550 Geary St.
Cross: Jones St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Bar until 1am
10, 2006 | SAN FRANCISCO
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.
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."
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.
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
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).
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!
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
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).
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.
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.
it is somewhat early on for the new entrées, I imagine things
will be tightened up or brightened up as time goes on.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.