This week's tablehopper: Roman holiday.
Castelvetrano olives at 54 Mint. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Buon giorno! SF, you’re looking so sparkly after your springtime bath last night. The drizzle certainly didn’t dampen the fun at Taste of Potrero last night—it was a packed house at the NWBLK, and even the outdoor patio was full of grazing guests (then again, it’ll take more than some drizzle to stop people from lining up to eat Del Popolo pizza and warm empanadas from El Sur).
What do you have on tap this weekend? Planning to check out one or two of all these new openings we have going on? Maybe a drink at the Big 4? One thing to note: Outerlands is looking like they won’t be opening until Tuesday or so due to some hiccups, sorry if that snags your brunch plans this weekend! You have plenty of options, and of course Sunday is Mother’s Day.
Today’s issue includes my review of 54 Mint, a gem of a place I have been so excited to write about. And with the warm weather rolling in next week, you may want to book your alfresco lunch or dinner reservation now, jus’ sayin’. We also have a wino from Alan Goldfarb, and Heather Irwin keeps us posted on some 707 scout news.
Enjoy the weekend, I swear, it couldn’t get here soon enough. You with me?
Established Restaurant Reviews (it's about time we met...)
Ahhh, the elusive “authentic” and excellent Italian restaurant—yes, one that’s run by Italians. It’s a rare bird here, although you can find a few, and it’s an experience I am always seeking. Don’t get me wrong, I do adore all our Cal-Italian places led by American chefs who fell in love with Italy, learning to make pasta from some of the best, their dishes featuring just-arrived-at-the-market ingredients, served by good-looking servers in their locally made aprons. And yes, so many Italian restaurants are just bad, serving a mishmash of dishes from all over Italy and God knows where, catering to what they think Americans want; the food made with subpar ingredients and, of course, there’s some lousy tiramisú.
I was having this rant/discussion over an espresso with a new Italian friend, a fellow writer who moved here not too long ago, and a Sardinian (yes, she adores La Ciccia). She said, “You need to meet my husband, he has so much to say about Italian food in San Francisco. You need to try his amatriciana. You need to eat at his restaurant.”
She then proceeds to tell me his place is 54 MINT, and my memories of having a couple of very strange and lackluster meals there start flowing into my brain. I tell her as much and she cuts me off gently: “No, no. It’s different now. I hope we can go. No pressure, just to see.” Of course I said “Sí!”
I have been so excited to write about this place, this somewhat hidden gem in Mint Plaza. A lot of tourists and folks meeting at Moscone have been dining there, but I have heard close to zero about it from my Italian network. The face (and heart) of the restaurant now is Gianluca Legrottaglie, who devotees of New York’s Il Buco would recognize; he is such a passionate lover of Italian wine and cuisine (and hospitality).
His chef is Mattia Marcelli, a talented young man of 25 from Rome, who learned to cook from the women in his family (the best teachers). When he was 19, he was cooking in New York at Aurora; he then returned home to Rome, and Gianluca got him to come back to the States. Lucky us.
The menu is full of Roman specialties, and some new creations too; lovers of prosciutto should start with the prosciutto e formaggio plate ($16), with beautiful ribbons of prosciutto di Parma “Martelli” (the sweet fat is exquisite) and the 24-month D.O.P. Parmigiano-Reggiano “Boni” that you can’t stop biting into. On the side is housemade bread they have a baker come in and make each morning, and they’re just fine-tuning some grissini too.
Another fantastic antipasto: the supplí ($12), with a crisp and chewy exterior, thankfully hot enough in the middle to give you the “telephone lines” of melted cheese when you pull it apart (which is what their name, supplí al telefono, refers to). One time they were filled with mushroom and molten Fontina instead of the current version with tomato and smoked mozzarella.
The kitchen is especially proud of their bruschetta ($16), topped with Di Stefano burrata, lobes of sea urchin, and a generous shaving of golden bottarga (you gotta have the good stuff around when have a Sardinian wife). Yes, it’s a sexy, umami-rich, creamy dish. The first time I had it, I thought the bread was too crusty and thick; but the second time, it was the perfect thickness, and they are now sourcing their urchin from farther north along the California coast. Over my three visits, I was happy to see how the kitchen is constantly tweaking and fine-tuning the menu (seasonal produce is highlighted as well).
Tripe fans, you will happily sink into the rustic version here ($13); the tender tripe is braised with tomato and loaded with big chunks of pancetta, pecorino, and perfumed with mint. Truly casareccia (home-style).
