Thursday, June 14, 2007

Dish on Dining: Two [[UPDATE: Closed]]

Double your pleasure at ex-Hawthorne Lane
[UPDATE 11/14/09: This restaurant is now closed.]]
22 Hawthorne St. at Howard, San Francisco
SOMA
PH: 415.777.9779
Open lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.; Dinner daily, 5:30 p.m.–10 p.m.; happy hour, Mon.–Fri., 4–6 p.m.
Reservations, credit cards accepted
http://www.two-sf.com/


Hawthorne Street always sounded like an inspiring place to stroll, like you’ll see all these literary types visiting quaint bookstores or tea shops. But in San Francisco it’s really just an alley, and for many years the primary destination for the restaurant Hawthorne Lane.

I never made it to the original Hawthorne Lane (just a stone’s throw from the W Hotel), but recently I visited its reinvented version known simply as Two.
Two (named in honor of the two chefs—David Gingrass and Bridget Batson) is a casual, eclectic place (it has deer antlers for a chandelier) that wants to be on the cutting edge of San Francisco cuisine. So what that means is there is a lot of experimenting on the menu, which can be delightful, surprising, and odd all at the same time.

I visited Two with my friends David and Ann after work one weeknight. I wanted to catch up on their trip to Italy. We made reservations to make sure we’d get a table, and I arrived to find David and Ann already enjoying themselves at the large bar in the center of the dining room. They gave rave reviews about the friendly bartender.

For dinner, we decided to order a few dishes to share. Two has an eclectic menu highlighting Californian seasonal ingredients, with a few small plates to encourage sharing. Because we each got to taste a little bit of everything, I’m doing my review in a different format this time. I’m going to do a critique of each plate as they arrived.
Chilled salmon salad and sweet pea puree on sourdough crostini ($8)—We started with this crostini to get the spring freshness of peas. David loved this more than I did. It was simply salmon flaked into a salad and placed on top of the crostini. While it was OK, I just kept thinking that I could have done this myself at home with some canned salmon and mayonnaise. It was a straightforward dish with very little other taste profiles to intrigue my taste buds.
Bread platter (complimentary)—I just have to give some space to the fantastic bread plate that came out looking like a shark. The biscuits were wonderful and the lavosh crackers were a nice contrast.
Bacon and egg raviolo, with spinach, sage brown butter ($10.50)—OK, you know how I have certain quirks about eating (like I’m against fried food and how I always order duck when it’s on a menu), well, one of my beef with Italian restaurants is how they get away serving typically three to four pieces of ravioli (Two calls theirs a “raviolo”) and call that an entrée. (Charging entrée prices, of course.) This was the whole speech I was giving to David and Ann when we were ordering. But boy, did my mind change when I took a bite of this delightful pasta filled with a raw egg that was cooked slightly inside the ravioli. The savory sage brown butter on top provided a nice crisp to the creamy egg that oozed out as you cut the raviolo with your fork. The bacon was lacking, though, but it probably could have gone without it. Despite this being a pleasant surprise, do you think it’s worth paying $10.50 for one ravioli (even if they call it a raviolo)? I’m still a bit torn about it because I would pay that much for this particular one. (Although I would be in heaven if it was more like $8—it’s the principle!)
Fava bean pizza with lemon ricotta and Parmesan ($13)—There were several pizzas on the menu, but we went for the seasonal fava bean (and I love lemon ricotta). This was disappointing. First, because the cornmeal-dusted crust was chewy. Second, because the fava bean flavors weren’t as bright. And thirdly, because they basically just dumped the two ingredients on top of the pizza and didn’t allow it to blend into one cohesive dish. My 5-year-old nephew could have created this. We didn’t bother finishing the whole pie.
Spaghettini, sea urchin, brown garlic, chili, parsley ($10/$18) with a side of stewed broccoli rabe ($5)—I saw this on the menu on Two’s Web site when I was studying up before our dinner and I knew right away that I needed to try this. It sounded so adventurous and unusual, and I consider this the signature dish for Two. It represents the kitchen’s Italian influences and Gingrass’ wish to be seen as an innovator. The sea urchin was cut into bits and deep fried (I know, but it was good) and tossed in perfectly cooked thin spaghetti. I judge really good pasta by how all the ingredients blend and stick together, both on the plate and in my stomach. This was a very satisfying dish that’s best eaten right away. The broccoli rabe, BTW, was nicely prepared and gave us a good shot of green leafy vegetables for our dinner.
Roasted half duck on the bone with apple rhubard chutney ($19)—You know what I say about duck on the menu, got to have it! This was a nicely cooked duck but it was underwhelming. I could have gotten something more tantalizing in taste from Chinatown just a few minutes north. The duck was simple and the chutney was tart like cranberry.
Two cupcakes (chocolate peanut butter and double chocolate mousse) ($7.50)—Just when I thought the sea urchin spaghettini should be Two’s signature dish, I changed my mind after a bite of each of the moist, rich and decadent dessert cupcakes. David, Ann and I were pretty full from grazing on the tasting selections we made, but we were impressed by the diversity of offerings on the dessert menu. We could only get ourselves up for the small cupcakes, thinking we would take a few bites and be done. But after taking one bite each, we all wanted more! They were definitely a wonderful ending to our dinner. (Although, David kept wanting a glass of milk.)

