Monday, April 17, 2006

Bar Crudo: Anything But Crude

New location as of May 16, 2009:
655 Divisadero Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
Chef Mike Selvera
Dinner Monday through Saturday

Bar Crudo on Urbanspoon

Tried: April 2006 (Former location)
603 Bush Street
San Francisco, CA 94109

Bar Crudo can be described as a dressed-up version of Swan Oyster Depot or a Westernized version of a sushi bar. This tiny two-story restaurant, located next to the Tunnel Top, has a raw bar on the first floor and tables on the second floor, with several large modern art-like renditions of jellyfish hanging over the wrought iron staircase. The place exudes casual chic in both the atmosphere and the food. Given that crudos and seafood courses are generally my favorite parts of a tasting menu, dining at Bar Crudo is like getting to pick out and eat just the cookie dough chunks from a carton of vanilla ice cream. Maybe someone will next open an all foie gras restaurant or an all french fry restaurant!

The short menu, consisting of cold (oysters, clams, shrimp, crab, lobster, and raw fish preparations) and hot (chowder, mussels, seared scallops) seafood, is well conceived and well executed. The affordable wine list is similarly well thought-out and surprisingly extensive, with two sparkling wines, ten whites, and seven reds, most of which are available by the glass as well as by the bottle. The restaurant also offers twenty different beers, including a large variety of Belgian beers. I ordered a bottle of 2004 Verdejo and watched the chef rapidly and expertly shuck oysters, without any gloves or hand towels. Similar to a sushi restaurant, the best seats are at the bar where you can check out the action.

I ordered all of the crudos on the menu, including the Ono which was the special for the evening, and finished with the sherry duck liver mousse. It was one of the most refreshing and satisfying meals I could recall. The menu is very well priced, particularly given the quality and quantity of the seafood offerings: oysters at $2 each, each crudo plate between $9-$12, with the priciest item being the large seafood platter comprised of a dozen oysters, half a dozen clams, shrimp, and mussels, 1/2 crab, and 1/2 lobster for $65.

Of the crudos, my favorite was the Ono topped with enoki mushrooms, daikon sprouts, and tobiko, with a citrus vinaigrette. Micro-thin slices of fresh red jalapeno and droplets of sriracha sauce decorating the platter added a kick of spice to the fresh and meaty white fish, while the bright orange miniature pearls of tobiko provided saltiness as well as a satisfying tapioca-like texture that complemented the refreshing crunch of the green sprouts and the long delicate white mushrooms. I also quite enjoyed the arctic char. Scoops of tobiko turned green by the addition of wasabi topped the pieces of soft yellow-orange arctic char smothered with creamy horseradish, reminiscent of lox and cream cheese. I was less crazy about the sprigs of fresh dill on top as I found them a bit overpowering, but they were easy to remove. Another type of tobiko, this time flavored with habanero, topped the black bass crudo. Because the blood oranges were not fully ripe, they ended up being somewhat bitter. Nonetheless, they provided nice acidity and the bitterness was masked by the hard boiled quail eggs that came with the bass.

The last two crudos were tuna and scallops. The large cubes of yellowfin tuna were as substantial as rare beef, and the ginger, soy, and sesame oil flavoring reminded me of spicy teriyaki, particularly with the thin julienned strips of scallions on top. The raw scallops with orange, fennel, olive, and mint was the only combination that I thought was not quite as successful as the others, as the delicate flavor of the scallops got lost in this otherwise tasty and novel flavor combination. I did, however, appreciate how fresh the scallops were.

Bar Crudo does not serve dessert, but the sherry duck liver mousse could be the next best thing. (For people who prefer savory to sweet like myself, it really is the best dessert on the planet.) The small white ramekin of creamy and nutty whipped foie gras, drizzled with sweet sherry, was the height of decadence. Smeared on thick grilled bread, with a side of pungent cornichons and pickled espelette peppers, it was a fabulous end to a great meal, made all the better by its reasonable prices.

Citronelle: Running Chaud et Froid

3000 M Street NW
Washington DC 20007
Chef Michel Richard
Dinner nightly

Citronelle on Urbanspoon

UPDATE: April 2007
I went back after hearing that Adam Curling from Komi had become the sommelier there. I was not disappointed with his wine pairings. Somehow Curling manages to find the perfect wine to match the flavors of every dish. At the same time, each wine selection on its own is so beautiful that I would have been happy to enjoy it solo.

I wish I could say I was as impressed with the food. The "mosaic" surf and turf, a visually arresting dish of raw scallop, beef, tomato, and bell pepper carpaccio arranged on a plate to resemble a mosaic, had overly chewy beef and sandy scallop slices. The seared scallops in a subsequent dish were overcooked and rubbery. The only memorable dish was the "virtual fettucine," squid cut into the shape of fettucine noodles dressed with clams and squid-ink flavored garlic croutons. The "breakfast" dessert, consisting of cookies made to look like bacon strips, a meringue inside an egg shell to resemble a soft-boiled egg, and cubes of mango topped with strawberry sauce to look like home fries with ketchup, were quite entertaining to look at but flat and uninteresting in taste.

