Monday, November 30, 2009

Dish on Dining: Quince

Playing on a Grander Stage
470 Pacific Ave. (at Montgomery), San Francisco
Jackson Square/Financial District
PH: 415.775.8500
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
(4% San Francisco health tax added to bill)

The new Quince is a shiny new spectacle in San Francisco’s restaurant scene. Opened for less than two months in the former Myth location, the contemporary American-Italian restaurant has struck a beautiful balance between grandeur and elegance.

I should note that I’ve never eaten at the old Quince restaurant in Pacific Heights, nor have I eaten at Myth. So I really don’t have a point of comparison. Everything this night would be a new dining adventure.

When you arrive, you’re treated to an open view of the brightly lit kitchen. The large glass window view took me back to Buenos Aires when I ate at Bar Uriarte. The fact that the chefs didn’t look too busy when I arrived was an indicator of my early reservations — the only slot I could get on a Thursday night.

The dining room next door was a glowing contrast to the bright kitchen. The elegant tables and bar on one side were lit with low ambient lighting and a grand glass chandelier in the center. Handsome is the word I would use to describe the furnishings, which exudes the sense of a business dinner if people still have expense accounts in this economy. (Note: The restaurant recommends business attire, so I wore a suit to blend in with the other similarly suited diners.)

But this wasn’t business for me as I was dining with my food buddy Foodhoe. It was just a night to catch up and experience the culinary talents of Chef Michael Tusk.

Chef Tusk’s menu is divided into an ala carte section and a five-course tasting menu. For the $85-tasting menu (which the entire table has to order), Tusk offered the choice between a chef’s menu and a seasonal tasting menu that focused on porcini mushrooms for the fall.

Foodhoe and I debated about the tasting menu for awhile but Foodhoe kept being drawn by the appetizers over on the ala carte menu. So we decided to wing it ourselves by ordering on our own.

Remember how I mentioned that the lighting was low-light? Yep, that means it was a challenge getting good shots of the food. Foodhoe looked enviably at the corner table next to us that had wonderful lighting but apparently was reserved for special guests.

We started dinner with appetizers. Foodhoe ordered the scallops ($17) served with foam and tomatoes. She’s typically not a fan of foam, but found this one actually tasty and complementing her scallops.

I ordered the sweetbreads ($16), which were pan-roasted after it was apparently coated with either a bread coating or flour. The coating made the sweetbreads not as crispy, but added a soft tender texture to it that was different and, actually, quite enjoyable. It was another way of preparing sweetbreads that I’ve never had before. (I’m used to seared, crispy sweetbreads.) The sweetbreads were served with perfectly cooked artichoke hearts and root vegetables in a black truffle sauce.

Next came the pasta courses. I had heard that the former Quince was known for its pasta, and that reputation hasn’t been lost in the move. Both Foodhoe’s and my pasta dishes were perfectly cooked with rich tasty sauces. Foodhoe ordered the Raviolo ($14) with a soft egg that oozed out when she broke into the large ravioli. It was simply dressed with a light cheese sauce.

I ordered the suckling pig pappardelle ($19), which was served with a forest green-colored pasta made from wild nettle. The green pappardelle didn’t invoke any nettle flavor, but did add a vibrant color to the dish, contrasting with the tender suckling pig meat cooked into a ragout and then topped with cracklings. The flavors and textures kept me smiling throughout this course.

The entrées offered by Chef Tusk are what you might expect at many fine-dining restaurants (lamb, fish, pork, duck). The descriptions of what to expect didn’t sound as innovative as the appetizers and pasta selections. In fact, the duck (which as you know I always order when on the menu) sounded so straight-forward that I broke my rule and didn’t order it. Yep, that’s right. I skipped the duck. Send out an alert.

Instead I ordered the lamb ($29), which was served in the form of medallions and a French cut chop. The dish was simply served with braised greens and butter beans topped with a brown sauce. The lamb was tender and leaned on the rear side, but still easy to cut and eat. But like the description on the menu, it didn’t really wow me.

Foodhoe ordered the Haddock ($27), a white fish that came beautifully plated. She also said her fish was cooked well but I didn’t hear many oohs and aahs while she was eating it.

We actually ate quite a bit so we were planning to skip dessert. But there was something on the menu called a “chiboust” that I’d never heard of, so when I asked the server, she gave such a delicious description that I had to order it. The chiboust is like a soufflé made with some fresh quince and presented with vanilla ice cream and quince ice and a thin cylindrical candy strip. The chiboust was light and fluffy but the flavor was a bit muted for me. Foodhoe thought one of the sauces that came with it tasted like mango. I did enjoy the quince ice sitting under the ice cream, mostly for its creativity and refreshing flavor.

