SAN FRANCISCO --- When there’s a high culinary note in San Francisco, one can usually trace some of the pleasant sounds back to Alice Waters, to whom America owes their reverence for all things fresh, seasonal, and simple.
Perhaps Quince – the city’s restaurant of the moment -- would exist without her well-guided influence, but I’m not here to argue that point. What’s true is that it’s been a long time since I sat down anywhere to eat food that was so thoroughly sincere, honest, simple, satisfying and totally without attitude.
Chef Michael Tusk got his start in the kitchens of Waters’ Chez Panisse, and then later at Olivetto, the restaurant owned by former Chez Panisse chef Paul Bartolli. So Tusk’s food is filled with that same rustic, earthy, well-crafted fare, with strong Italian influences of home-cured meats, elegant and unforgettable pastas, great seasonal vegetables all over the map, and a worthy selection of fish, shellfish, poultry and meats.
I’ll start with the dish I can’t get out of my mind, hours later, and it’s Tusk’s homemade garganelli pasta, laced with miniature meatballs punctuated with fennel seeds and showered with Pecorino cheese. When the dish was set down in front of me, I instantly remarked “I’ll take three more portions.” Few chefs in the world have the self-confidence to present such total simplicity: The loosely tubular, penne-sized pasta was cloud-like and sensual, and the marble-sized polpettini pork meatballs were like gentle punctuation marks meant to showcase the pasta. The dish was exciting, elegant, and yet subtle in the way only great homemade pasta can be.
When set side by side with the garganelli, the homemade tagliolini with fresh back chanterelles paled, while on its own it was more than a worthy rendition of a classic pasta with seasonal mushrooms.
A first course of the pungent Florentine farro and black cabbage soup was equally brilliant, laced with bits of prosciutto to escort the rustic grain – the poor man’s wheat we call spelt – and perk up the bits of cabbage.
A first course salad of escarole hearts with Georgia white shrimp and confetti-like strips of radishes was delicious, but seemed awkward. The greens just didn’t connect to the unforgettable shrimp, all soft, soothing and pink, almost as good as a French langoustine, but not quite.
I loved his mixed grill – wonderfully rare, red, and smoky skirt steak paired with meaty grilled quail and served with a welcoming chicory salad.
Michael’s wife, Lindsay, is the perfect hostess, having honed her skills at the well-known Boulevard in San Francisco. This former 19th-century apothecary shop turned restaurant has an almost religious, meeting hall atmosphere, punctuated with some haunting black and white photos taken by Italian photographer Marco Giacometti. Service here is polished and alert, and friendly without being overbearing. I do hope they will do something about the restaurant’s exhaust system, for a sour odor permeates the small, tightly packed dining room.
The wine list offers some well-priced, well-chosen selections and I loved their Austrian Pinot Blanc --- sold by the glass – and the powerful Hendry Block 28 Zinfandel, a 2001 Napa Valley red that’s a blockbuster 15% alcohol. The trick here is that the wine was so finely balanced with brilliant red fruit and good acidity that I didn’t even note the alcohol content until after I had genuflected and enjoyed.
San Francisco, California
Telephone: 415 775 8500
Fax: 415 775 8501
Open daily, dinner only. $36 to $60 per person, not including service or wine