Citronelle remains a notable power dining restaurant and perhaps the focus on food will return one of these days. I'm sad that I will be missing out on Adam Curling's talent going forward.

Tried: April 2006
I was very excited to try Citronelle. It was going to be the apex of my dining experience in Washington D.C. Our party arrived at the restaurant about ten minutes early and were shown immediately to our table. The restaurant had two levels, with the bar area on the first level and the dining room below ground. The upstairs lounge area looked a bit worn and dated but in a comfortable, sit-and-relax-with-a-drink-and-cigar sort of way. In the back left corner of the downstairs dining room, there was a large wine cellar behind tinted glass walls. The back wall was covered by a large modern light panel mural that changed colors every few seconds, casting rotating shades of yellow, red, blue, purple, and green over the room. The decor was an interesting mix of traditional and eclectic. The tables were spaced comfortably apart that each table felt intimate. The chairs, however, were all so low that most of the diners looked like children seated at the grown-ups' table.

I almost forgot about the discomfort of the short chairs as I studied the menu and the wine list. Since we were left unattended for about fifteen minutes without anyone coming by to take our order or drinks, I had plenty of time to do so. As I reviewed the menu, I found that I was more tempted by the choices offered in the three-course menu than the chef's tasting menu. This was surprising since one would expect the tasting menu to be the showcase of the chef's best dishes. The three-course menu at $85 per person with $15 supplement for cheese course, offered items such as cuttlefish fettucini, white asparagus three ways, rabbit tasting, crab risotto, rockfish vegetable crumble with baby bok choy, duck two ways with beet cinnamon sauce, and pork four ways. In contrast, most of the chef's eight-course tasting menu looked fairly mundane: lobster and pea soup, foie gras, lobster with eggplant, halibut with kohlrabi, and venison with potatoes.

The problem was that our server informed us that we could not order multiple items a la carte from the three-course menu selections. We were also informed that we could only get the foie gras if we ordered the tasting menu, which had to be ordered by the entire table. In the end, we reached a compromise. After much wrangling and multiple trips back and forth between our table and the kitchen, we were permitted to substitute one item on the tasting menu and order two dishes from the three-course selections to supplement the tasting menu.

Richard's reputation of creating delicious illusions with food was apparent with the amuse trio-- a simulated boiled egg, a cigar, and a green egg salad. The wedge of boiled egg was actually mozzarella cheese shaped like the egg white with pureed yellow tomatoes shaped to look like the egg yolk inside. The cigar was made with layers of browned filo dough on the outside with mushroom "tobacco" inside. Lastly, the green egg salad was actually chopped baby green beans mixed with tobiko, shallots, and wasabi served inside a real egg shell sliced cleanly in half to serve as a bowl and lid. Each of these surprises were visually intriguing as well as tasty. The only thing that marred this experience was the fact that the server forgot the wine pairing so I had my champagne after I had already finished the entire amuse plate.

The first official course was a lobster pea bisque with lentils, squid ink brioche, and carrots. The bisque was fragrant and creamy, if a bit ordinary, and the squid ink brioche was completely lost in the dish. The 2004 Weingut Gruner Veltliner, while lovely on its own, was too acidic and citrusy to match the flavors of the bisque. The wine actually worked better with the next dish, the cuttlefish fettucini. Likewise, the plump and buttery 2002 Stony Hill Chardonnay that was paired with the cuttlefish fettucini worked better with the bisque. (The timing of the wine service was off for most of the evening. The inadvertent benefit, however, was that it allowed me to try different wines, as opposed to just the intended pairing, with some of the courses.)

The cuttlefish fettucini was another example of Richard's virtuosity in food fake-out. The fettucini was not pasta, but ribbons of raw cuttlefish sliced to resemble the noodles, in texture as well as appearance. The fresh beets, celery greens, and light cream sauce blended beautifully with the cuttlefish "noodles," and the bright orange pearls of briny trout roe added the perfect amount of saltiness and visual appeal. In contrast, the seared scallops with eggplant puree, grilled scallions, and hearts of palm were forgettable despite being solidly executed.

Before the next course was served, the sommelier brought over a glass of 2003 Domaine Kientzler Riesling. When I mentioned that I thought this was an interesting choice to pair with the seared foie gras, the sommelier informed me that I was not having the foie gras. Since the foie gras was the whole reason for my ordering the tasting menu, I corrected his misimpression. This resulted in a lengthy conversation between the sommelier and our server, followed by our server disappearing to the kitchen for several minutes, followed by another lengthy conversation between our server and the sommelier, followed by the sommelier removing the Riesling. Quite a service circus.

