The price of paradise on the Embarcadero
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For bay views, it's hard to beat Epic Roasthouse, the Pat Kuleto and Jan Birnbaum collaboration that opened in January along the Embarcadero at the foot of Folsom Street. Over the past decade or so, the Embarcadero has become something of a paradise regained: down came the earthquake-damaged freeway, in went the streetcar lines, up went the ballpark, along came the Ferry Building food Valhalla, and suddenly the waterfront, once an isolated wasteland, became a gorgeous urban amenity.
Epic Roasthouse and its next-door neighbor, Waterbar, are among the gaudier jewels in this crown, and certainly the views they command, of the water and the far shore, with the Bay Bridge soaring through the ether like a steel rainbow, are unmatched. But they are, alas, reserved to patrons, while strollers along the public esplanade outside now find their own views blocked for the length of two sizable buildings. I have often noticed a similar phenomenon at Lake Tahoe, much of whose scenic shoreline was apparently sold to the highest bidders, so what might and maybe should have been a public asset is now largely walled off by the private homes of the rich. Or, as a friend said as we waited ... and waited ... for the Epic Roasthouse service staff to bring us menus, "This place should never have been built here."
But it was, and the building is quite splendid in its way. The interior reminds me of the big dining room in the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park (which, with its wooden beams and huge stone fireplace, would have made an excellent Hall of Fire in the House of Elrond, I thought) distinguished mainly by faux-industrial details like big ducts and valve wheels. There's even a homey hearth on one side of the main dining room. For a Kuleto restaurant design, this is all tastefully restrained, if artificial, since the building is utterly new and has no past.
From its first days, Epic Roasthouse seemed to function smoothly, which made me wonder about the prolonged wait for menus and an equally prolonged wait for bread and water on a more recent visit. The breads, when they finally arrived, were interesting enough to allay some irritation: a torpedo of savory-sweet cornbread, a cheese puff, a slice of sourdough, one each for everybody at the table. But it wasn't as if the breads had been baked especially for us and rushed to the table still warm. Like the menus, their path was a desultory one.
The restaurant has a warm, understated glamour I associate with places such as one might find in Aspen, and the prices are Aspen-like. The hamburger, for example, is $25 and is very good. A side tray of goodies, including bacon bits, sautéed mushrooms, and whole-grain mustard, suggests an attempt to add value, which implies a certain awareness on the restaurant's part that value is an issue. It is. Most of the starters and small plates are priced in the teens, while the main dishes rise quickly through the $20s into the $30s and even $40s. Of course many of us are aware that inflation, having been subdued for a generation, is once again a powerful reality. Food costs a lot more than it did just a few years ago, and the kind of food Epic Roasthouse serves, heavy on the meat and dairy, particularly costs a lot these days.
Still, prices at these levels catch your attention. And while you can pay as much or more at lots of places around town now, the issue, properly framed, is whether the food is good enough, the wider experience exhilarating enough, to justify the price. Some very expensive restaurants are worth the coin. Epic Roasthouse is handsome and luxurious-looking, and the food is quite good. It's about as transit-friendly as a Bay Area restaurant can be. And yet, and yet ...
I liked my maple-glazed pork porterhouse steak ($26), I must say, in part because of its awesome size. The meat itself was overcooked and a little tough, though still juicy; it was seated on a pad of whipped potatoes, topped with purple-pink shreds of pickled cabbage, and napped with a startlingly good coffee-bean sauce. For absurdly sentimental reasons, I almost never eat pork and regard it as a huge treat when I do, but this was a pork dish that would have been competitive even without the meat.
The fancy burger was a little dry wonderfully consoling bun, though while the macaroni and cheese ($9), served in what looked like a small paella pan, was runny. Caesar salad ($10) featured romaine spears of a crispness that would have passed a military inspection, with plenty of whole, plump anchovy filets thrown in. Duck rillettes ($13) arrived in what looked like a small ossuary; the shredded meat was a little too cold to be fully flavorful but was spread easily enough (with dabs of whole-grain and Dijon mustard) over grilled bread spears. Soft-shell crab ($18): deep-fryer crispy, with a gigantic carbon footprint. If there is a signature dessert, it's probably the beignets ($10), a slew of football-shaped doughnuts dusted with confectioner's sugar and suitable for dunking in a tall glass of bicerin café au lait, a potentially addictive combination of coffee, chocolate, and steamed milk.
Restaurants with views are reliable producers of oohs and aahs not to mention, presumably, revenue and no restaurant in town has a more impressive view than Epic Roasthouse. The question is whether that view is worth paying (a lot) for, or maybe whether some views should, after all, be free.
Dinner: nightly, 5:3010:30 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.2 p.m.
Brunch: Sat.Sun., 11 a.m.2:30 p.m.
369 The Embarcadero, SF