Thursday, April 26, 2007

Dish on Dining: Scott Howard (closed)

Sticking With A Prix Fixe Meal
500 Jackson St., San Francisco
Between the Financial District and North Beach
UPDATE: (03/04/08) This restaurant closed temporarily a few months ago but today announced that it will close for good.

Web site

Tonight was Dining Out For Life, and since I had blogged about it and encouraged everyone to eat out during this special evening, I thought I had to be the man of my words and do the same. So I called my friend David and we made plans to go to one of the participating restaurants. We selected the 19-month-old Scott Howard in the Financial District/North Beach area.

Scott Howard, simply enough, is named after the chef/owner Scott Howard, a French-influenced chef who got his start with Fork in Marin County. When his San Francisco restaurant opened, it had a high-end feel and the prices supposedly reflected that with a prix fixe menu that few ventured into. But somehow Howard recognized this pattern wasn't going to fly so he simplified his California-French offerings and got rid of the pricey prix fixe choices.

Now that he's been able to build a nice buzz and customer base, he's brought back the prix fixe, albeit at a more reasonable $32. I personally am always intrigued by prix fixe menus. In many occasions, it's an affordable way to sample the talents of the kitchen without breaking your wallet. And, of course, on other occasions it's a sad way for a restaurant to move quickly some otherwise slow-moving dishes. The test for me is seeing whether I'll stick with the prix fixe choices or start to modify with additional appetizers and sides, thereby busting the fixed price. David and I decided to see whether Scott Howard's prix fixe menu was worth bringing back.

(Side note: Along with the prix fixe, which is three courses for $32, he also offers a five-course tasting menu for $60 and a wine flight for $15. The tasting menu can only be ordered if everyone on your table decides to order it.)

For the prix fixe's first course, you have a choice of either a soup, salad, or appetizer. The choices tonight were the restaurant's specialty soup, the carrot broth with chervil sabayon and truffle oil, or a mache and frisee salad with green apple or smoked salmon on a crispy potato cake with a small arugula salad. I chose the carrot broth because it was the restaurant's specialty, and David got the smoked salmon.

My soup was bright orange and tasty, but a bit too savory and sweet. (It suffered from what is often labeled as the "over-salting" of restaurant food, IMHO.) David's smoke salmon was a delicate meal. The smoked salmon was subtle but fulfilling, and the potato cake was perfectly crisped and nicely paired with the lightly dressed small salad.
The second course was the entree. The choices were a salmon with asparagus or a lamb loin with braised greens and truffled jus. I went with the salmon while David got the lamb. My salmon came with a slight hint of fishiness. This is where I started a discussion with David about how a clear sign of freshness of a restaurant's seafood can be determined by whether you can smell the fish before it hits your table. David says he couldn't smell my salmon and deemed me too critical. Ha! He did agree with me that my salmon was average. I should add that the sauce tasted simply of asparagus water and nothing else.

David's lamb, on the other hand, was a clear winner with its perfectly cooked redness and tenderness and the accompanying greens. (Unfortunately, my camera was running low on batteries so I couldn't take a picture of every dish and my attempt to photograph David's lamb resulted in a black blur.) But really, lamb is so easy to cook it's hard to go wrong with that choice on any menu.
For our third and final course, the prix fixe offered a dessert of warm chocolate cake or butterscotch pudding. David and I didn't differ on this front: We both ordered the butterscotch pudding. With the first bite, I declared myself happy after what I was convinced was my poor choices in the prix fixe menu. The pudding was luscious, with a deep wonderful amber color off-set by the cream topping. It tasted like tapioca, but without the weird jelly pearls. It was a rich, tasty treat and I loved it. David didn't have the same reaction as me, but I think he secretly loved it.

In the end, I decided that David had my perfect dinner, with the crispy potato cake and smoked salmon and wonderful lamb finished with delectable butterscotch pudding (a dessert I've never seen at any other restaurant). My dinner was hit and miss and was only saved by the dessert.

Minor note: Our server was not my favorite. I generally write off one inefficient server as a misnomer and don't add the service into my ratings, but I have to point out that this particular guy was incomplete in our service (not asking us if we wanted coffee or tea with our dessert or taking David's wine order but not mines) and a bit rushed. It didn't add to my enjoyment. Also, we got a drink at the bar before dinner and the bartender didn't even know what a glass of cava was when I asked if she had any. (Cava is the Spanish sparkling wine.) Again, a few holes in the overall experience at Scott Howard.

Scott Howard is an elegant restaurant with rich dark decor and a stylish setting. The menu, outside of the prix fixe, looks enticing and I probably would come back to order off of it. (The menu changes daily, although some regular favorites like the carrot broth soup and short ribs are probably always on the menu.) I agree with David that the prix fixe menu is a nice value compared to other restaurants. But because of the inconsistency in some of the execution of the dishes, I was left wanting a little bit more. More freshness. More innovation. More satisfaction.
Single guy rating: 3 stars (perfect for foodies)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Scott Howard in San Francisco

One of the nice touches of Scott Howard is that at the end of the night when they bring the bill, it's contained in a slip that includes a recipe printed inside. I thought that was such a fun idea, and I'm gladly sharing the recipe printed in our slip tonight. It was for the house special carrot broth. Enjoy!

Carrot Broth from Scott Howard

5-6 servings
3 cups diced carrots (small dice)
6 1/2 cups carrot juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon curry powder

1. Put diced carrots in a small pot.
2. Cover with carrot juice (reserve remaining for later).
3. Cook carrots in juice until the juice is reduced until dry.
4. In blender, puree cooked carrots (in small batches) with remaining juice until smooth.
5. Return to stove. Slowly heat to a simmer.
6. Add curry powder and then salt and pepper to taste.
7. Add cream.
8. Strain through Chinoise (fine mesh strainer).
9. Garnish with cream fraiche and truffle oil.


David said...

What's the lesson here? That I know how to order correctly, of course. ;-) I agree with you that the service was rushed and clumsy. But I think I liked Scott Howard (a weird name for a restaurant, if you ask me) better than you did. The food was deee-lish-ous. Loved the lamb. And I also ordered a side of orzo "mac 'n cheese" topped with tomato jam, which was rich, satisfying and could have been a meal in itself. I think the prix fixe option is definitely the way to go -- it's like getting the dessert for free. So I'd rate the experience a little higher than a 3 -- probably a 3.5.

Chef Ben said...

Oh, I neglected to blog about the "mac 'n cheese" that David ordered as a side. It was delicious. It was topped with what the restaurant called a "tomato jam" but it was more like a condensed roasted tomato sauce, rich in flavor and intensity. Being a lover of ketchup, I loved the tomato accent on the orzo. It was a very nice twist to this comfort food classic.

Well, David, I guess I have to start a new feature: "Eating like David." LOL

Anonymous said...

There's a delicious Butterscotch Pudding dessert at the Lark Creek "chains" (lark creek steak, lark creek inn)..

Chef Ben said...

Hmmmm, I may have to check it out and compare. I like it when restaurants offer desserts other than the usual suspects (i.e. chocolate cake, ice cream trio, apple pie/tart, or creme brulee).

Thanks for the heads up, anonymous!