Sunday, February 28, 2010

Metro Cafe

When we first visited Metro Cafe it was a delightful French brasserie in the restaurant space of the Metro Hotel in San Francisco's North Panhandle neighborhood. It was usually crowded and had a strictly French menu during the evenings with a French staff, but a good all American brunch on weekends. When it closed we regretted not having gone there more often. The restaurant that followed was not to our liking so we remained at a distance, until one evening when we took a look at the menu again. Menu items certainly looked French.

Cell phone cameras leave much to be desired, but I was happy to have the use of one rather than none at all. We started with the Romaine and shaved radish salad topped with lardons and dressed with bleu cheese, then dipped into the mussels. They had an Asian note to them, which proved a nice surprise. This dish has changed on the menu, so I'm looking forward to the next interpretation of mussels at the Metro.

The center cut pork chop was beautifully cooked with a pale pink center; very juicy and flavorful. No complaints about the sauteed green beans or fluffy mashed potatoes. This was not the French menu we knew, but a transformed version with little twists and turns that made it a more playful, less serious gastronomy. Having stopped in was becoming more and more a delight for us.

Duck confit is usually served in a cassolet or on green lentils in classic French cuisine, but this was served on brown lentils, making it seem slightly irreverent in its imitation of an iconic French dish. Be that as it may, the raspberry sauce has to also be considered a truly French application to any dish, but mixing these elements netted the chef an updated classic, that I would certainly try again.

The chocolate mousse was extraordinary in size and that made it a bit over the top. This is one dessert that most definitely should be shared. The warm apple Tarte Tatin was my selection and the only disappointment of the evening. The crust was almost paper thin on the bottom, and the apples had turned a very unappetising shade of brown. The top was practically charcoal grey from oxidation. It looked worse than it tasted, but I could not take more than one bite.

Update: the Metro has been replaced by Ragazza, a consistently excellent Italian restaurant specializing in pizze and roasted meats with some pasta and antipasti.

311 Divisadero Street at Page
San Francisco CA 94117
Business Hours:
Dinner : Tuesday-Sunday 5:30-10:00 PM
Weekend Brunch:Saturday & Sunday 9:30AM-2:30PM

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Front Porch

Around for awhile now, the Front Porch was completely off my radar until I found myself there for dinner with my dining companion, who had been primed for the fried chicken by several of his friends. Homey sounding, I thought, so I half expected American classics like meatloaf, fried chicken, and steak. Pleasantly surprised, I discovered as soon as I read the menu that the restaurant is homey in a road house, Southern kind of way. If my water didn't come served in a glass pint canning jar, it should have. It was that kind of place.

Dark and moody, is that what you were thinking, judging by this photo? It could have looked less so, but I rarely disturb other diners by using a flash in a restaurant. It so happens, The Front Porch is dark, so much so, I had to use the flash at the table as insurance that I'd get some of the food shots. Service was slower than a Southern drawl, but friendly, after initially being ignored by two waitresses.

Cornbread was good, baked in a cast iron pan, in keeping with the homey theme, but any home I've been to would have served more than one piece each. This seemed a bit miserly to someone who likes cornbread. The cornmeal fried oysters in the spinach salad were crispy on the outside and silky on the inside, a very delicious addition to an otherwise ordinary salad. I have to add that the julienned Chioggia beet was also a nice visual touch.

Fried chicken, collards and mashed potatoes; can we get any more Southern than that? I think not. Buttermilk seems to be the key ingredient in Southern fried chicken and since I also tried it at Pican in Oakland and liked it, I may become a convert. Technically, I preferred this particular version better because they didn't brine the chicken.
Best dish of the evening went to the spicy shrimp and grits. It was so good I would suffer through more slow service and having to use a flashlight to read the menu, all to be able to order this one again. The white grits were fantastic and upon inquiring I discovered that they use butter and creme fraiche to liven them up. The gravy on the shrimp was definitely hot, but that was toned down and easier on the palate with all the butter. Take out might not be a bad idea either.

Lip smackin' good. Since I had ordered the spinach salad on this occasion, I opted for the smaller $11 plate of shrimp, but next time the $18 entree size of this wonderful shrimp, onion, garlic, and mushroom slice of the South will be sitting in front of me.
65 29th Street
San Francisco CA 94110-4910
(415) 695-7800

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bistro Gambrinus

Rather than a Bistro, Gambrinus is more properly a sports bar with food. The selection of Eastern European beers alone, must qualify it as a bar, and sports events dominate the televisions that are always on, while the sports fans dominate the sound levels. This is no place for a quiet, let alone romantic dinner. Don't let any of this deter you from trying it. Yes, it has a sports bar atmosphere, but this is not to say the food is secondary or an afterthought. Consider it a small hurdle one must cross for some very good Eastern European dining.
Chimay is my beer of choice, even though it's an ale. It has no bitter aftertaste and it has a slight sweetness to it that I thoroughly enjoy. Even though Belgium is a Western European country, it was a pleasure to find it on the menu. We also tried Golden Pheasant on this particular evening and that was a good choice also. Anyone who likes a wide selection of beers, lagers and ales will be very happy to see what's on offer. The complimentary smoked cheese had a nice taste and went well with the Chimay. Next time I'll ask what it's called and find out the country of origin. Oh yes, I expect to make many return visits in the future.
Having grown up with the son of a Russian neighbor, my partner in crime is very fond of Russian food, so the Pelmeni immediately caught his eye. It's a lovely small meat filled dumpling that is commonly cooked in a flavorful broth and topped with sour cream. This one looks as though it may also have a butter with dill sauce on it. It was delicious, but I don't recall tasting the butter and dill. I'll have to give it another try. The Pelmeni is hand made for the restaurant but not by the restaurant. That's okay, they have plenty of other items to busy themselves with. It may be necessary for me to add to this review to describe and photograph some of them.