When the foie gras was finally served, the wine pairing was a 2002 Domaine Reynaud Banyuls, which matched well with the chocolate sauce served with the seared foie gras. The richness of the foie and the chocolate was balanced with the sweetness and mild acidity of minced pears, apricots, cherries, and pineapples in the dish. The dish again displayed Richard's command over flavors and ingredients.

The next course was sauteed halibut with sliced kohlrabi, celery, and potato in a lime-verbena emulsion, topped with celery greens. The Riesling was brought out again, correctly this time (our server joked that we would be having the Riesling with every course). The fish was cooked acceptably, but the celery was overpowering and I could taste little else. The last seafood course, lobster with eggplant, was also satisfactory but not exceptional. In addition to the disappointment of having the same ingredient twice in a tasting menu, even though the repeated ingredient was lobster (which frankly I find to be overrated anyway), the eggplant and lobster blurred together with no distinctive notes in flavor or texture. The opulent 2003 Domaine Jean-Claude Bachelet Chassagne-Montrachet, however, paired well with the richness of the dish.

With the final course, pork four ways, Richard again displayed his expertise. The first was a soft, rich, and melty braised and seared pork belly with a Bearnaise sauce. The second was braised shredded pigs' feet deep-fried in a crunchy panko crust with foie gras mashed potatoes. The third was a slice of pork tenderloin in a red wine reduction sauce. The fourth was a pigs ear and apple risotto, with a tangle of frisee lettuce drizzled with dijon vinaigrette on the side. Although every one of these variations were masterful, I found the whimsical combination of pork and apples in the risotto, using pigs ear (which tasted like extra chewy bacon), to be particularly impressive. This was nothing like what I have seen at some other restaurants that claim a "four ways" preparation by offering the same meat with four different but indistinct sauces. The earthy and muscular 1996 Chateau Lacoste Borie Pauillac that was served with the pork did not quite match any of the four variations, but I suspect that was because the sommelier did not adjust the pairing with this substitution in the tasting menu.

The two dessert courses consisted of apple two ways-- a sorbet and a cake-- and a chocolate mushroom vacherin. Both the hard candy caramel top on the apple cake and the pool of caramel sauce on the bottom of the dessert were delectable. The chocolate vacherin was rich and chocolatey but unremarkable.

Citronelle is one of those illustrious restaurants with a renowned chef whose reputation is so established that he has nothing to prove to anyone anymore. When he is in the mood, Chef Richard's cuisine is extraordinary. While I cannot deny that there were moments of culinary brilliance during my visit, I felt like I was paying more for an expensive name than the cuisine. At $230 per person for tasting menu and wine pairing, I wish I could have seen more of Chef Richard's creative flair. I was also surprised that service was rather disorganized at a place where I would have expected it to be seamless. I am very glad I finally got a chance to try Citronelle, but I wish that I had the opportunity to do so when Chef Richard was still inspired to apply his creativity and genius more than just intermittently.

Not Much Innovation at the Laboratorio

1110 21st Street NW
Washington DC 20036
Chef Roberto Donna
One seating at 7:30pm based on Chef's schedule


Tried: April 2006

Osteria Del Galileo on Urbanspoon

Laboratorio del Galileo is an enlarged variation of the chef's table found in many restaurants, where diners can have a specialized tasting menu, order from the main menu and receive additional specialty items, and/or just watch the chef and the kitchen staff at work preparing the food for the restaurant. At Laboratorio, there are about eight tables in a small dining room set up in the back of the restaurant, facing a small kitchen that is separate from Galileo's main kitchen, with a giant mirror mounted at an angle over the plating station so that everyone in the room can observe the chef at work (actually all you can really see is the chef plating). Despite the cookie-cutter setting, the Laboratorio experience is not cheap: $110-$125 per person and the optional wine pairing is $70-$75 per person. (A note about water: the restaurant does not offer regular tap water as an option. I resented being charged $4 per bottle for water, especially when I am not given a choice.) On the upside, there are twelve courses presented, and the portions are quite ample. No one will ever leave the Laboratorio hungry.

Just making a reservation to dine at the Laboratorio is labor intensive. One must confirm with the restaurant in advance that Chef Donna is available on a given date to host a Laboratorio dinner. Once the availability of the chef and the openings on a particular night have been established, verified, and confirmed, diners must complete a detailed written form to be submitted in advance by fax or email, listing every single food allergy, dislike, and preference for every member of the dining party.

Upon being seated in the Laboratorio, each table received a large paper cone filled with deep-fried twisted breadsticks. They were hot, crisp, and salty with a hint of sweetness, and tasted like long savory donuts. This and the Bomboloni, Italian donut holes which were served as the last dessert course, were my favorites of the evening. In addition to the breadsticks, the server brought over a large basket containing different types of freshly baked bread. Sadly most of its contents, especially the focaccia, were overly salty.