This is a place for pasta lovers. I can’t stay away from the cacio e pepe ($17), the housemade tonnarelli (a plumper version of spaghetti that is extruded in a square instead of round cut, with a delicate texture due to the eggs in it) that has a decadent, saucy coating of pecorino—with a touch of granularity to it. You won’t believe it doesn’t have cream in it, and the hearty dose of pepper will make your throat prickle. This is the kind of pasta that will make you quiet and not want to share as you twirl the wiggly strands onto your fork. Although on one visit it was notably creamier—another time, chef Marcelli wasn’t in the kitchen, and you could tell by the looser, oilier sauce that didn’t cling to the tonnarelli the same way. It was still very satisfying, just not transcendent.
The pasta all’amatriciana ($17), the Italian sauce I adore, features a bright tomato sauce with onion and a smoky perfume from smoked pancetta, and of course loads of pecorino. One night I had it with perfectly cooked bucatini, and another time their superlative potato gnocchi ($17) were taking a bath in it, the silky pillows layering the entire base of the dish. It’s a dish that says, “Abbondanza!” One snag I’d like to see fixed is to have the plates warmed up for the pastas; they deserve the best presentation possible.
The carbonara ($17) is arm wrestling the cacio e pepe for the position of my favorite, the thick coating on the spaghetti is a cremoso (and non-coagulated) combination of eggs, black pepper, and pecorino romano, with more chunks of guanciale than you’ll know what to do with. Oh, this dish. It would get you pregnant, it’s that seductive. (Yes, even if you’re a man. You’re gonna have babies!)
A couple of Roman classics for the mains include coda alla vaccinara ($28), a honking portion of oxtail stewed in a deep red sauce with pancetta and celery. (You’ll want to pick it up with your hands once it cools a bit—you can wash your hands later! Go ahead, ruin your napkin.)
The agnello ($30) lamb chops are another one to pick up with your hands, so tender and tasting a bit ferroso (of iron) and rosemary. They reminded me of something a relative would make, the lamby chops with their salty coating of bread crumbs, and the smashed and fried potatoes on the side. There are also some seafood options, but when in Rome…I want lamb. (And happily the lamb here is responsibly raised.)
Did you save room for dessert? Well, you better make some, because the panna cotta ($10) drizzled with 20-year balsamic needs your attention, or try the homey ricotta and strawberry crostata ($7). Say yes to a dessert wine too.
All along, you have the opportunity to let Legrottaglie take you on a rollicking journey through his wine list. He is so enthusiastic to pour new discoveries for you, from sparkling malvasia to small organic producers to wines from Mount Etna that will ruin you (Cisterna Fuori, I am talking about you—get back into my life soon please). No Super Tuscans here, it’s all about highlighting the autochthonous (indigenous) grape varieties of Italy. I hope you took a cab, because this man lives to pour wine.
And if you’re curious about some beers beyond Moretti, you’ll find six unique ones to try. They also have a full bar, so you can get your heat on with a Ciao Marcello! And let me tell you, an Aperol spritz on their outdoor patio on one of our rare warm evenings is the move. 54 Mint is also open for lunch during the week, so try to snag a table for an alfresco meal, or happy hour (Mon-Sat 4pm-6pm).
I have always been fond of the dining room, with its white walls and panels of exposed brick, the high-backed chairs at the wooden tables, and the long granite bar with white swivel stools (great for solo diners). Italian products are displayed everywhere for a reason: you can buy them. Some décor elements could use a little freshening: the white leather seats on the dining room chairs could use replacing, and the edges of the wood tables need a good buffing.
The dining room can get loud and boisterous, but fortunately large groups tend to be seated downstairs in the cantina, which is a great party space. The staff is friendly, and while things can get a little scattered (it gets busy here), just sink back into your chair, keep drinking your cesanese, and appreciate that this too is an authentic Roman moment.
This review was based on three dinner visits.
54 Mint - 16 Mint Plaza San Francisco - 415-543-5100
Wine Country Buzz (it’s what happens there)
Pork Ramen Hunt, Last-Minute Mom's Day, New Crêperie, Art of Eating
By 707 correspondent Heather Irwin. Sign up for the BiteClub Newsletter.
Desperately Seeking Ramen: Ever since Doug Keane shuttered his haute Japanese noodle bar, Shimo, the North Bay has suffered an appalling lack of decent ramen. There is, of course, Hana Japanese in Rohnert Park, but we’re talking casual, slurp-at-the-table ramen. Well, we’ve finally found it.
SHIGE SUSHI in Cotati is the absolute real deal. The tiny Japanese kitchen simmers pork bone, chicken, and dashi over several days, concentrating the flavors into a cloudy, deeply pork-flavored broth. Slices of pork, a soft-boiled egg, strips of mushroom and green onions, and chewy ramen noodles—all served piping-hot (with a dash or two of togarashi)—make this a sinus-cleansing, soul-warming meal.
