When the Hatfields departed ~CORTEZ~ for Los Angeles in the beginning of 2006, the McCoys thumped their chests and said, "Ha! We kicked some major hillbilly ass." Uh, no, wrong story. What actually happened is opening sous chefs Louis Maldonado and Seth Bowden were each promoted to the role of co-executive chef, which I thought was a rather clever arrangement. I went soon thereafter to try their cooking, and let's just say after my second visit a few weeks back, I am left with the impression that they have come a long way, baby.

Cortez's menu is known for being an engaging one to peruse, peppered with intriguing combinations and appetizing elements like pancetta, saffron sauce, tomato marmalade, and tarragon aioli. The menu follows a small plates format, which magically equates to a somewhat spendy dinner, but the restaurant has now integrated main courses into the menu—eight, in fact (prices range from $21-$26). Cortez made this change because diners want more bang for their buck (Scott Howard's recent menu changes also reflect this growing sentiment about value) and the timing and style of a small plates format can make for some loosey goosey dining. Some folks (i.e. pot smokers) are cool with things being freeform, while other control-freak types (like CEOs, dictators) like things orderly—but now, both types can dine happily off the same menu and have things traditionally coursed, or like before, "as they're ready."

The complimentary amuse of goat cheese-stuffed gougères made for a pleasing kickoff (a warm mouthful of choux pastry and cheese, what's not to love?), and it is a tradition of the restaurant to start with soup shots for two ($6). This evening it was a musky shiitake soup topped with celery foam—not bad at all, but not really earth shattering in the mushroom soup department either.

You can commence on the light and refreshing side of things, especially appealing for you low waisted jeans-wearing ladies. There is a chef's crudo (this particular night was Thai snapper with avocado, grapefruit, and a perfect dusting of a salt that I'm sure is some obscure salt that's something like $26 a pound) or the (ubiquitous) tuna tartare ($12), but I'll be damned if it wasn't totally delicious. A variation of this dish is on every freaking menu in town because whaddya know, it's good. Our gentlemen chefs rocked this one with ginger sprouts, perilla (AKA shiso), and mustard seed oil that totally made the dish sing a high note—it was peppery and piquant and was perfect slathered on the house-made cracked fennel seed lavash. Crispy, smooth, peppery… all good things.

There are savory salads, like one with kicky (not colicky) baby mizuna, Serrano ham, Manchego cheese, and figs with toasted almond butter ($9) or market-fresh heirloom tomatoes (if you are reading this in December, don't expect to find tomatoes on the menu) resting on a bed of fromage blanc with sweet and nicely chewy pancetta and a sprinkling of lemon basil ($9).

My personal fave was a bowl of toothsome farro ($12) that was treated like a risotto, with deep Parmesan flavor—a total umami fest. It was topped with a slow-poached organic egg that made for one helluva luxurious mix when the yolk was broken and then seeped into the farro. The house-made ravioli ($12/$15) are another favorite—tender ricotta ravs with English peas and preserved lemon resting in a sherry lobster emulsion that truly sang with lobster—yes, more umami. Laaaaaaaaaa!

Now, for the new mains. The caramelized diver scallops had a pleasing citrus touch, and the hunks of braised octopus ($22) were literally cooked to perfection (they also get a brief grilling for that hit of fiery flavor that is so divine with octopus)—they shared a drizzling of a smooth garlic emulsion. The fresh soybeans on the plate were completely sans seasoning, however, and I found the scattering of toy box tomatoes extraneous. Overall, the dish didn't feel integrated and was also not the prettiest presentation (read: a little sloppy-looking), with a sprig of parsley on the plate for garnish. Huh. This dish will be a lot better when it becomes version 2.0.

The presentation of the Japanese sea bream ($23), however, exhibited total artistry, both visually and on the taste buds: a swath of Thai basil ran around half of the plate, with the fish resting in a foamy bath of sweet onion soubise and roasted chiodini mushrooms, plus mouthwatering hints from a coconut lime broth. While the sea bream was in fact a touch overdone, dang, the depth of flavor in this dish is what remains in my memory. It was like a good concert, with a lead singer who was just a little too drunk on stage. Speaking of, the 2004 Chateau de Maligny Chablis from Kermit Lynch was a nice match (thank you, our fab server, for the pairing).

The breast of poussin and "southern style crispy legs" ($21) proudly featured a perfectly crispy crust, but it was coupled with the richness of caramelized artichokes, white asparagus (I must admit, I am prejudiced against this ridiculously indulgent ingredient—it always feels so needlessly fussy to me), and chervil-scented hollandaise that all conspired to do me in.