The first course was a deep-fried soft shell crab served with an eggplant puree, pan-fried pancetta, and a sauce of lemon juice and olive oil spiced with some crushed red pepper. Although the flavors came together nicely, I found the crab to be too greasy and heavy. Fortunately the prosecco paired with the crab brightened up the dish. The second course was a step up in richness-- roasted foie gras with peaches and duck jus. The peaches were a nice complementary flavor but there was not enough to add the necessary acidity to the dish. I was also disapppointed to find that the foie gras had been overcooked such that the inside had become spongy. Fortunately the wine pairing was a crisp white wine from Trentino that lent a refreshing touch.

The next course was a lobster tail with crispy pancetta and deep-fried shallots, served in a pea puree with chopped chives and celery microgreens. The pancetta and shallots added to the luxury of the ingredient but the lobster was slightly overcooked and chewy. Though I generally like lemon with lobster, I found the lemon juice used to keep the pea puree bright green too strong for the soup. I also wished that the pea puree were either cold or hot, as the lukewarm temperature was disquieting. However, the Chardonnay from Piedmont paired with this course married well with the richness of the lobster and pancetta.

The next two courses were both pasta dishes-- ravioli filled with mortadella in a pistachio sauce and taglierini with pesto and crab-- followed by a creamy risotto with asparagus. The Italian expertise of the kitchen clearly shined with the perfectly cooked pastas and risotto, exactly elastic and chewy without being too al dente crunchy or becoming gummy or mushy. The sauces of each of these dishes were also dead on. The problem was that in succession, in a tasting menu, none of them stood out and they all blended together in a sea of overwhelming richness. I also found it somewhat odd that the chef could not identify the microgreens in his risotto (Chef Donna later sheepishly admitted that it was an "Asian blend" that he bought pre-mixed).

The last two savory courses consisted of a fish course followed by a meat course. The slowly cooked black cod was served with sauteed dandelion greens and a dressing of cherry tomatoes and capers. I appreciated the acidity of the tomatoes and capers but thought that the combination would have gone better with a halibut or some other less fatty fish. The last course, lamb tenderloin with porcini mushrooms, was solidly executed. The lamb jus was flavorful and soothing, and the earthy mushrooms matched well with the medium rare lamb and the 1999 Barbaresco paired with the dish.

The palate cleanser, an apricot thyme sorbet, did not arrive until after the cheese course. On the other hand, the generous scoop of rich sorbet tasted more like ice cream than a sorbet. The desserts included fried prunes filled with ricotta served with a scoop of honey ice cream and a platter of Bomboloni. As full as I was, I finished every last one of the Bomboloni, which were hot, crispy, fluffy, and sugary in exactly the right way.

The name "Laboratorio" suggests experimentation and new concepts being developed. While the fare was hearty and filling, nothing stood out as different, inventive, or even particularly memorable. Although Donna (assisted extensively by sous chef Claudio Sandri) executed the various courses with experienced efficiency, the meal never quite got away from an assembly-line feel. Nonetheless, it appears that Donna will come out on top in his rematch against Morimoto, adding to his wall of fame. Galileo is publicizing the rematch to be aired in May and inviting guests to come watch the episode at the bar in the restaurant. Indeed, the entire restaurant seems to be dedicated to Chef Roberto Donna's career on camera, starting with the foyer in front of the main restaurant, which is plastered with so many photographs and tributes to Donna that it looks like a shrine.

After the servers collected the signed credit card receipts from the room, the guests were sent off with pre-autographed copies of the menu and a pageant queen like wave from Donna as he left the Laboratorio.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Yin and Yang of Haute and Comfort Cuisine at CityZen

1330 Maryland Avenue SW
Washington DC 20024
Chef Eric Ziebold (formerly sous-chef French Laundry)
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday

CityZen on Urbanspoon

Last tried: April 2006

CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, located in the Southwest district of Washington D.C., is modern and elegant yet comfortable, much like the cuisine of Chef Eric Ziebold. The best seats in the house are near the large open kitchen on the far end of the restaurant, on the opposite end of the spacious bar area, where you can view the quiet, efficient movements of the chef and the kitchen staff as well as ogle the wines in the floor-to-ceiling wine racks lining the glass wall of the temperature-controlled transparent cellar.

The menu offers three options: five-course tasting menu for $90 per person; five-course vegetarian tasting menu for $80 per person; and a standard three-course menu for $75 per person, with each course to be selected from the five or six a la carte choices in the categories of appetizer, entree, and dessert. Interestingly, rather than being an excerpt of the a la carte menu with a few additional ingredients added or substituted, the tasting menu items are completely different from the a la carte dishes. Although I opted for the tasting menu, I could not help being irresistably drawn to all of the delicious sounding dishes listed among the three course options. Since I was there mid-week and the restaurant was not as packed as it is on weekends, the kitchen agreed to incorporate additional individual dishes from the a la carte menu as supplements to the tasting menu.

