Nob Hill fine dining that might be worth the price tag -- cheese cart and all
APPETITE There are but few whispers about Acquerello in dining circles these days. This is an oversight. Not readily visible from the street, the Nob Hill restaurant's lobby opens onto a glowing dining room that at first glance appears to be an elegant oasis for an older clientele — a classic that has been loyal to the city since 1989. After a recent return to Acquerello, I'll venture that it is this, but much more as well. For me, this is San Francisco's great underrated fine dining destination, despite the fac that it has won a coveted Michelin star for six years and counting.
Even with the promise of Acquerello's forward-thinking food and heartwarming classics in the air, it's the service that initially stands out. Upon arrival, one is ushered to a table thoughtfully spaced apart from its neighbors, intimate yet still engaged with the Italian decor. In soft peach and beige, the dining room is subtly dated in a way that speaks of the old country, inviting and quiet enough under striking wood rafters but not so hushed as to be museum-like.
A team of waiters, three sommeliers and co-owner Giancarlo Paterlini, alternately attend to each table, the head waiter having been at the restaurant since the 1980s, along with Paterlini's son, Gianpaolo, who is also the wine director, and chef and co-owner Suzette Gresham-Tognetti. The latter came out to greet those of us that lingered into the evening, clearly still passionate about what she does. Gresham-Tognetti works closely with young chef de cuisine Mark Pensa on all menus. (The classic tasting menu runs for $95 plus $75 for wine pairing; the seasonal tasting menu is $135 plus $95 for wine pairing; you can also choose three courses a la carte for $70, four for $82, five for $95.)
I recommend trying both the classic and seasonal menus, even if the a la carte menu gives you a chance to pick and choose among favorites. Ideally, a dining couple could order both for a glimpse of Acquerello's entire timeline, past and present.
Maybe the dishes on the classic menu have been around for awhile, but they are far from stale. In fact, the "greatest hits" lineup still offers some of the restaurant's best dishes. It will be a gourmand's loss when one of Acquerello's most popular plates, the ridged pasta in foie gras and Marsala wine sauce scented with black truffles, goes away in a few weeks. The most ecstasy-inducing dish on any menu is this dreamy take on foie gras, served as a sauce over al dente pasta. Another classic is juicy chicken breast decadently stuffed with black truffles over a leek custard and an artful mini-potato gratin, topped with shaved cremini mushrooms.
In contrast, the "chef's surprises" menu is filled with delicate hints of things to come, like a warm arancini of asparagus and parmesan cream and some profiteroles filled with lush herbed cream. The regular menu holds treasures like pear and foie gras "ravioli" — the chefs slice dry-farmed, organic comice pears into a thin, pasta-like skin, filling it with truffled foie torchon. Saikou, a New Zealand farm-raised salmon, is bright and clean from high, cold elevations. It is poached for a few seconds in a layer of horseradish, and crusted it with chevril, pine nuts, and parsley; an herb pesto of sorts. Each dish explodes with flavor yet corners refinement, maintaining a Cal-Italian ethos that won't play safe.
On the seasonal menu, the chefs work together closely on inventive takes that rival the better fine dining meals I've had. An amuse of raw yellowtail is alive with seabeans and arugula blossoms, while red abalone pairs with cabbage "seaweed" in porcini broth. Snake River Kobe beef is tender and pink, cooked sous vide under shaved hazelnuts. The cheese course is a warm, oozing round of gorgonzola D.O.P. (denominazione di origine protella, or protected designation of origin) beautifully co-mingled with potato, onion, mustard seeds, and nasturtium. Probably the most delightful, unique dish is "baked potato" gnocchi, a playful take on a baked potato made with a base of doughy gnocchi topped with chive crème fraiche, pancetta, and paper thin, fried slivers of potato skin.
Palate cleansers include a shot of carrot-apple-ginger juice with vanilla foam and a refreshing starter of orange juice, vermouth, and bitters. On the seasonal menu, a vivid dessert from pastry chef Theron Marrs marries cucumber sorbet with tart lime curd, sweet strawberry consommé, and herbaceous mint granita. As at Gary Danko, the cheese cart is one of Acquerello's shining glories. The cart traverses the restaurant covered to contain the smell of its stinkiest offerings. Diners have their work cut out of them to select from among its unusual, largely Italian cheeses. An impression was made with earthy Blu di Valchiusella from Piemonte wrapped in walnut leaves and an impeccable Beppino Occelli in Barolo wine leaves.
Boasting input from no less than three sommeliers, Acquerello's extensive wine list is novel-thick, dense with Italian wines. There's an impressive range of varietals and vintages stored in its wine cellars. Suggested pairings meld seamlessly with each dish, whether it be a classic, lovely Nebbiolo d'Alba (2008 La Val Dei Preti), an unusual Langhe Rosso Burgundian-style Italian Pinot, or D'antiche Terre Taurasi Riserva, which transforms when sipped with fabulously rich veal and truffled mortadella tortellini Bolognesi.
For a special occasion, I'd place Acquerello among the best fine dining experiences in San Francisco — even up against hot newcomers and pricey minimalist restaurants. This is a place with a sense of history and a vision for the future.
1722 Sacramento, SF
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