Acquerello’s pear and foie gras “raviolo” with dry-farmed, organic Comice pears filled with truffled torchon of foie gras. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Ah yes, such a delightful summer day, full of mist and clouds. Obnoxious.
It’s funny how stories can fall into your lap. Last week, it was the incredible SFChefs Stars Realigned Dinner (you can read my write-up of the memorable evening on 7x7.com here), and just this Wednesday evening, I had another unexpected experience, at Acquerello. See, this is why I go out so much: it gives me a lot to think about, and then to write about. This city is so rich with people and their stories. I hope you enjoy today’s piece, and we also have a 707 scout piece for you.
I need to hop onto some other deadlines, so enjoy the weekend! You have plenty of options to pig out: Pig & Pie is now open, and High on the Hog is this Saturday. There’s also this brewtruc beer garden on Saturday, and quite the farewell-to-foie dinner from the Bon Vivants.
Stay outta trouble.
With the looming statewide ban on foie gras that’s happening this weekend, many San Francisco diners are out on the town having their final foie farewell (it’s like citywide human gavage out there). Just last night, chef David Bazirgan of Fifth Floor tweeted he did 96 covers, 66 seven-course foie tastings, and 13 nine-course tastings. I, too, was hatching some plans to say farewell: my dining wingwoman and I had an impromptu meet-up at La Folie Lounge for chef Roland Passot’s foie soup with seared foie on the side—the place was bursting at the seams. Chef Passot is known for always coming out of the kitchen to greet regulars, but he was so busy on Wednesday night he couldn’t even sign my “Au Revoir Foie” menu for me. There’s no free time during foiemageddon.
While finishing our foie spread, I discovered my dining partner had never had the famed ridged pasta with foie gras, black truffles, and Marsala at ACQUERELLO. I have chef Rob Lam (Butterfly) to thank for turning me on to this dish. Many years ago, I was raving about chef Sean O’Brien’s foie and garganelli dish at Myth, and Lam schooled me a bit: “Babe, you know where that dish came from, right? It’s Suzette’s, over at Acquerello. [O’Brien used to work at Acquerello.] Man I love that dish. I’ve called Acquerello before and begged for them to just let me pick up a box of it to go after service but they won’t let me.” That would be one hell of a takeout coup.
So after a phone call to Acquerello, we were lucky enough to score a late table. Owner Giancarlo Paterlini was pleased to hear about our foie pasta mission, because he said he had a surprise for us. After a few courses of fantastic new dishes on the menu (like the “baked potato” gnocchi with chive créme fraîche, pancetta, and crispy potato skins, and the spicy cuttlefish “tagliatelle” with capers, lobster, and agretti, a fun twist on aglio olio [garlic and oil]), Giancarlo presented us with two bowls, each under a porcelain cloche. After he lifted the lids, he said: “One of you has the original dish, and one of you has something different.” He then smiled and walked away.
This dish is a decadent one of epic proportions: your nose immediately gets hit with the sweet wafting of Marsala and the earthy perfume of shaved black truffle. My wingwoman smiled. We dove in, savoring the creamy sauce—so infinitely smooth—that clings to the ridges of the rigatoni pasta. It makes you want to purr.
After a few bites, we traded plates. A few more bites. How exciting, the difference was almost undetectable. One tasted just a tiny bit earthier, but otherwise, they were almost exactly alike. We were fired up for the reveal. It ends up the mystery version was made with duck liver, in a brilliant feat of reverse engineering. How awesome. The dish I was honestly sad to say farewell to, one of the city’s most magnificent pasta dishes (and most beloved), had been saved.
This signature dish is part of Suzette Gresham-Tognetti’s legacy as a chef, and of the restaurant—Acquerello opened in 1989, and the dish was added to the menu a couple years later. Of course she was heartbroken about having to take it off the menu (as were her customers).
I had a chance to speak with both the chef and her oh-so-talented protégé, chef de cuisine Mark Pensa, who has been in the kitchen since 2009 and is the one who reverse engineered the new dish. He walked me through the new process, which entails soaking the duck livers in milk overnight, blending them with Marsala, cream, and butter, and then cooking them in the oven like a liver mousse. He also devised a new variation of the foie gras butter that forms the base of the sauce into one made with liver. He said it was shocking how close he was able to get it.
The day he revealed the new dish to Suzette, he was scrambling to get it done before she came into the kitchen. He said the look on her face when she tasted it, the huge smile, was such a proud moment for him (especially since she’s one tough cookie—and these two often butt heads like a mother and son). He saw her eyes were a little teary—they were not going to say goodbye to her baby. Pensa said, “I could have quit right there. The work we are doing to be a two-star Michelin, to get four stars, it didn’t matter, because this moment made me proudest. I could be happy, just because of this.”
My wingwoman and I talked about how necessity really is the mother of all invention. Sure, the foie sauce on the pasta was perfect as it was, and the new version is a bit more labor-intensive and unstable. The kitchen probably never would have tweaked the recipe—why would they ever need to? And then the ban happened. And the protégé probably never would have had the opportunity to rise to the occasion like this, the ultimate homage to his teacher.
Everyone should enjoy this historic and now redux-ed dish at some point, in addition to the stellar pairing by Giancarlo Paterlini’s son, Gianpaolo (right now it’s Fausto Maculan, Breganze ‘Torcolato’ 2007—with one sip after a bite of the pasta, it made me say “boom”).