Our gracious and patient server did not bat an eye as we enumerated our various requests, including indulging my attempt to fashion my own wine pairings, which he executed as though they were part of his regular wine service (the restaurant offers wine pairing at $68 per person, but CityZen had such a spectacular list of wines by the glass as well as half-bottle selections, I could not resist playing with the list). Between the available menu options, I would recommend the tasting menu as the best display of Chef Ziebold's talents, but I also found some incredible, not-to-be-missed gems in the standard three-course menu offerings.

As our server walked away, I was sure that I had given him a complete migraine and he would run away screaming. Instead, he came back smiling with a tiny white plate containing a small gumball-size three-mushroom fritter filled with a truffle puree and decorated with a taupe-colored comet tail of creamy mushroom sauce speckled with black pepper. The delicate crunch of the crispy exterior of the fritter yielded to an explosion of rich, earthy, and creamy flavors. As I was smacking my lips at the memory of this tiny exquisite taste, a second amuse was placed in front of me-- a tender bite of roasted cobia resting on a ragout of couscous and spiced with a swirl of olive tapenade. The fish was so soft it was almost sushi-like in texture, and the flavors and textures of the couscous and salty tapenade complemented the fish impeccably.

The first course of the tasting menu was a Maine lobster chibouste. This creamy yellow dome looked like a large egg yolk, had the texture of a perfectly cooked souffle, and tasted like just-caught and cooked lobster that had been pureed with cream. The tender slices of morel mushrooms, buttery ramps, and fresh English peas swimming in the light broth that surrounded the chibouste were just as exquisite. (I did not realize at the time that I would be having this combination of lobster and peas repeatedly, as every restaurant in Washington DC seemed to be featuring it as part of their menu this month. CityZen's, however, was by far the best executed.)

From the a la carte menu, I tried the spring garlic soup with frog's legs, farm egg with cured shoat leg, and the trout club sandwich. The garlic soup had a tad too much cream but was generally flavorful and soothing, and the light golden morsels of deep-fried frog's legs in the soup were faultless. Bernard Loiseau would have been pleased with this rendition. The farm egg was soft-boiled perfectly such that the egg white was firm yet still soft and the yolk burst open at the touch of my spoon, oozing decadently over the mixture of braised leeks, morel mushrooms, and the salty and chewy pieces of cured shoat leg which tasted like pancetta. My favorite among this amazing trio of appetizers was the trout club sandwich. The cured New Zealand sea trout had the delicately rich flavor and softness of arctic char. Placed on top of griddled brioche with roasted romaine lettuce, slices of sweet red onion lightly pickled in vinegar, and topped with bright orange pearls of smoked trout roe, this dish was simple, clean, fun, and completely scrumptious.

The second course of the tasting menu was a sweet white filet of Atlantic halibut on a bed of pillowy soft potato puree infused with extra virgin olive oil, accompanied by a saffron broth containing a sweet and savory relish of peppers and olives. The halibut was sauteed to buttery crisp perfection on the outside without losing any of the juicy softness inside. The flavor of the delicately salty and tender fish combined beautifully with the olives and peppers, warm saffron broth, and creamy whipped potatoes.

The entrees fell somewhat short in comparison with the preceding dishes. The portions of both the shallot-crusted sweetbreads and the black bass were so large that they became tiresome after just a few bites. I suspect this is an inevitable symptom of having to satisfy hotel dining requirements, which is unfortunate as I could see the potential of these dishes. As it was, the large mound of watery sweetbreads overpowered the delicate shallot breading and turned the entire dish rather soggy. Similary, the skin of the large piece of bass had lost its intended crispy texture in the trip from the kitchen to the table, while the rest of the fish had turned chewy. The flavorful and smooth egg mousse accompanying the bass, however, was immaculate. The grilled venison loin, which was the final savory course on the tasting menu, had a perfectly pink center and a pleasing char on the exterior. The accompanying ragout of white asparagus and fava beans added a fresh spring touch while the rich Bordelaise sauce with caramelized parsnip tied together the vegetables with the luxurious tender meat. I also tried the lamb saddle cured with garlic oil saucisson. Although I personally found it a bit too strong and gamey (to be fair, lamb is not my favorite red meat), it was pink and juicy, and the accompanying braised artichokes and sweet carrots were fragrant and beautiful.

A side dish that should not be missed is the box of homemade parker house rolls, which are served in a tiny wooden treasure box. When the box is opened and presented by the server, the first thing that greets you is the most incredible freshly-baked bread aroma. Each roll is the size of a miniature muffin, and half the fun is pulling the hot rolls apart to pop each steaming hot buttery morsel in your mouth, which then melt like cotton candy. The light sprinkling of Maldon salt on top accentuates the rich and buttery flavor.

