Monday, January 30, 2006

Scott Howard: Flexing His Fork

500 Jackson Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415)956-7040
Chef Scott Howard (formerly Fork in San Anselmo)
CLOSED

UPDATE: September 2006
Sadly Scott Howard has decided to move away from tasting menus to more casual dining, including offering large plates. While this may have help fill the large dining room, the result is disappointing. The entrees are clunky and unfocused. The carrot soup, previously a delicate wisp of carrot with chervil cream, tasted like a giant bowl of lukewarm carrot juice. The wine list was also substantially reduced. Whether this is due to a transition in sommeliers is unclear, but the selections were limited and most were extremely expensive, contrary to the more casual atmosphere the restaurant seems to now be aiming for. This identity crisis has sadly transformed a previously impressive restaurant to something run of the mill and forgettable.

Tried: January 2006
From the fixtures to the food, Scott Howard has transformed the cavernous space at 500 Jackson into a modern and sophisticated dining spot. Gone are the 90's bright lights and blond wood of the previous seafood restaurant, nor is there any hint of the 80's over-the-top decor of the Cypress Room before that. Instead, the low lighting and warm dark wood of the gleaming floors and tables cast a flattering glow over the restaurant. The wrought iron chandelier has artistic yellow filament light bulbs, instead of crystal, and the woven place mats on the tables in place of white tablecloths add a contemporary and casual touch. Behind sliding glass doors that look like Japanese shoji screens, on the far end of the dining room, is a private dining area, and the gradation in floor levels between the bar area and the dining space, with half-enclosed elevated side spaces to accommodate larger parties, breaks up the large space to create a feeling of intimacy.

The menu is in keeping with the relaxed elegance of the decor, with a variety of raw and cooked appetizers ranging from $8 to $12, main courses comprised of seafood, poultry and meat dishes in the $21-$31 range with side dishes at $6-$10, and concluding with cheese and/or desserts ($9-$14). There is also a seven-course chef's tasting menu at $80 per person, with wine pairing at $58 per person. (I was not thrilled about waiting half an hour past our reservation time for our table to be ready, but it did give me ample time to peruse the menu and wine list in advance.)

Our table opted for the tasting menu. We received two amuse-bouches to start: a small mound of pink tuna tartare with a tomatillo coulis, followed by an espresso cupful of cream of sunchoke soup garnished with chopped trumpet mushrooms. Although the tuna was somewhat tasteless, even with the tomatillo coulis, the soup was delightfully thick and creamy with the unique flavor of sunchokes, with the earthy trumpet mushrooms adding depth.

With the first two courses, the chef started to really show his stuff. The clean and fresh fluke sashimi would have been delicious alone. With the soft, delicate, and mildly sweet coconut gelee, kaffir lime and basil, it was divine. Next came a thin square terrine of creamy, nutty foie gras. Again, it was perfect solo, but the sweetness of the tangerine chamomile gelee and the savory richness of the squid ink gastrique accompanying the terrine brought out deliciously different aspects of the foie gras. The 2003 Loimer Langenois riesling from Kamptal was an interesting pairing choice that worked well in highlighting the sweet gelee and rounding out the flavors of both the terrine and gastrique.

Then came the famous carrot broth. Just smelling the fresh pureed carrots and the fragrant chervil that wafted up from the bowl that was placed in front of me made me happy. The first spoonful of the broth, with a touch of the chervil sabayon mixed in, fulfilled every promise that the aroma made. The crisp and fruity Austrian weissburgunder, 2004 Heidi Schroeck, that was paired with the soup was an ideal match for the sweet carrot.

The sweetbreads that followed, golden brown on the outside and soft inside, were just as spectacular. Every element, from the sweetbread, the smooth and creamy potato puree, to the surrounding sweet truffled madeira sauce reminiscent of maple syrup, and the chewy bits of salty bacon punctuating the dish, was perfectly executed. The pairing, however, was not quite as magnificent. The junmai Hanahato kijoshu, a brown sake, was too harsh and alcoholic to do justice to the dish. (The Loimer riesling, which I had leftover from a previous course, actually matched beautifully.)

The next course fell a bit flat after the perfection of these earlier dishes. The dish had the same sunchoke and black trumpet mushroom combination that had been presented in the earlier amuse, and while it was just as tasty with broiled sunchokes as with pureed sunchokes, it was somewhat of a letdown to see the same thing twice. Also, the seared scallops were slightly overcooked and sandy. I finished off the trumpet mushrooms with the 2004 Olivier LeFlaive Les Satilles burgundy that was paired with this dish, but gave up on the sandy scallops.

The kitchen returned to excellence with the final savory course-- duck breast with a quenelle of apple chutney, a swirl of apple cider gastrique, and a small salad with serrano ham. Again, every single element was expertly executed. Howard nails the sweet and savory combination like a champion figure skater landing a triple axel. As I took a sip of the 2004 J. Hofstatter pinot nero that was paired with the dish and took another bite of the tender rare duck, making sure to get some of the crispy skin on the side and a taste of the sweet and buttery chutney, I was quite content. To close, we had a dessert of lemon beignets. The powdered sugar on the beignets was a little overwhelming but they were otherwise soft, sweet, and satisfying.

Service, while attentive and personable, was at times not quite at the level of the food. For example, the person delivering the bread basket proceeded to repeatedly touch the crackers on top and the various items within in order to point out and explain the contents. While I realize that food gets touched a million times in the kitchen during preparation, this was still unsettling to see at the table. Another nit is the fact that wine bottles were not shown until after they had already been poured, instead of beforehand. While minor, these are nonetheless flaws that should be addressed in a restaurant endeavoring to be recognized as an upscale dining establishment.

2 comments:

dB. said...

Hey,

Sorry for posting this as a comment - couldn't find your e-mail address.

Just ran into your blog. Pretty cool. Come join www.foodcandy.com (beta password: yummy). It’s “friendster for foodies”.
It would be awesome if you participated, invited all your friends, etc., but syndicating your blog is a start too!

Cheers
dB.

Finicky said...

Thanks and will do!

Ambivalent About Momofuku

First, am I the only person who thinks "Momofuku" does not mean Lucky Peach or refer to the name of some obscure ramen person from...