Acquerello offers a three-course menu for $75, four courses for $90, and five courses $105. I said it in a recent review, and I’ll say it again: this restaurant is one of San Francisco’s finest—there is so much care and love and passion that make this place the memorable experience that it is, every time. The different generations (father and son, chef and chef de cuisine) help it strike that perfect balance of Old World class and New World innovation. I am always so taken with Acquerello’s immaculate service, inspiring dishes, deep wine cellar (and spot-on pairings), stellar cheese cart, elegant desserts (the peach Bavarian with tarragon sorbet is a winner), the engaging dining room, and the take-home box of almond biscotti you get to enjoy with your coffee the next day. Acquerello’s name may mean watercolor, but it has the history, style, mechanics, and grace of a finely tuned Alfa Romeo.
Acquerello - 1722 Sacramento St. San Francisco - 415-567-5432
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By 707 correspondent Heather Irwin.
A K-J café? JACKSON FAMILY WINES will take over the former Shimo Modern Steak location in Healdsburg. The 241 Healdsburg Avenue space is slated to become a “culinary café” showcasing orchestrated food and wine pairings, a menu of small bites, and a curated selection of locally made products including cheeses, breads, charcuterie, and chocolates.
This ain’t no stale pretzel and mustard setup, however. K-J executive chef Justin Wangler has an all-star team lined up for the new property. He’ll tap into K-J’s culinary garden, expanding the line of housemade goodies and his network of top purveyors throughout Wine Country. The café will also be a retail outlet for a line of grape-seed oils, flours, and cookies from sister company WHOLEVINE, a project of JFW chairman Barbara Banke and former Chalk Hill Estate co-owner Peggy Furth to both minimize winery waste (grape seeds, skins) and create a healthful food product.
Wangler has already decamped to the Shimo kitchen, having moved his operations (temporarily) to Healdsburg several weeks ago while the Santa Rosa Wine Center kitchens undergo major upgrades and renovations slated to last through next fall. There’s no word on when the café will open, but it seems reasonable to expect sometime next year.
Meanwhile, Healdsburg winemaker Pete Seghesio’s proposal for a meat and salumi cafe and store on the site of the razed Healdsburg post office is cooling its heels for another month. Healdsburg city planners will consider the HEALDSBURG MEAT CO. at its next meeting in July. Sehgesio’s cafe and store also includes—you guessed it—a wood-fired pizza oven and by-the-glass wines. In case you’re keeping track, that’s the third wood-fired café concept in Healdsburg recently.
Clearly it’s a good time to be familiar with a Mugnaini, and there are few who know their way around 00 flour and a pizza peel like Liza Shaw. The former A16 chef has been tapped to impart her doughy ways at the recently opened CAMPO FINA and REDD WOOD. But don’t expect the same pizzas at each spot. We chatted with Shaw, and she explained how she customizes the texture, dough, and cooking time for each restaurant.
Her newest project is the forthcoming PIZZANDO with SPOONBAR’S chef Louis Maldonado. They’re previewing the forthcoming Healdsburg Hotel pizzeria at Pizzando Pop-Up dinners Wednesday July 11th and Wednesday July 25th. A recent preview dinner included tuna crudo with salsa verde; pickled carrots and mint; pizza margherita; and slow-roasted pork ribs with lavender honey, spiced oxtail, and baked polenta. 219 Healdsburg Ave. at Mill St., Healdsburg, 707-431-2202.
Can’t do a proper vacay this summer? Get away each Thursday throughout the summer, PETITE SYRAH spins the globe for culinary inspiration. On Thursday July 5th, it’s a New England lobster boil, chowder, and blueberry pie ($39), followed by menus from Argentina (July 12th), Provence (July 19th), and Rome (August 9th). 205 5th St. at Davis St., Santa Rosa, 707-568-4002.
Alexander Valley’s historic JIMTOWN STORE goes Guatemalan for a benefit dinner on Thursday July 12th at 7:30pm. Menu includes “Pollo Jocon,” a traditional Guatemalan chicken; Rancho Gordo beans and rice; pineapple empanadas; homemade tortillas and salsa; and “palomitas and pepitas.” Proceeds benefit AMIDI, an organization that helps Guatemalan women and girls. Reservations required, $25. 6706 Hwy 128, Healdsburg, 707-433-1212.
Napa’s reigning grande dame previews her new book, Margrit Mondavi’s Sketchbook: Reflections on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance and Life, Wednesday July 11th at the MONDAVI WINERY. A fixture in the valley’s social scene and wife of the late Robert Mondavi, Margrit’s book is a collection of personal stories, sketches, and diary entries. Don’t expect any bombshells here. Instead, this is a collaborative effort with food writer Janet Fletcher (and there’s a foreword from Thomas Keller) that reflects her personal history and that of the winery. Book signing from 5pm-7pm. The book goes on sale Thursday July 12th, retailing for $35. 7801 St. Helena Hwy, Oakville, 707-226-1395.
Grab your cowboy boots, because the hay bales are out and the barn doors are swinging open for alfresco field-to-table dinners throughout the summer. Check out BiteClub for a listing of upcoming dinners at QUIVIRA’S biodynamic farm and winery, the LUTHER BURBANK HOME & GARDENS, and Petaluma’s WEBER RANCH.