*THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED*
There is strange mojo around restaurants—sometimes things can't be totally explained. Like why do people continue to line up for an hour to eat at places that you can’t pay me to dine at? (e.g. Nan King, Puerto Alegre. Unless you're 22 and just don’t know better, why would anyone persist to eat in those joints, let alone line up for them?) And then you have total gems, like ~SCOTT HOWARD~, that just don't seem to get all the traction they should. Because I'll tell ya, this man can cook.
A protégé of Norman van Aken, and sporting a sweet North Carolina disposition, Scott Howard is a hella nice guy, and one hell of a chef. He recently re-jiggered the menu (larger portions, smaller price points) so if you haven't been recently, I'd strongly recommend a re-visit; compared to a lot of the food out there, this place is now quite a steal. Especially when you consider the quality of the ingredients he uses—he's truly a connoisseur. I know, I know, it was a little pricey and precious when it opened, but that's all changed, so think about it. They're also running a killer special in honor of the restaurant's one-year anniversary, and it will be available until the end of 2006: a $31 prix-fixe menu is offered Mon-Sat from 5:30pm-6:30pm. Okay, I have finished my little speech.
I used to hang out at this bar a fair amount when it used to be Cypress Club (back in tha' day)—it was when I was working in advertising (yes, the dark years), and martinis were still novel to me (I hadn't quite gotten into bourbon yet). The bartender used to call me Mary Pickford—he thought I looked like her, but maybe he was drunk too. After a couple cocktails, the whole room felt like one big womb—no hard edges anywhere, there were the big globular lights and fixtures… it was a trip. There are still a few hints of the original décor in the restrooms, and the handle on the front door. Then it closed and morphed into 500 Jackson, a seafood restaurant that I never quite made it to (times were tight by then).
When the restaurant became Scott Howard, the spacious room was touched up and modernized, and is now somewhat sparse: lots of wood, like gleaming wood floors, and wood tables sans tablecloths (although they do have the controversial woven placemats everyone comments on. Love them? Hate them? Discuss.). There are a couple massive floral displays and a large chandelier that add some visual interest. To be honest, it's the food that will really command your attention; the room, not as much.
There are booths on the upper level that flank large windows that look out onto the street; these seats are also a little detached from the room, and therefore quieter. And perhaps a little lonely. (Feel free to play footsie.) Otherwise, the sunken dining room area is where the majority of the tables are placed, so there's a bit more buzz. You can check out your fellow diners, who seem to be quite the hodgepodge group, from classy older conservative types, to savvy young urbanite couples, to businessmen tucking into a quality meal.
So let's get to said meal, shall we? There's a raw/smoked/cured section, with dishes like a spicy tuna tartare ($10), spiked with sriracha mayonnaise and sesame oil, or a buttery slab of hamachi ($10) served with delicately pickled cucumber and a quenelle of avocado puree, or smoked trout ($8), a decadent and slightly messy (but worth it) affair that comes with truffled egg salad on crostini. I came in for drinks one evening and enjoyed a couple of these dishes in the bar area—it's a good-looking place to meet up after work. Cocktails are pretty damned tasty. Sazeracs in effect.
You simply cannot miss the trademark carrot soup ($8), a signature from Howard's days at Fork in San Anselmo, which features a dollop of chervil sabayon and a drizzle of black truffle oil. My dining partner noted a weird Pavlovian response about wanting to chew the soup. We were both making funny chewy faces while savoring it—the soup features such intense carrot flavor you actually feel like biting it. Howard confirmed that it takes three pounds of carrots to make one bowl of soup. Just think of the vitamins.
Pork belly ($10) fans really shouldn't pass up Howard's version, which is brined and then cooked sous vide for 50 hours, and seared to order. I know, like, whoa. Buttah, baby. It comes with a cider vinegar glaze that truly smacks of his North Carolina roots, so it's like hi-lo bar-b-que, and even comes with a side of sweet corn.
The Cal-French decadence continues, with dishes like veal sweetbreads ($12) that make you grateful they only come in a starter size. The pillow of smooth Yukon Gold potato puree and the sprinkling of smoked bacon on top just cinch you tighter into total submission. Yeah, this dish is a total culinary dominatrix, dressed up in truffled Madeira jus who makes you say, "Yes, thank you Mistress, thank you!"
The domme also has a partner in the dungeon, the veal cheeks ($10). The description is a touch deceiving—it says it's served with celery, but what arrives is actually a delightful little celery salad made from the leaves, flecked with (mild) Serrano chile and thinly sliced shallot that works as a refreshing counterpoint to the richness of the cheeks. (Salve for the lashings?)
One dish that really didn't do it for me was the black cod ($22) resting on some heavily buttered abalone mushrooms. The caramelized endive brought some bitterness I didn't care for (and for the record, I'm down with bitter—I so heart rapini!). Around the plate was a circle of orange and honey jus, plus a sprinkling of sultanas and caper berries. Just way too much going on here for me, like I was at a Last Call sale at Neiman's or something.
Duck fans will enjoy this execution ($24), made with Liberty Farms duck breast. It comes with roasted figs, whole black-eyed peas, and Serrano ham jus that simultaneously deepens yet magnifies the savoriness of this dish. Howard really knows his way around jus, emulsions, and sauces—he could seriously teach a class on them.
The mack daddy of all the meats has got to be the short ribs ($21), and a large part of it is its back-up: the accompanying side dish of orzo mac 'n' cheese. Be careful, because it will totally make you its slave and get you right back into the dungeon with the veal cheeks and the sweetbreads. Wickedly delicious.
As you may have gathered, this is not exactly light food, despite the Californian touches here and there. Howard's food packs flavors that are deep, gutsy, and balanced. It's also a long menu—I really can't believe the number of choices, although I will say vegetarians will have to be a little creative in finding things to eat. Hey, that orzo mac 'n' cheese will be a good start, I can say that much.
The cheese service (a choice of three for $12) is thoughtful and features an array of accompaniments, like toasted almonds, truffled honey, and apricot confiture. Unfortunately, dessert didn't totally send me. Some folks adore the butterscotch pudding ($8), but I found the serving a bit massive and too much of one note—plus it was served too cold. We also wondered if it was a bit constarchy—a friend told me butterscotch is supposed to be a bit grainy… I dunno, my spoon just wasn't really wedded to it. The apricot soufflé ($9) comes with a lavender custard center that just struck me as soupy, and a touch heavy on the perfume side of things. Perhaps I should have tried the doughnuts instead. Anyway, dessert didn't hold up to dinner in my opinion (it’s a tough act to follow)—but judge for yourself.
Carl Francis, who was formerly a sommelier and the beverage manager over at Town Hall, is now here at Scott Howard as a bar manager, sommelier, and working with wine buyer Corey Hamilton on the list. (Look for a piece from him in "the wino" soon.) He put together some perfect pairings for us one evening, and even put some sake and Manzanillo sherry into the mix (nice).
Those looking for a place to host a group dinner should consider the spacious private dining room here—it'll be a meal that will impress. Otherwise, the restaurant is a prime spot to take your parents, anyone with a good palate, business associates, a date, or is an ideal spot for when you're doing something in North Beach and want a nice place to eat. You're totally gonna end up in some shackles, mark my words.
500 Jackson St.
Cross: Montgomery St.
San Francisco, CA 94133