At the end of our meal, we were presented with a tray of mignardises that included an opera chocolate cake, a berry-flavored hand-made marshmallow and a salted caramel. It was a beautiful ending to a very special dinner.

Everything about Quince is very high-end but welcoming. The service reminded me a lot of Eleven Madison Park in New York, where the service is meticulous and extremely professional but each individual server allows himself or herself to be natural and approachable so you don’t feel any pretension. Throughout the evening, people came to our table to check up on us. The conversations often went like this?

“Have you dined at the former Quince?” (No.)
“Have you eaten at Myth before?” (No.)
“Well, we’re glad you decided to visit us tonight.”

It’s this attentive service and well-executed food that probably garnered Quince its Michelin star.

While the price makes it prohibitive to enjoy Quince on a regular basis (for me at least), this shiny new star in the San Francisco restaurant scene is perfect for special occasions. And it’ll definitely add glitter to any of your holiday plans.

Check out Foodhoe's take on our dinner with her post here.

Single guy rating: 4 stars (fantastic pasta dragged down by entrees)

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

Quince on Urbanspoon

Similar restaurant reviews:
Eleven Madison Park: “Going All the Way in Manhattan”
Five: “Berkeley Hotel Dining is Reborn”
Zinnia: “Welcome Home Chef Sean O’Brien”

Sunday, November 29, 2009

What's ON My Frig?

From time to time, I'd feature what's in my frig. (Right now it's a lot of leftover cranberry and pumpkin cheesecake.) But today I thought I'd show you what's on my frig.

This is actually a suggestion from reader Beth, who noticed my refrigerator is filled with magnets during my cooking demos on YouTube. Beth pegged me right as a magnet fanatic, and I've been one for a long time.

It all started when I first moved away from home and rented my first place. I didn't have a lot of money to decorate so it was cheap to buy a magnet to personalize my kitchen. Over the years I'd buy more and more every time I moved and eventually my refrigerator door was covered with magnets.

My friends know I'm such a magnet fanatic that they'd sometimes give me a magnet and that just adds to my collection. And it really is a collection to me. Whenever I moved (and I moved quite often in the early years), I would individually wrap each magnet with tissue paper like it's some kind of antique in a museum exhibit, and then I'd place them all into a shoebox for the move.

I don't know how many pieces I have, but the number has changed over the years. That's because some never really survived. There has been a few magnets that were the victim of me walking by and knocking them off and then breaking as it fell. Or some got so covered by kitchen grease over the years (I'm a fanatic but there's no way I'm going to individually clean each tiny magnet) that I end up just tossing it.

Here's a close up look at just a small part of my collection.

Many of my favorite magnets have a sentimental attachment to it, and some of that is because I got them during my travels. (Pictured above, left, a magnet from The Orangery tea salon in London; top right, a mosaic magnet from La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; bottom right, a Fish Eddys magnet from New York, my most recent addition.)

Some magnets from my travel don't necessarily scream out where they're from, but I know. Like this beautiful ceramic magnet of a dragonfly. I got this from a flea market when I was visiting my sister in Portland a few years ago.

I get a lot of my magnets when I go home to Hawaii. On the weekends, they have crafts fairs at the beach and for awhile a few booths sold hand-made magnets. (Although not so much these days.) I like to find magnets that are just cute or reminds me of growing up in the islands.

Of course, there are quite a bit of magnets related to food. I've got magnets of cherries, watermelons in a basket, Reeses peanut butter cup ...

... and, of course, cupcakes!

There are a lot of magnets that remind me of my favorite characters, like Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street.

And I'm always a sucker for rubber duckies. There's just something playful but traditional about them.

Like I said, this is just a peek at what's all over my refrigerator door. It's like taking a stroll down memory lane every time I go to get something from the frig.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Live Blogging: Turkey Day 2009

9:25 a.m.: Good morning Gobble Gobblers! Happy Thanksgiving! Some of you are probably super busy getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner, while others of you are enjoying some quiet time before you head off to dinner with your side dish.

Like I mentioned yesterday, I'm cooking my first turkey tonight for my nephew and his girlfriend. And I'm live blogging about it. I have to admit, I only woke up an hour ago so I already feel like I'm so behind. But I did get a head start last night when I made the cranberry and caramelized some onions that I'm tossing with the green beans. Still, even before I start cooking I have some cleaning up to do around the apartment and washing dishes that I plan to use today. Ugh, I'm so behind!

As you're reading, feel free to drop comments about how your day is going. If you also have questions, post a comment and I'll see if I have any suggestions. Yes, I'm still helping you even though I'm busy here. :)

9:30 a.m.: The Official Menu

Wondering what I'm making, here's my menu...

