Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Luella: Charming Russian Hill Spot

1896 Hyde Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
Chef Ben de Vries (formerly Andalu, LuLu) and Sous Chef Chris Wong
Dinner nightly

Luella on Urbanspoon

Last tried: July 2006

The decor is a bit of Austin Powers permeated with Elizabeth Hurley chic. The night I visited, the elegantly appointed bar area in the front of the restaurant was getting as much action as any of the wine bars that have been popping up lately all over San Francisco, and Luella's wine list easily stands up to the best of them. Although the list is only two pages long, it offers nice variety, including by the glass and in half bottles, with selections from France, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, California, and Oregon. Best of all, like the menu, the wines are quite reasonably priced (most bottles in the $30-$40 range).

After settling into our table with glasses of crisp and fragrant white wine (2004 Hubert Brochard Sancerre at $11 and 2003 Villa del Borgo, Friuli, Pinot Grigio at $8), we ordered a series of appetizers. The kitchen sent them out in well-timed courses, with our server providing fresh plates and silverware with each course as though we were doing a formal tasting menu. The service, while casual and friendly in keeping with the atmosphere, was also as professional and attentive as one would find in any of the more formal (and more expensive) restaurants in the City.

The almond-potato leek soup was creamy and elegant. The baby spinach salad with chopped hard-boiled egg, homemade croutons, and bacon vinaigrette was solid, if a bit prosaic. I was somewhat disappointed with the bone marrow bruschetta, as all I could taste was the balsamic vinegar. Also, instead of the gelatiny, rich veal taste of marrow, I smelled and tasted something that reminded me of packaged "parmesan" cheese (despite the server informing me that there was no cheese on the bruschetta). The miniature ahi tuna tartare tacos, however, were as good as I remembered from Chef de Vries' days at Andalu.

The star dish of the evening was the crispy sweetbreads served on top of frisee lettuce and crunchy jicama matchsticks, punctuated with sweet and tart pomegranate seeds and drizzled with mint vinaigrette. The sweetbreads were cooked perfectly, crisp outside and tender inside, and presented in single forkful sizes, with the other elements complementing, instead of overwhelming, their flavor. The texture and zing of the pomegranate seeds were a particularly pleasant accent.

The one entree we sampled, the veal and porcini Bolognese with fettucine, was also excellent. The homemade fettucine had just the right amount of chewiness, and the Bolognese was comfortingly hearty and rich, yet the refined flavors of veal and porcini mushroom came through.

As an end to our lovely meal, we had the ricotta fritters with orange honey sauce, which is apparently a house specialty. The donut hole size fritters and the shiny candy-like sauce were deliciously decadent without being overly sweet (I only wished that the outside of the fritters were crunchy; ours were a little soggy, probably from the sauce being poured over them too quickly after being fried).

The cuisine at Luella is similar to the better known Coco500. I look forward to going back to try more of Luella's understated yet impressive food.

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