Monday, January 23, 2006

Silk's: Forgotten Treasure

222 Sansome Street
San Francisco, CA 94104
Chef Joel Huff
Lunch weekdays
Dinner 6pm-9pm Tuesday through Saturday

Last tried: July 2007

Silks on Urbanspoon

Previously tried: June 2006

It has been years since I last dined at Silk's, and in the midst of the deluge of new restaurants sprouting up all over the Bay Area, I had basically forgotten about it. When I tried it again recently, based on a friend's recommendation, my meal was so spectacular that I was tempted to remain silent, gag my friend, and keep it hidden as long as possible. Inside the small ornate dining room on the mezzanine of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco, Chef Joel Huff is spinning culinary magic.

To start, I sampled an amuse bouche of two tiny madeleines, one tomato and the other parmesan, the combination of which tasted like a delicate dessert pizza. Huff's technical expertise and whimsical creativity immediately became apparent with the "Egg, bacon & toast" appetizer. The "bacon" consisted of fork-tender slices of suckling pig with crackly, salty skin lining the edge. The "egg" was a tempura-fried quail egg with a golden crispy crust, soft but thoroughly cooked egg white, and a still-runny yolk that broke apart over the bacon and buttery brioche stick ("toast") when my knife slid across the tempura sphere. With a swirl of truffled whipped potatoes and a dash of zinfandel reduction sauce, this dish was the height of decadence. I would happily eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The server paired this dish with the same zinfandel that had been used in the sauce. While it was a safe choice, I would have preferred something a little more daring-- perhaps a full-bodied chardonnay or even a young sauterne.

The bonito tataki, presented with a dollop of persimmon and kabocha pumpkin puree and a side of asian pear slaw, sprinkled with celebratory gold paper bits, demonstrated Huff's keen awareness of Asian sensibilities. The fresh fish had been seared just enough to add texture without losing any of the raw flavor, and the puree added a sweet richness that contrasted nicely with the saltiness of the fish and the ponzu sauce. The refreshing crunch of the asian pear slaw added yet another delightful flavor and texture dimension. The Alsatian Riesling that was paired with this dish played up all of its various elements.

With the next dish, wild boar shabu shabu with oxtail consomme, our server brought over some nigori sake of the ginjo variety in a martini glass. I had not realized until this point how much sake can mimic the sensation of a martini. The sweet unfiltered sake, with just a slight bite, complemented the meaty wild boar and the intense oxtail consomme (and I'm generally not a fan of unfiltered sake). The hot consomme, poured over the thin filets of wild boar under the hood of crispy nori, melted and finished cooking the tender meat. I could not help but be impressed at how cleverly the chef had dressed up what is basically casual bar food in Japan.

Further demonstrating the kitchen's technical proficiency, the lobster and mussels with tom yum noodles in coconut lemongrass broth arrived at the table in a sealed parchment sack. When the server cut open the parchment sack, hints of fish sauce, coconut, and lemongrass floated up in the steam from the hot broth. The lobster and mussels had remained tender in the sack while the noodles were cooked through yet still firm.

Venison katsu and sake cured bass were the last two savory courses. The venison was soft and tender, with no gaminess, and the garlic foam and venison jus provided additional richness. The tonkatsu crust, however, did not survive the trip from the deep fryer to the table. Fortunately, everything else tasted so good that the slight sogginess of the crust was barely detectable. The sauteed cipollini onion and edamame on the side on the tonkatsu, in lieu of the standard shredded cabbage, was another enchanting twist, and the fluffy and sweet kabocha pumpkin souffle was reminiscent of Yorkshire pudding but better. The bass, served with shrimp won tons in a cast iron pot of chicken consomme infused with a spicy green chile pepper, mushrooms, and Chinese broccoli, was both hearty and elegant. If I were the Emperor of Japan or the Queen of England, I would want Chef Huff to make this for me when I'm sick.

The desserts were just as inspired as the rest of the menu. The Quince French Toast, another innovative take on breakfast, consisted of crunchy buttery brioche sticks flavored with quince, accompanied by a candied quince stick and cinnamon ice cream. This dessert also had the most interesting "wine pairing" of the evening-- a glass of Bailey's and Kahlua blended together. The Bailey's and Kahlua highlighted the cinnamon and butter flavors and united the various aspects of this unique dessert.

If you think creme brulee is boring (well, I do but I still enjoyed this rendition), you need to try the lemon creme brulee at Silk's, which is more like a hybrid of lemon cheesecake and creme brulee. While it has the characteristic brittle candy top coat of a creme brulee, the lemony-vanilla custard inside is thick and rich with a moist graham cracker crust on the bottom and garnished with about half a dozen thin crunchy lemon meringue disks, each the size of a dime, on top. To end this spectacular meal, I had a cup of whipped Scharffenberger hot chocolate served with a shot of stout beer. Alternating sips with the hot chocolate, the stout tasted like coffee on some sips and root beer at other sips. This chef is full of surprises.

One small thing to note is that the portions are anything but small. In fact, they are so large that the four-course menu is almost too much food for one person. I could not help but feel that the finesse and innovation that Huff is capable of gets lost in these hotel-functional serving sizes. (Note: as of June 2006, Silk's offers a tasting menu.) Nonetheless, once word gets out about what Joel Huff is up to in this little hidden restaurant, you might spot me standing in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel shooing people away so that I can squeeze into a highly coveted table at Silk's.

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