Persimmon and Prosciutto Flatbread

Pomegranate Frisee Salad w/Hazelnuts

Lemon-citrus Turkey w/Chestnut Cream Sauce

Chorizo and Leeks Stuffing

Five-Spice Glazed Sweet Potato with (or without) Walnut Toffee

Cranberry-Asian Pear Sauce

Green Beans with Caramelized Onions

Pumpkin Cheesecake w/Bourbon Whipped Cream

10:00 a.m. OK, that didn't take long. I just broke my first glass of the day. Luckily, it was just a cordial glass that was the victim of a falling cake pan as I tried reaching for it to prepare for what I needed to make my cheesecake. This is what happens when you live in small space. Everything's a target.

10:07 a.m. What's in my frig? Lots of stuff! It's never been so full.

I pointed out some things I plan to use, like the pomegranate for the salad that I seeded a couple of nights ago. See my turkey? I got it at Whole Foods (I reserved a couple of weeks ago to be safe) and it was just partially frozen, so I didn't have to worry about defrosting for days. I just wanted a 10 pounder and they gave me this 12 pounder. Oh well, it doesn't look too big does it? Hope it fits my tiny oven. I just salted it with kosher salt (about 3 tablespoons) and some lemon zest since I'm trying to go for a lemony turkey. So it's been sitting in the salt for 24 hours. I wasn't about to brine it in a mass of salty water, too much trouble!

11:40 a.m.: Pumpkin cheesecake in the oven but not really cooking.

OK, so I wanted to do something different this year and I love pumpkin pie, but my nephew likes cheesecake so I thought it'll be fun to make a pumpkin cheesecake. I couldn't really find a recipe that sounded good, so I just combined a few things. First off, I went with a graham cracker crust but I bought one of those ready made ones. Hey, why deal with all the mess? It was a bit tough getting all the pieces into the cake pan I'm using. Then for the filling I used a Los Angeles Times recipe, but wanted to make a marble effect so I kept the pumpkin and cream cheese separate. Then I poured the two ingredients in alternating methods. Above is how it turned out. Not too bad huh? Kind of marble-ly.

Problem is, it's not cooking well. The recipe says to cook it at 300 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes, and it's been in the oven for 40 minutes and when I checked it was still like liquid! ARRGH! I should have made this last night. Anywho, I just bumped the oven up to about 325 and hopefully that'll help the filling cook faster. I have to get the turkey in the oven in an hour so this has to be done soon!

12:20 p.m.: Yeah, cheesecake done and out of the oven. Now cooling off on the rack. Looks nice and golden on the edges. Hope it taste good. Now, time for a lunch break. Going to make a chicken Caesar salad. Then time to cook the turkey! (BTW, I bet some of you are already eating your Thanksgiving dinner. I find it interesting that people start eating at 2 or 3 p.m. What time are you guys eating?)

1:27 p.m.: Turkey is in the oven!

So the real cooking begins! The turkey is in the oven. And I have to say, it barely fits. The top of the turkey is hitting the top of my oven roof. It's not like the turkey is so big. It really does look like a chicken on steroids. But before the turkey went in, I roasted some hazelnuts I got at Trader Joe's. They're for the salad later. I have to skin them, though. What a pain. Hope it's worth it.

Then I made a herb butter with sage, thyme and rosemary. The classics. I tucked these under the skin of the turkey. There's no stuffing in the bird, just celery, onion, garlic and a lemon and grapefruit for the whole citrus theme. It's the same thing I do when I roast a chicken. So now the turkey is cooking at 450 degrees. I'll turn down the heat in an hour. Time for more prep and Brady Bunch reruns. (There really is nothing to watch on Thanksgiving.)

2:06 p.m.: Table is set. Check. It's a good thing it's just the three of us because my table is too small for anyone else. (Plus, those Indian corn is taking up most of the centerpiece.) I'm going to put the food up by the kitchen counter and we're going to have to do it buffet style because the food won't fit the table. Now I'm just waiting for my guests to arrive and that turkey to be done so I can do other things in the oven. Is it time for wine yet?

2:39 p.m.: Yikes, look at my turkey after just one hour in the oven!?

Doesn't it look like it's done? I think the high heat definitely browned the turkey, especially in my small oven where the heat is probably really up close to the turkey. I hope the turkey doesn't dry out on the outside. Gosh, this is such the typical Thanksgiving cooking dilemma huh? Anywho, I lowered the heat to 325 degrees, which I had planned to do after an hour anyway. But I bet this cooks faster than the planned 3 hours. I'll probably check in another 1.5 hours. In the meantime, I put foil over the breast, hopefully that'll keep it from turning black. (Oh, and also to baste, I put some of the oil that came out and rubbed a lemon half on the skin to give it that lemony taste. Keeping my fingers crossed that the skin doesn't turn any darker!