To close, we had a chocolate feast: a torchon of valrhona chocolate with miniature slices of buttery brioche cinnamon toast, and valrhona chocolate mousse on a soft graham cracker with marshmallow covered with a shell of dark chocolate on a pool salted caramel sauce. The chocolate mousse tasted like the Beverly Hills version of a mallomar, and the torchon is a chocolate lover's dream dessert, thick rich chocolate through and through. My favorite though was actually the delicate cinnamon toast on the side.

Interesting yet homey and novel yet familiar, CityZen was quite a satisfying experience.

Aqua Man Doing Well

252 California Street
San Francisco, CA 94111
Chef Laurent Manrique (formerly Campton Place)
Lunch weekdays
Dinner nightly

Aqua on Urbanspoon

Last tried: April 2006

Chef Laurent Manrique has his work cut out for him. Aqua is not only as packed as it was when it first garnered acclaim under George Morrone in the early nineties and later under Michael Mina, it is now so well known that it has become as much of a San Francisco institution as Fisherman's Wharf. Just as everyone in the country knows Fisherman's Wharf for cheap seafood, they know the name Aqua for upscale seafood. Indeed, the restaurant staff seemed to be more accustomed to visitors filling the hundred-plus seats of the dining room than San Francisco residents.

The long polished bar, enormous mirrors on the walls, high ceilings, and towering floral arrangements are all still very striking, but the plush decor that was considered au courant ten years ago now looks a little like a throwback to the set of Dynasty. Manrique's menu is similarly lavish, yet it is anything but dated. Almost as impressive was our server's experienced versatility in serving styles while describing the menu options to a group of tourists dressed in jeans and T-shirts without the slightest bit of condescension and efficiently handling of a table of business people clearly entrenched in a dinner meeting right next to them, while managing a table of German and French speakers who spoke very little English and other groups of diners ordering the seven-course tasting menu. We ordered not just the seven-course tasting menu but requested additional dishes to be incorporated and changes to the wine pairing. Our server effortlessly facilitated all requests without missing a beat.

The amuse bouche consisting of a small cup of creamy salsify soup decorated with a drop of olive oil and a thin, deep-fried taro chip topped with ahi mousseline and pickled diced carrot was a delightful taste combination of salty, sweet, creamy, crispy and tart. The first course that followed as just as impressive, a miniature cannoli filled with smoked sturgeon, caviar, and chopped chives. The only thing that fell short of absolute perfection was the caviar, which was a little mushy missing the pop of fresher pearls. The lemon-olive oil sauce drizzled around the cannoli was the ideal condiment to delicately flavor and season this appetizer. The meal was off to a very good start.

I was particularly impressed with Manrique's interpretations of raw fish. I love Japanese food, but consequently I am very picky about raw fish. Putting tuna tartare on the menu is akin to performing Beethoven's 5th -- everyone knows every single note so it had better be flawless. Manrique's take on this familiar dish did not disappoint. I loved the generous square of thick cut chunks of pink tuna presented with a raw quail egg on top, mimicking steak tartare, with slivers of white almond, droplets of spicy harissa, a dollop of lemon date chutney, and a chiffonade of basil and cilantro around the edge of the plate. Continuing the steak tartare theme, our server mixed all of the ingredients tableside. I was pleasantly surprised that these seemingly aggressive flavors, including the dusting of cumin on the plate, came together quite harmoniously to create a new version of tuna tartare. The unadorned rectangle of masa served with the tuna was just the right vehicle to scoop up the well-spiced mixture. The 2004 Saint M Riesling from Pfalz, Germany had the right balance of sweetness and mineral to match this bold combination.

Even more striking was the fluke sashimi with balsamic pickled pumpkin, fried shallots, and a tangle of daikon sprouts and shiso shreds, sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds. I normally prefer fresh raw fish to be presented as simply as possible, but these seemingly incongruous elements combined to create an explosive and brilliant new flavor and texture combination. The 2004 Greco with delicate flavors of apricot, fern, and mint was a gorgeous pairing with this innovative crudo dish.

The next course was a parmesan-black pepper souffle in a miniature copper pot with sea urchin and crab inside, served with a side of fresh crab claw and lump meat mixed with crunchy cucumber. While I could not taste the sea urchin, the souffle was fluffy, creamy and hot, with the savory parmesan adding a pungent streak of savory flavor. The only flaw was that there were bits of crab shell on the bottom of the souffle. Had I not scooped up every bit of souffle though, I might not have noticed. The 2003 Colin-Deleger Chassagne-Montrachet, 1er Cru, paired with this dish worked quite well. This oaky and opulent white burgundy paired equally nicely with the celery root soup from the a la carte menu, served with a small trembling circle of black truffle flan and golden fried pieces of boneless frog's legs.