Hungarian Goulash was my second choice as the Pineapple Shrimp took considerably longer to prepare and we didn't have enough patience to sit through all the hoopla surrounding the game that was on television that night. This preparation was better than any I had tried in Hungary, quite an accomplishment. It was bursting with the flavor of a sweet paprika. The fried potatoes with dill were good when dipped in the sauce, but stood up on their own as well. I welcomed the fresh salad that came with them and look forward to trying an entree salad another time.
1813 Fulton St
San Francisco CA 94117

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Osteria Del Circo

Osteria Del Circo is not a three ring circus, but a well choreographed theatrical piece that stimulates the senses almost as much as the menu stimulates the appetite. Waiters waltz through the circular room taking orders, serving meals, balancing trays like the Flying Wallendas balancing themselves on the high wire. The next act follows seamlessly with the busboys juggling dishes, and with slight of hand, filling your never ending glass of water. They were so unobtrusive, I didn't even see them several times, yet my glass was continuously full. The main attraction is most certainly the food, but the decor was smart and the dishes as playful as the decor. The one elephant in the room was Sirio Maccioni, the family patriarch, the man whose inspiration became one of the most well known and beloved restaurants in America, Le Cirque. He was sitting quietly in the corner, dining alone, but was too big a presence to possibly ignore. When I first found the cookbook authored by his wife, Egi Maccioni, The Maccioni Family Cookbook, every single recipe looked authentic and classically Italian, so being able to try several of them at one sitting was an experience I was looking forward to having. I may have only gone to the circus once, but I look forward to going back to Osteria Del Circo for a sublime meal each time I visit New York City. It's better than the circus!

Bread appeared at the table in two varieties, a rustic Italian and a foccacia, both quite good when dipped in olive oil. We were originally served olive oil with balsamic, but they were happy to exchange that for the pure Tuscan olive oil. Cesar Salad at Circo was excellent with a very generous amount of shaved Parmigiano cheese layered on top.

Of all the recipes in their cookbook, I was most interested in trying the ricotta and spinach ravioli for a primi piatti, but since they also had a double pasta option the squash ravioli with foie gras became irresistible. It was pure luck that the soups I had been tempted by in the book were not on the menu, thereby allowing total justification for ordering two pasta courses.

Spinach and ricotta ravioli seem a good test for an Italian restaurant, since they are on so many menus throughout the country, indeed the world. These were exceptional if not the best I have ever tasted, light, fluffy not dense, yet creamy, and expertly hand made. The sage butter sauce was not overdone nor was it over cooked with burned or browned milk solids. It was restrained and refined as one would imagine Egi's recipes for Le Cirque must have been. The squash ravioli with foie gras and a Recioto (a sweet Italian red wine from the Veneto) wine reduction was caressed by the same sauce and was indescribably delicious and rich without being heavy. I savored them as long as was humanly possible, but that wasn't long enough. I wanted more.

Another good test to determine the quality and authenticity of an Italian restaurant is to try their Bolognese sauce. Luckily my partner in crime is not so likely to be adventurous at a new restaurant and orders the more familiar menu items. He selects Spaghetti Bolognese frequently, always allowing me a taste. This particular sauce was very complex and flavorful with a very subtle tomato taste that would indicate long simmering. Pappardelle Bolognese was a big hit.

Rack of lamb is not on the regular menu, so I must assume it was a special for the evening, or I need reading glasses. It was cooked to a perfect medium rare and came with braised Swiss Chard and a delightful frittata of Spaghetti Carbonara. Since Carbonara is a favorite at our house I was happy to try it; now I know what to do with Carbonara leftovers, on the rare occasion when we have them.

Although there were Tuscan options on the menu, the Sicilian Bomboloncini sounded too good to pass on, so it became my choice for dessert. Options of fillings included jam, chocolate or vanilla French pastry creme and it came with a creamy cappuccino mousse that you see in the espresso cup on the plate. Much as I tried, I couldn't help but smile back at the plate they were served on.

Too bad I didn't bite into both filled doughnuts, so you could see the rich chocolate filling in the second pastry. You'll have to take my word on the aromatic coffee flavored mousse; it was better than a cappuccino, but just as rich in taste. Did we order a single scoop of gelato? I don't think so, but out it came on another very playful and architectural set of dishes, a bowl and plate.
Biscotti were excellent and another gift from the restaurant staff, or perhaps the Maitre d' Mauro Maccioni. We had a chance to talk to him for a bit as he was going from table to table, much as I suspect his father did at Le Cirque, building up rapport with his customers and developing relationships with regular clients. Not being one to hold anything back, especially a compliment, I told him that although I own every single Lidia Bastianich cookbook, and value each and every one of them, the first Italian cookbook I usually recommend is the Maccioni Family Cookbook because the recipes look so traditional and delicious. Although I enjoyed the comp gelato, biscotti and dessert wine, being able to eat at Osteria Del Circo was a reward in itself. What a memorable meal, like a circus parade dancing across one's palate!