As you can see from our experience above, there are some real winners and real losers on Two’s menu. I explain the inconsistency of the dishes in my mind to the fact that the two chefs are really experimenting, so some dishes will be more successful than others. (Or it could be that since there are two chefs, maybe one chef is better than the other. Ooooh, wouldn’t it be interesting if they put the chef’s name next to the dish he/she is responsible for? We could keep score of who has more winning dishes! But this would probably be too much drama for this new partnership to endure.)

Side note: Service was excellent in all areas. They really make an effort to make you feel comfortable. Two is also one of the restaurants in town with the popular communal table (which happened to be taken up by a private party on the night we were there). Communal tables are great for solo diners or out-of-town diners who’d like to meet other foodies.

Two is an interesting food destination because it also offers cooking classes and kitchen tasting menus through a lottery on its Web site. (I added my name of course but I'm still waiting!) It also promotes an active take-out business (which is smart for the business people working in the area) and they said the cupcakes are available for order!

My conclusion about dinner (I’ll let David and Ann chime in with their comments in the comment section) is that Two is a fun place for drinks and some small dishes (especially the sea urchin spaghetti, with maybe a nice Chianti) or an after-dinner place for dessert (cupcakes for sure!). The pricing is reasonable so you don’t feel stressed about ordering many different dishes. Two isn’t really a place for a more traditional dinner experience, and maybe that’s what the owner wanted. When redefining Hawthorne Lane, maybe he wanted to redefine San Francisco’s eating experience? As long as he offers a few strong dishes, I’ll still be a willing guinea pig.

Single guy rating: 2.75 stars (perfect for new diners looking for a twist)

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


Two in San Francisco

4 comments:

Eric said...

I've been meaning to check out Two at some point. I'm always sort of skeptical of these new, quasi-trendy places, but it's good to hear there are some winners on the menu. Thanks for the heads up on what the good dishes are.

Anonymous said...

OK...so here's my two cents since I dined with Ben. We're almost entirely in agreement (which is a rare thing!). I think Two is great for drinks and small bites or maybe even just for dessert. Overall, I loved the menu...there was so much I wanted to try.

First, the disappointments. Thumbs down on the duck (nothing original and a little dry), thumbs sideways on the fava bean and lemon ricotta pizza (tasted more like a flat bread, and I got tired of it fast). I liked the bacon-and-egg ravioli, but like Ben, I didn't taste the bacon and it probably is overpriced given the serving size.

Thumbs way up on the drinks (I loved the savory cilantro martini), the spaghettini with sea urchin (amazing flavor; this is a must-order!) and the cupcakes (rich and decadent). I also have to give props to the bartender...when I ordered an infused pineapple-strawberry martini, he said the infused vodka wouldn't be ready for two days, so he gave me a two-for-one drink coupon. Now that's a way to get a return customer. -- David

Chef Ben said...

David, someone on Chowhound was talking about how much she liked the cilantro martini. But I have to say it was tooo herbally for me. I like cilantro when it's heated to release the fragrance. When it's mulched, it as a more grassy taste. That's just my tastebuds. It was pretty though (and that's a photo of it on the post).

I can't believe you gave a sideways thumbs to the pizza. Just think of Pizzaiolo or Dopo and you'd easily say Two can't compare.

Anonymous said...

Ben...of course, they don't compare...that's why my thumb is sideways. To recap my highly scientific rating scale, with apologies to a certain movie critic: Pizzaiolo and Dopo -- thumbs up. Two -- thumbs sideways. Pizza Hut -- thumbs down. -- David