Ramen isn’t available every day, so call ahead to make sure they’ve got it. If not, you’re still covered. Shige’s sushi, sashimi, and home-style dishes (like kara-age) easily stand up to the food at Hana Japanese, Hiro’s in Petaluma, and Bennett Valley’s Yao-Kiku. Just don’t tell anyone else about this awesome find, or it’ll be standing room only. Open Tues-Fri, closed Mon. 8235 Old Redwood Hwy, Cotati, 707-795-9753.
Last-Minute Mom’s Day Ideas: Really? You waited until now to figure out where to go for Mom’s special day? Oops, so did we. Here are a few spots where the deliciousness of the meal will redeem your lack of planning.
ZAZU KITCHEN + FARM: Fried green tomato BLT Benedict with Tabasco hollandaise, “Momosas,” hot chocolate with housemade cinnamon marshmallows, maple-glazed doughnuts with bacon jimmies, corned beef hash, and more. 9am-10pm. 6770 McKinley St., #150, Sebastopol, 707-523-4814.
FORCHETTA BASTONI: Bottomless mimosas entertain Mom; face painting entertains the kids. On the menu, Vietnamese doughnuts, Monte Cristo, loco moco, juk (Asian-style rice porridge), gravlax flatbread, deep-fried waffles, and a Big Ole’ Salad for Mom (fresh from the farmers’ market). 10am-3pm. 6948 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol, 707-829-9500.
SHED HEALDSBURG: The recently crowned James Beard Award-winning space will host a Mom’s Day fest for the locavore. Heirloom-grain Belgian waffles with fresh strawberries, rhubarb compote, and whipped crème fraîche; and poached eggs with asparagus, smoked trout, tiny potatoes, and tarragon persillade. All Moms will also receive a fresh herb bouquet that dries beautifully and might enliven a meal she could make from scratch just for you—if you saw her more often. 25 North St., Healdsburg, 707-431-7433.
SILVERADO RESORT: Impress Mom with the local bounty of Napa’s spring harvest, including pristine sustainably caught seafood, hormone-free beef and poultry, farm-fresh eggs, and local fruit. Silverado’s pastry chef will also create a dark chocolate fountain. $60 adults, $25 children ages 4-9. 10:30am-2:30pm. 1600 Atlas Peak Road, Napa.
The owners of the high-profile RENDEZ VOUS BISTRO in downtown Santa Rosa (as well as Flipside Burgers, Flipside Steakhouse & Sports Bar, and Lakeside Grill) are planning a “fresh market concept” in the former Rendez Vous Bistro in Courthouse Square, which judging by the name, Flip a Crêpe, will include, uh, crêpes? Reps aren’t talking yet, but it’s slated to open this summer, along with Flipside Brewhouse in Rohnert Park, which was formerly Latitude Island Grill.
LAKESIDE GRILL, the outdoor restaurant that opened last year in Spring Lake Park, will open with a limited menu on Saturdays and Sundays from May 17th through Memorial Day, then offer weekend breakfast and brunch, daily lunch and dinner, and a happy hour starting at 2pm all summer long. Hours are 10:30am until the park closes at sunset. 393 Violetti Road, Santa Rosa, 707-523-1406.
FARM TO FEAST 2014: On Saturday May 17th, Farm to Feast, the annual food and wine event, pretty much sums up what it’s like to live in Sonoma County. Held at the Summerfield Waldorf School’s breathtaking biodynamic farm, top Bay Area chefs and vintners come together (many of whom are alums or have children at the school) to feast under the stars. Among the feast-makers: Traci Des Jardins of Jardinière, Jon Stewart and Duskie Estes of Zazu, Nick Peyton of Healdsburg Bar & Grill (and formerly of Cyrus), Lowell Sheldon of Peter Lowell’s, and the school’s own chef, Mat Petersen. Vintners pouring include Claypool Cellars, Coturri, Davis Family Vineyards, Littorai, Truett Hurst, Roederer, Small Vines Wines, Porter-Bass, and Martinelli Winery. 3:30pm-10:30pm, $90, all proceeds go to scholarships. Tickets at farmtofeast.org. 655 Willowside Road, Santa Rosa.
BOUVERIE PRESERVE’S ART OF EATING PICNIC: Inspired by the life of culinary author M.F.K. Fisher, this annual picnic presented by the Audubon Canyon Ranch invites guests to the limited-access Glen Ellen reserve for a day of eating, drinking, and exploring. Benefitting the ranch’s Nature Education Programs for schoolchildren, the Art of Eating event runs from 12:30pm-4:30pm, with chefs from Brown Sugar Kitchen, Rivoli Restaurant, and Taste Catering providing the food. $150. 13935 Sonoma Highway 12, Glen Ellen.
