Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Flour + Water Missing Something

Flour + Water
2401 Harrison Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 826-7000
Chef Thomas McNaughton
Dinner nightly

Flour + Water on Urbanspoon

As Anton Ego noted in Ratatouille, it takes someone or something else to provide perspective. After finally trying the much-lauded Vetri in January 2012, I now understand why people love Flour + Water so much. Comparatively speaking, it is better executed and better priced. Why is Italian so difficult?

Last tried: December 2011

This is a perfectly nice neighborhood joint, with hearty, homey dishes that are almost as appealing as SPQR or Cotogna and a well-priced wine list. But I still do not understand the reason for the national hype.

Tried: August 2009

Scoring high with the critics early in the game is both impressive and certainly good for business. During an economic climate when many restaurants would kill to get even a half-full dining room on a weekend evening, there was already a long line of people spilling onto the street corner in front of Flour + Water at 5:30 p.m. on a Monday night, all vying for one of the cramped tables in the deliberately shabby-chic interior.

I have to admit I was definitely curious after it had garnered three stars from Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle. While I am not a huge fan of his dismissive and somewhat antiseptic writing style, the man does have a palate. In this instance, however, he raised my expectations way too high, and perhaps any new restaurant, no matter how talented the kitchen, was bound to fail to meet them under the circumstances.

Flour + Water does quite a decent margherita pizza, with the appropriate blistery crust, aromatic basil, and sweet tomatoes, without any of the underlying blandness that can mar this type of pizza if the pizzaiolo does not calibrate the balance exactly right. Plus, the fior di latte mozzarella was so delectable that I did not even miss mozzarella di buffala.

The rest of the menu, unfortunately, reminded me of a pretty girl who does not know how to use makeup or dress to complement her looks. The meaty Monterey Bay sardines, although nicely charred, were dry and underseasoned, not helped by the overpowering mint puree smeared on the plate as though it were an afterthought. The yellow cherry tomatoes and clump of undressed watercress on the side, while both beautiful and fresh ingredients in and of themselves, were similarly out of place, leaving the entire dish to taste minty, fishy, and undersalted.

The oxtail "terrine" was actually not a terrine at all but deep-fried croquettes filled with oxtail confit. The meat was exactly as tender as it should be, and the crispy fried exterior was satisfying to the point that I did not mind that it was a little burnt, but the odd sweet sauce with its slightly Asian flavor drizzled around the plate clashed with the seasoning of the oxtail "terrine," as well as with the shards of parmeggiano artfully placed around the arugula on which the croquettes were presented. The most frustrating part of the dish was the generous scattering of chanterelle mushrooms, one of my favorite ingredients, which were gritty. I still ate them, suffering through the unpleasant crunch of the grit against my teeth echoing through my head, in the same way that I refuse to stop eating oysters when less-expert shuckers leave pieces of shell in them.

I had heard so much about the hand-made pasta that I had to try one notwithstanding the slight disappointments of the other dishes. Each component of the thick spaghetti with butter beans and pancetta in a tomato sauce was prepared exactly right. The pancetta was rendered down to the point where the pieces were crispy yet retained their bacony-meatiness, the butter beans were soft and creamy, and the thick spaghetti were cooked to exactly the al dente texture I like, with that chewy tug reminiscent of good soba. Nonetheless, as a whole the dish looked and tasted like a slightly better rendition of something I might have at home on leftover night.

Sadly, if Bauer had given Flour + Water his standard two and half stars, I might have loved it.

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