I know, can you believe it? Another small plates restaurant. But I have to say, ~TERZO~ is really going to make some people happy. If you make enough moolah to afford the necessary 3-4 small plates per person, then you're really going to dig it. Even if you don't have enough cash for a full spread, you can still sit at the bar, order a plate or two of tasties over a glass of wine, and not feel like a broke-ass outsider watching everyone throw back flutes of Billecart-Salmon Rose while you drink tap water.
The name means third, and refers to the concept of the "third place"—it's not home, and it's not work: it's that place where you gather with friends and neighbors. (No, not a dive bar at 11am on a Wednesday.) I'd say the zinc bar area and the large communal table certainly promote that idea. And it's open pretty darned late for this town that likes to shut down at 10pm. I also think a lot of guys will be pleased with the female-to-male ratio. The night I went it was a chick-fest in there. The communal table was like a convention of thoroughbreds in True Religions.
When you first arrive, you'll see some tables out front, which are going to be coveted seats in the summer. Which will be October, love our city. Inside, local architect Cass Calder Smith has totally transformed the former Pane e Vino space: it's post-modern rustic hip, with tables that feature a groove on each side where the small tablecloth edges (or a large cloth napkin) can tuck in—totally an innovative touch. High-backed deep brown banquettes line the back wall, with trios of lights above (look for the threes in there—like the windows). The lighting is flattering, and the space has a nice smell of new furnishings and a fireplace. Downtempo-samba-electronica is on the soundsystem, and the crowd supplies the rest of the din. Some slightly tipsy folks will probably walk into themselves in the large mirror near the bar—don't let it happen to you.
Executive chef Mark Gordon's Cal-Med-Ital menu features about 16 small plates, with descriptions that are rarely more than five words, so you'll be seeing some ingredients you might not recognize. Like tesa. Or charmoula. Just ask—it's important for your education. The menu is a fun globetrot through the Mediterranean, with a few touches of Morocco here and Greece there. Overall, the food isn't necessarily the prettiest to look at, but in the end, it's about what's on the fork. It's like a girl "with a good personality."
Some favorites: oh jeez, the boudin blanc ($12) was the picture of sensuous and creamy and succulent. Spectacular, really. It's what happens when you sauté onions in butter, and then add some chicken, pork, bread, cream, coriander, nutmeg and pork fat and bind it all up like a sausage that has the delicacy of a quenelle. Ends up the chef's wife, Lori Podraza, makes it. Mad props. Also loved the hot steamed clams ($11), which were perfectly cooked (i.e. not little pieces of chewed gum stuck in a shell) with a nice smokiness of pimentón in a broth that begs for bread dunking long after the grilled toasts are done. Hey, wait a minute, where is the bread? I dunno. You'll have to ask your server.
Vegetarians will be fired up on the number of options, like the meaty roasted oyster mushrooms ($9) inspired by Sicily, with garlic, parsely, and olive oil. The ricotta and green garlic soufflé ($9) had a pleasing fluffy texture, but I couldn't really detect the green garlic. The flavors of the fennel a la Grecque ($8) were right up my alley: a hearty portion of soft fennel that had been slowly cooked for an hour or so, served with green and black olives and a soft-boiled egg, and a touch too much olive oil, delicious.
There's also the Sao Jorge ($8)—(in case you were wondering, it's a slightly tangy cow's milk cheese) thinly sliced and served with celery and Medjool dates. It's tasty, but you really have to get all three items together in a fandango on your fork for the flavor combo to really sing. Folks are reportedly loving the hummus ($7) with house made pita—I personally can't vouch for it since I didn't order it, but someone said there's a party somewhere.
Okay, back to our regularly scheduled meat programming. Roasted marrowbones ($10). Bold thing to put on a Marina/Union Street menu. They come with a crostini tucked inside the top of the bone and a little bit of seasoned salt on the side. I'm normally into 'em (I love the version that was/is at La Suite) but these were a touch oily and seeped out on the plate. I wasn't quite thrilled. My dining partner loved them. I just can't imagine the neighborhood fillies getting all crazy for them, marrow spoons in hand, fighting over the last fatty scoop.
Now, the beautifully pink slices of roasted Niman Ranch beef ($13) draped on perfectly textured rosemary potatoes was worth the price tag—but the petite piece of halibut (also $13) didn't quite charm me. It was served on a bed of garbanzos that were under-seasoned and undercooked, and a romesco that was a touch too powerful for the fish. I was told the halibut is actually supposed to be served with favas once they're in season, so I'd give the fish another chance.
Don't be confused by the gnocchi alla romana ($10)—instead of gnocchi, what arrives is one big gnoccho (that would be singular) in an earthenware dish. It's like a fluffy polenta soufflé/cake, rich with parmesan cheese and milk and egg and butter resting in a hearty beef ragu with a tease of cinnamon. It was so delicious with the Beaujolais Fleurie, Trenel Fils "Clos des Moriers" 2004. Another slightly funky but tasty dish is the chicken spiedini ($10)—pieces of chicken that are deceivingly juicy arrive on two skewers with chunks of grilled bread. The charred bread and skewer action was initially a little odd to me, but the flavors totally won me over.
The wine list features some winners—not cheap, mind you. But a lot wines you'll want to dig into. I loved the Burgundy we ordered—the Saint Aubin, En Remilly, Chateau de Puligny, 2003. And for $75, that puppy delivered. I also tasted the Pinotage from Fort Ross, Sonoma Coast, 2002—it was peppery and powerful. $15 a glass, that one. Actually, a number are available by the glass (many at $10 and above) but like I said, this is not the best place for those trying to adhere to a budget, but fun for those who don't have to look too hard at what follows the dollar symbol.
Desserts are all $7.50, and range from a delightfully dense gateau Victoire (where was the raspberry? I think it was served with cherries instead, but I was getting a little tipsy by this point) with a nice dollop of crème chantilly. And I hate to say this, it sounds sooooo clichéd, but the tiramisu was totally delicious. I normally won't even go near the stuff, I have outlawed it years ago, oh, the horrible things so many restaurants have done to this dessert. But this version was fluffy and boozy and silky. Complimenti. Cheesehounds, attack the Brillat Savarin (it's from the Cheeseworks in Berkeley) and has a mighty fine rind. For the less decadent, the grapefruit sorbet and lime sorbet are nicely tangy. Now excuse me while I go walk up the damned hill and try to burn off that boudin blanc on my way back to the Western Addition.
* Update since my review: *
I have learned that portion sizes have been upped, some heartier additions are on the menu, and they have added a few more affordable dishes too. I've also heard the food is just fantastic!
3011 Steiner St.
San Francisco, CA 94123
Cross: Union St.
Small plates $7-$13