartare wrapped within a cylinder of bric pastry, dabbed with a tart gribiche sauce; a bon-bon of pickled persimmon with marcona almonds; a delicate croqueta of jamón ibérico dabbed with sweet onion jam; a featherweight chicharrón cracker, with a delightful crackle.

There was a stretch of a few months where every tasting menu I tried started with an oyster. If it's a good oyster, I'm OK with that. This one – from Fanny Bay in British Columbia – was a good one, its fluted shell also bearing some little horseradish pearls, a pink peppercorn mignonette and tiny tarragon leaves (a great accent mark over the cucumber-y flavor of the oyster).

Light and delicate, this little salad of empire clam[1] with purple borage flowers, fennel and meyer lemon, all nestled over a bright green borage leaf purée, arrived in a long, skinny dish reminiscent of a razor clam shell. For an eating utensil, they provided the same item with which it was plated: tweezers.

Clearly, Chef Michael Tusk likes caviar.  If you're not up for a full tasting menu, Quince has a salon where you can order several items a la carte, including an entire menu devoted to caviar selections. In the dining room, it was served two ways: on one side, a ring of tender brioche adorned with generous quenelles of Tsar Nicolai reserve caviar, buttons of creme fraiche and vibrant flower petals; on the other, a bed of creamy sea urchin, topped with an even more generous spoonful of steely grey roe, with a fine julienne of fennel and apple which provided a beautiful lift and brightness to the dish.

(continued ...)

The next course came to the table enclosed in its glass cloche. As the cloche is lifted, the perfume of wood smoke briefly fills the air, revealing within the golden-orange beads of smoked steelhead roe, interspersed with diced radish, frilly herb sprigs and puffed buckwheat kernels.

It's followed by the egg dish pictured at top, in which the soft-cooked egg is layered with tender sweetbreads and carrots, then blanketed in a shower of shaved black truffle.

I had an impression going in that Quince was an Italian restaurant; to the extent that's true, it is very much of the "Italy by way of California" genre that the Bay Area does so well. There's actually very little overt evidence of it, other than that the menu includes a few pasta courses. Like this one, which featured gold-leaf flecked tortelli filled with red kuri squash, whose delicate cup cradled toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds, all awash in a buttery sauce infused with smoky lapsang souchong tea and a froth of umami-laden coloratura (or it may have been the other way around, it's been a few months).

A brief mid-meal diversion: my server invited me back into the kitchen, where I was offered a refreshing frozen one-bite gin and tonic cocktail as the cooks quietly went about their work. It's a beautiful space as commercial kitchens go, with a panel of tall windows looking out onto Pacific Avenue. The little peek behind the curtain was a nice and appreciated gesture.

Then back to my comfy seat, where dinner resumed with a selection of beautiful house-baked breads (my favorite was a puffy burnished square given a green hue from stinging nettle) and a restorative brodo with deep bass notes of roasted onion and black garlic.

Just the day before, I'd had an outstanding abalone dish at Aubergine in Carmel. This one had traveled just a bit further but was also excellent. At Quince, broad slices of the abalone – browned on one surface – were paired with caramelized cauliflower, peppery nasturtium for contrast and lardo for richness.

More pastas followed. First, lasagnetta, a precariously towering composition layering pasta sheets with tender guinea hen, Swiss chard and wild mushrooms. Good, but a tough comparison to the next course, a little extra not listed on the printed menu: "fatto a mano" pork tortellini, napped in a buttery sauce and blanketed in fat rounds of sliced black truffle. Their serving vessel was a "rolling pin" with a cut-out in the top, alluding to their preparation (according to the server, rolling the pasta with a wooden pin rather than a pasta machine enables the sauce to stick better). The composition was completed by the wine poured with it: a really old Burgundy (1978!), its fruit faded, its secondary notes of earth and leather and smoke coming to the forefront. Either the dish or the wine on their one would have been lovely; together, they made a perfect pairing, the kind that makes the synapses snap.

The final savory course was the only disappointment of the night, a loin of venison served with red cabbage, chestnuts and a hasselback garnet yam – well executed but unexciting. A sidecar with a salad of bitter radicchio and a skewer of minced venison wrapped in crepinette was a nice counterpoint.

Desserts, by pastry chef Shawn Gawle, who had previously been at Saison, were outstanding.  First, a luridly hued blood orange semifreddo, a frozen cloud of vibrant winter citrus, sweetened with honey, sharpened with ginger, and given some textural contrast with flecks of kataifi. That was followed by another cloud, a perfect meringue filled with a candy cap mushroom ice cream, presented over a disk of crisp Piedmontese hazelnut. It was excellent.

As if that were not indulgence enough, it's followed by a cart bearing a stunning assortment of mignardises: perfect canelés, gorgeous miniature tarts, light, billowy marshmallows, jewel-toned pâté de fruit, and more. Beautiful.

As often as not with tasting menus, I will skip a wine pairing and get a bottle instead. I can drink at my own pace without having multiple glasses on the table, and there are just times I prefer getting to know one good wine really well, even if it is not an ideal match for each course. But that's not as easy as a solo diner, and so I opted for Quince's pairing. That was a good decision. It was really one of the grandest wine pairings I've experienced in a long time. They pour lots of older vintages, the kinds of things you (or I, anyway) might not ever get a chance to drink otherwise: vintage Champagne (Larmandier-Bernier 20009Lanson 2002), grand cru Chablis (Domaine Long-Depaquit Moutonne 2012), old Barbaresco (Cigliuti Serraboella 2004), really old Burgundy (Remoissenet Savigny-les-Beaune Les Marconnets 1978), classic California Cabernet (Dunn Howell Mountain 1999), vintage Madeira (Broadbent Colheita 1999). Many of these are poured from magnums, which somehow lends a festive feel even when you're dining alone.

It's unusual for me to write about a dinner so far after the fact – if I don't get to it within a month or so, it's probably lost to the ether, no matter how good a meal it was. But I've been toying with my notes on Quince since February, and a recent twitter exchange prompted me to come back to it.

The food at Quince was excellent. But what truly stood out, and what I will likely remember long after my memory of the particular dishes has faded, was the service. Just like one of the hallmarks of a great dish is balance, there's a real art to getting the tone of service exactly right: elegant but not stuffy, friendly but not overly chatty, attentive but not obsequious, warm but not phony. Quince achieved that balance perfectly, from start to finish – right down to the to-go cup of hot chocolate the hostess handed me as I was headed out the door and to the airport.

Quince Restaurant
470 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco, California

[1] A large-siphoned species similar to geoduck found in the Pacific Northwest which also goes by the much less elegant name of "gaper clam."

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