The duck breast ($23) delivered pleasing "pair with duck nicely" flavors: cherry, celery, herbed spaetzle… but the combination didn't strike me as anything particularly new or different like many of the other dishes. I will testify, the baby yellow carrots were divine—in fact, so many of the ingredients in all of the dishes show how much the kitchen cares about the produce they use. The duck was juicy and tender and plump, but the twisted ribbons of spaetzle were too doughy—spaetzle are like gnocchi to me: so many establishments do different variations of these dishes, but very few do them really really well. I wish everyone would lay off the spaetzle, and gnocchi, unless they are "grandma approved." Grandmas know what's up.

Since it is somewhat early on for the new entrées, I imagine things will be tightened up or brightened up as time goes on.

Desserts from Nick Flores all sounded quite tasty. Again, the dessert menu reads well, like the dinner menu, because it’s interesting. Most people swear by the beignets, which are just delish, yes. But sometimes you gotta branch out, and the winner was the adult version of PB&J: a silky peanut butter custard tart ($9) that had a brûléed crust on top, along with Concord grape sorbet and a round of toasted vanilla brioche. Wicked good, and unique to boot.

We also tried the dense pine nut caramel tart ($9) with a scoop of bay leaf ice cream that sat within a pine nut-studded tuile wheel that made dessert look like Saturn. Also different, but no match for the peanut butter custard. I appreciated that the stems were trimmed from the roasted black mission figs—it's the little things. Speaking of little things, Flores also sends out some complimentary treats at the end, like caramel corn, a chocolate pistachio nougat (wasn’t a fan of this), and raspberry pate de fruit. It’s a nice flourish.

The room has a sexy chic vibe, with dim lighting, the requisite smooth house jams, attractive servers flitting about the room (small plates restaurants keep servers moving constantly), and an interesting mix of a few hip locals plus a grab bag of out-of-towners staying in the Hotel Adagio, from sassy Spaniards to slightly out-of-place older couples who don't talk to each other anymore over dinner.

The bar area is usually buzzing, even with Rye and Swig within a toss of a crack pipe (yeah, the neighborhood borders on sketchy, but there's valet parking for those who don't like to deal with the crackers, or the dearth of parking over there). The room has "Kandinsky goes to the circus" style, with large canvases of circus-themed art, glowing orbs on the ends of large circular mobile-esque light fixtures, with some Mondrian elements thrown in as well. Yes, a 20th century melee of references. It's attractive for a hotel restaurant, but I just wish there were some windows—it's strange, but so many hotel restaurants don't have windows.

Service tends to get uneven reports, from extremely knowledgeable servers to somewhat green or clueless types. For example, upon getting my coat at the end of the meal, it was merely handed to me by the hostess, while most restaurants of this caliber (i.e. white tablecloths in effect) would help you put it on. On the other hand, our server knew the wine list like a champ and has a pretty good handle on the ingredients in each (somewhat complex) dish, but another pal recently reported on her inattentive server who also didn't seem to know much. I will say the busboys are on it, and changing plates often, which is otherwise a pet peeve of mine with many restaurants serving small plates: they don't replace the dirty dishes often enough.

The modulated volume makes it a good place for a date because you can actually talk, and birthday gatherings and other group dinners also seem to be popular here. It's also an easy place to blow some cash and impress your friends, like the guy next to me who proudly announced to his table he wanted to spring for a Super Tuscan (and said it something like three times). For a second there, it felt like 1998.

*Update: April 6, 2009*
While chefs Seth Bowden and Louis Maldonado have long since moved on, chef Jenn Puccio is now the one leading the kitchen. Some Cortez traditions carry on, like the soup shots for two, the primarily small/share plates format, quality ingredients, and the tendency toward playful and inventive flavors.

While I am not afraid of fat grams like I should be, the menu ultimately struck me as rather heavy and rich, loaded with dishes like a foie gras torchon, duck rillette, dates stuffed with pate, pork belly, crab cakes, even the baby beets came with burrata. So if those kinds of dishes are music to your ears, now you know where to go. That said, the creamy crab rice that came with the prawns a la plancha was decadent in the right way--such savory flavor and a perfect texture. But if you wanted to eat light, there was a crudo dish, a baby fennel salad, and a dish of grilled octopus, mussels, and squid to choose from, but that's about it. The prices are also a bit "Union Square" (mains hover from $26-$28).

550 Geary St.
Cross: Jones St.
San Francisco, CA 94102


Dinner nightly 5:30pm-10:30pm
Bar until 1am

Small plates $6-$14
Mains $21-$26
Dessert $5-$12

This place is now closed.

550 Geary St. San Francisco
(at Jones St.)