After such ornate offerings, I was surprised that the foie gras was served quite simply with minimal adornment. The thin strips of smoked duck meat accompanying the seared foie gras were chewy and salty, contrasting with the sweet muscat grapes and toasty almond slivers. The foie gras was clearly the star of this dish, and this relatively stark presentation, together with the 2003 Cuvee Marie Jurancon, was very effective in highlighting its richness.

The penultimate savory dish was a turbot with a side of cauliflower and cuttlefish in red wine lobster butter. This ambitious dish, however, did not come together successfully. The cauliflower was lovely but the cuttlefish was fishy and dissonant. Oddly, despite the seafood connection, the side did not match the turbot which was overly chewy and diluted in flavor in comparison. Still, I thought it was an interesting attempt. The elegant and earthy 2002 Beaune by Bouchard et Fils matched the sauce but not the fish. The last course before dessert was a beautiful, medium rare ribeye beef tenderloin bathed in beef consomme poured on top of shavings of foie gras and shards of veal cheeks. Although I would have preferred the consomme to be warmer and the foie gras and veal were superfluous in the dish, the overall flavor was rich and satisfying. The wine pairing was a 1998 Rocche dei Manzoni from Piemonte.

For a palate cleanser, the kitchen sent out tiny glass goblets of fluffy meringue on top of an olive oil madeleine with basil chiffonade and lemon zest. Again, I am not sure this combination worked but it was certainly more intriguing than the standard sorbet. With dessert, Manrique again showed off his souffle expertise. The coconut souffle was delicate, creamy, and not too sweet yet with a sweet crust around the edge like the browned top of a perfectly baked muffin.

While not everything worked, I admired Chef Manrique for pushing the envelope and found that I actually favored the more avant-garde offerings such as the fluke and the sturgeon cannoli as opposed to the more standard French dishes such as the souffles and the celery root soup, despite his expert execution. I hope he continues to move Aqua in that adventurous direction.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Bushi-Tei Full of Intriguing Possibility

1638 Post Street
San Francisco, CA 94115
Chef Seiji Wakabayashi (previously Ondine)
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday

Bushi-Tei on Urbanspoon

Tried: April 2006

The decor of Bushi-Tei is an interesting blend of modern and traditional, reminiscent of French restaurants in Tokyo, hinting at the nature of the cuisine crafted by Chef Wakabayashi. The walls are made of dark slabs of gnarly, hundred-year old wood brought over from Japan, interspersed with glass and marble fixtures and furnishings. (Speaking of modern, the restaurant even features those very expensive, automated ToTo toilet seats that do everything-- open, clean, flush, and practically transport you back to your table.) Giant vases filled with water and topped with floating votive candles line the large communal table in the center of the restaurant. A few smaller tables for parties of two are placed very close to one another in the small mezzanine area above the communal table, by the floor-to-ceiling window in the front of the restaurant, and along the hallway by the kitchen. This interesting yet odd configuration makes it difficult to discern whether Bushi-Tei is attempting to be casual or formal, a conundrum that also afflicted the enthusiastic yet not quite refined service.

Once your mindset adjusts to these incongruities and focuses on the food, the real fun begins. Interestingly, the amuse bouche-- a tartlette duo, one with salmon tartare mixed with black sesame seeds and chives and the other with mushrooms-- was rather bland with a clumsy shell, giving no clue as to the stellar flavors to follow in the five-course tasting menu (called "Waka's Omakase"). The first course, a napoleon of lobster and raw scallop, decorated with a tangle of frisee lettuce drizzled with Kahlua-balsamic gastrique, vanilla bean oil, and passionfruit coulis and topped with minced wakame, blew away my tastebuds with their delicate and complex flavors, all of which melted together as though they were always meant to be served in this combination. The raw scallop was so subtle and soft that I could not imagine why anyone would ever choose to eat this mollusk any other way. The perfectly cooked lobster tail, layered underneath the scallop, provided complementary texture and flavor in this novel presentation, but what I really loved was the decorative coil of pink-striped tender lobster meat that had been expertly extracted whole from the legs.

I thought nothing could top that first course, until the next one arrived-- a thick disk of pan-seared monkfish liver in a pool of pureed sweet yellow tomatoes accompanied by thin slices of pickled fennel. Monkfish liver is often compared to foie gras, and this presentation, with a caramelized thick sear on one surface, really played up that resemblance. The sweet richness of the liver combined with the mildly acidic sweetness of the yellow tomato puree was pure ecstasy.