Guest Wine & Spirits Writers (in vino veritas)
Checking Lists: A Critical Look at Restaurant Wine by Alan Goldfarb (Absinthe)
Alan Goldfarb was the wine editor at the St. Helena Star, where it is said that assignment must be akin to covering Catholicism in Vatican City. He was also the senior editor for AppellationAmerica.com. His work has appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Wine Enthusiast, and Decanter. He’s the contributor of the chapter “Chewing on Chile” in the Travelers’ Tales book Adventures in Wine. He was also the technical editor for California Wine for Dummies.
He’s a restaurant wine consultant and advises wineries on public relations projects. (For his “Checking Lists” column, he will not promote his clients.) You can listen to his latest appearance on iWine Radio. Have a question or a comment? You can email Alan. He’d love to hear from you.
Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder and the Wine Longer
It’s rare indeed for a brasserie to have a wine list with way too many entries to count and a stunning breadth, especially when the entrées top out at $37. But I suppose that’s a leftover from the days when ABSINTHE BRASSERIE & BAR was more centered around French cuisine. By now, Absinthe could be described as “French lite”—and that’s certainly not meant as a barb. In fact, it’s a right joyous thing for a wine geek to have 725 (!) Burgundies, 125 Meursaults, and 75 Chablis from which to choose. But such food offerings as a soft garlic pretzel appetizer or a pastrami sandwich (albeit one gilded with mozzarella, green garlic aioli, and pickled jalapeños) doesn’t exactly go together with a wine list of this scope.
That said, I’ve always liked Absinthe. But I liked it for its gay French feel and its brass—for the metal accoutrements as well as the attitude. Now, in its latest incarnation, I think it’s attempting to tamp down some of the old Francophilia and propel itself into the hipster (how I hate that word) vibe that has overtaken the neighborhood. But like Hayes Street Grill up the street, Absinthe, by dint of its long existence, has been nearly forgotten or, at the very least, taken for granted.
And it should not be. The food is still good, even if it’s veering away from Frenchiness. Take, for instance, the ceviche, with its perfectly balanced citrus and chiles; it was divine with the 2012 Schloss Gobelsburg grüner veltliner ($13.50 glass/$42 bottle) and was likewise citrusy and delicious. The list read that it was a 2006, which is why I jumped on it, because one doesn’t get the opportunity to taste much aged grüner. It certainly didn’t appear to be an eight-year-old white, and when wine director Ian Becker seemed startled by my observation, he quickly returned to announce that, indeed, it was a ‘12. And he quickly set about to correct the mistake.
Becker has a lot on his plate, what with tending to the wine shop ARLEQUIN WINE MERCHANT next door and two other restaurants in the Absinthe Group, which will swell to three with another restaurant on Brannan slated to open this fall. But, I must say, the wine director knows his stuff. Arlequin carries an eclectic amalgam of offerings, and Becker has a firm grasp on each one; despite the fact that the place has no signage with which to guide the consumer. That’s left in the adroit hands and mind of Becker himself, who will take you on a tour—both real and imagined—of his shop’s myriad wine locales.
Back at Absinthe, you’ll need a boatload of help if you’re to circumnavigate the depths of the list. If one heads to the Cru Beaujolais section, there are relative bargains to be discovered. There are no bargains in the 70 (that’s right) half bottles, but the fact that there are so many in this category shows that the folks at Absinthe genuinely want their clientele to enjoy their wines.
The list, of course, is laden with French offerings, but there are nearly 40 Napa cabernets included amongst some balanced bottlings from Corison, Togni, and Kathryn Kennedy. It’s another indication that the Absinthe curators are serious wine thinkers.
They may be egalitarian too. If you buy a bottle from Arlequin and have it opened there, they’ll charge you only $5 for the privilege. Bring it next door to Absinthe, and it’s $12.50, just half the usual $25 corkage.
And in attempt to appease or satisfy those that remember Absinthe from its earlier incarnation, there’s a daily lunch offering of the classics, i.e., cassoulet, confit, and soupe de poisson.
TO LOOK FOR: 2010 La Courançonne, Côtes du Rhône, France ($9.50 glass/$38 bottle)
This blend of mostly grenache, syrah, and mourvedre is full-bodied, balanced, and delicious with good ripe blackberry fruit and undertones of licorice and smoke. Only 13.5 percent alcohol.
Please feel free to email Alan with your comments and your experiences with restaurant wine. He’d love to hear from you.