Because the tasting menu is not required to be ordered by the table, we were able to sample dishes from the regular menu as well, which the kitchen expertly timed to be served in concert with the tasting menu courses. The tasting menu is $85/person, the appetizers range from $6 to $20 each, and the large plates are priced between $19-$36. I am hard pressed to pick from the appetizers which one was my favorite. The translucent white fluke sashimi on a bed of golden yellow beet disks, decorated with dots of bright magenta raspberry-umeboshi sauce, was a study in contrasting sweet flavors, ranging from the mild sweetness of the fresh raw fish, the more vibrant sweetness of the beets, to the pungent tart sweetness of the pureed raspberry and Japanese pickled plum. The miso marinated Kobe beef was rich, salty, and sweet, with charred slices of ripe camembert cheese on top and a chewy fresh-baked sesame brioche on the bottom, creating an extravant openface steak and cheese sandwich, with a few sprigs of peppercress infused with lemon-pepper oil serving as lettuce and dressing.

In contrast, the herb marinated sockeye salmon on a bed of jicama and daikon sprouts drizzled with a yuzu vinaigrette was less successful. I loved the sauvignon blanc marinated salmon roe that decorated each piece of fish and the flavor combinations were still incredible, but I could not help but be disappointed that the fish was too chewy and the ikura a bit fishy, even with the marination masking the less-than-ideal freshness. Particularly in a restaurant located in the heart of San Francisco's Japantown, with an accomplished Japanese chef to boot, such details should not be overlooked.

But oh, the seared foie gras with pumpkin pot de creme and red onion marmalade-- that one may be the dish of the year. The maple-syrup flavor of the thick pumpkin custard, accented with still slightly crunchy shreds of caramelized sweet red onion, was the perfect stage for the seared foie gras. When my spoon could no longer reach into the edges of the ceramic ramekin, I wanted to pick it up and lick the rest. This decadent dish could easily have been dessert.

The third course of the tasting menu was a piece of sauteed Alaskan halibut topped with a shellfish glacage in a sauce of carrot puree, lemongrass, beurre blanc and curry. The shellfish glacage consisted of finely diced pieces of shrimp and cuttlefish steamed with egg and formed into a miniature seafood pancake. The soft and moist halibut with the glacage was a captivating combination of tastes and varying textures. From the a la carte menu, we tried the grilled sea bass with bok choy and pine nuts in a ginger-tamari lime oil sauce. Although this was a very clean and refreshing dish, it was a bit of a letdown after all of the explosive flavors from the other innovative presentations we had experienced up until this point. I also found the fish to be slightly overcooked and chewy. After these last seafood dishes, the kitchen sent out a white tomato and yuzu sorbet, wrapped in Japanese edible transparent rice paper, the kind that surrounds Japanese caramel candies. The citrus flavor of the yuzu brought out the sweetness of the tomato, resulting in a uniquely appealing palate cleanser. This was certainly no ordinary sorbet.

The last savory course of Waka's Omakase was medium rare roasted venison loin on a bed of whipped satsuma yam, which tasted like sweetened creamy mashed potatoes. The earthy mushroom melange that accompanied the dish matched beautifully with the tender and meaty venison. It was the perfect dish to enjoy with the last of the beautiful Gevrey-Chambertin from 2001 that we had ordered.

A word about the wine list. This is one area of Bushi-Tei that I found lacking. Although I do not need a wine list to be a giant tome with every possible wine of every possible vintage from every wine region in the world, a short wine list should include thoughtfully chosen selections to match the menu. Bushi-Tei's list included less than a dozen seemingly random wine selections, mostly from California, along with a few sakes, beer, and aperitifs. The restaurant also has a separate "reserve" wine list, which is not presented together with the menu and wine list. Our server brought out this list only after he sensed I was not thrilled with the regular list, and the rationale for offering these lists separately remains a mystery. It is also noteworthy that the reserve wines, although decent, are quite pricey. Until Bushi-Tei revamps its wine list, I would recommend BYOW.

The Omakase dessert was a peach compote topped with a quenelle of vanilla ice, resting on layers of green tea genoise sandwiching a layer of raspberry mousse, with creme anglaise ladled around the genoise. While I could not find fault with any single ingredient, there seemed to be too many elements that distracted from the purity of the genoise, which was fluffy and delicate with a hint of sweetness and the aroma of green tea. I would have preferred just the genoise with the creme anglaise. The other dessert we tried, the black sesame blancmange, was very interesting. If I could only get over the overwhelming peanut butter flavor, I might have really enjoyed it.

Two more noteworthy items about Bushi-Tei. Do not miss the brown-rice baguette, which is baked at the restaurant. The toastiness of the brown rice with the chewy bread is delicious together, and quite pronounced if you try it without butter. Second, the restaurant only serves micro-structured electrolysis water with a pH of 8.5-9.5. Did this special water make a difference? Well, I liked the bread.

Our server seemed intent on regaling every customer that walked in that Michael Bauer, restaurant critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, had dined there "four times already" and was "sure to give us four stars." Even without regard to the rough and tumble albeit friendly service, I doubt that the restaurant would qualify for four stars at this point no matter how intriguing the food. I am nonetheless quite fascinated by Wakabayashi's cuisine and plan to return repeatedly to see how the restaurant develops.

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