3:20 p.m. My nephew Chris and his girlfriend, Mary, just arrived. And he brought pumpkin bread. Although it looks kind of like cake, huh? He says it's a recipe from Alton Brown. (Now he's off to Safeway on a beer run. I guess he's not into my wine.)

3:45 p.m.: OK, big debate about whether the turkey is done.

We just did an instant read and the thermoter quickly jumped to 160 degrees, which I think is good because when we let it rest it should be ready, but Chris thinks it should be 170 because that's what the recipe says. The turkey looked pretty dark and dry. I'm worried it'll be over cooked. Anyway, it's back in the oven and I think it'll be done in 10 minutes. It's a pretty fast cook, huh?

4:15 p.m.: Turkey out and now baking the yams. Chris and Mary are busy being my prep chefs and are cleaning out the green beans. I'm getting confused by my schedule that is now blown out of the water.

4:42 p.m.: Sitting down for the Pomegranate Salad with Hazelnut, but skipped the flat bread since Chris made pumpkin bread that was more like pumpkin cake. So we're just munching on the prosciutto instead. I sliced up the persimmon on the side, and the combo with prosciutto is like figs with prosciutto.

5:18 p.m.: Mad rush to the end! Just finished a quick chorizo leeks stuffing and now made the chestnut cream/gravy. Chris is thickening it up now. Last thing to do: green beans! Aiiiie! Hope the turkey isn't all cold by now.

5:44 p.m.: Yes, finally sitting down for dinner. Carving turkey was tricky with no carving knife and getting oily and stuff. But now for eating. (Whew, the turkey wasn't dry, but it wasn't super moist. It helped to have the gravy or cream or whatever it was that we made.) I almost forgot the cranberry that I had in the frig, but cranberry is my favorite so I pulled it out at the last minute. Enjoy your thanksgiving dinner everyone!

6:49 p.m.: Oh. MY. Gaawd. I'm so full. And you know what? The free-range turkey tasted like chicken. A big chicken. Now we're watching "Glee." Then in a bit it's dessert and we're going to see if that cheesecake was fully cooked.

8:24 p.m.: OK, after watching "Glee" (love it), it was time for dessert. Gosh, it's late. I bet all of you have already gone to a movie and back. Anywho, the pumpkin cheesecake was sliced up but not before we made some whipped cream the old fashion way. No, we didn't go harvesting the cream itself from milk. But I got some heavy cream and had my nephew start whipping it with a whisk until it got stiff and fluffy. Oh, boy, he was a wimp. He hardly whipped it before he got tired. We ended up taking shifts where we each whipped the cream until it was magically stiff and firm after being liquid just a few seconds before. I'm so amazed when that happens. Oh, and yes, we added liquor, but not the bourbon that I was planning to because I didn't find any at Safeway (but they sure love their whisky), so I just poured a dash of Disaronna. But we didn't really taste the alcohol in the cream. But it was light and fluffy. The cheese cake itself? It was like someone took a pumpkin pie (which I love) and put half of it with a cheesecake. I guess I should have blended it more instead of trying to marble it when it wouldn't. Here's a shot of the slice (I had to use my point and shoot because my camera battery died all of a sudden. Go figure.)

So that's it with the eating now that dessert is over. Whew. That was a lot. Oh, and you don't want to see the dishes. Yuck. I'm so tempted to bury everything. We're going to watch the DVD of Ice Age 3. No 3-D glasses though. Hope you all had an enjoyable Thanksgiving dinner and night! So I showed you my Thanksgiving, I'd like to hear how some of your Thanksgiving went.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Food Gallery: Thanksgiving Edition

I'm a big fan of corn, in general, but it's a summer crop. Except in the fall when you see Indian corn at the markets. They are perfect for that Indian-greets-the-pilgrims-decorated table. I just love their deep, rich fall colors, sometimes just a mix of jewels. So here's my photo showcase of some Indian corn I bought to decorate the table. (BTW, does anyone actually cook these?)

Programming note: Tomorrow I will actually be cooking my very first turkey. I know, you're thinking, "Single Guy, you've never cooked a turkey?" Yes, that's because it's obvious why I've never made turkey. As the Single Guy at Thanksgiving, I'm generally the guest at other people's table, so I've never had to make my own turkey. And when there were those many Thanksgivings when I was by myself, I either just cooked a turkey breast or ate chicken instead.

But this Thanksgiving my nephew is visiting from college and I'm making a turkey dinner for him and his girlfriend. It's just the three of us squeezed into my little studio apartment. And if you're curious and have nothing else to do tomorrow, you can follow along my cooking adventure as I live blog on Thanksgiving day. Yes, you can see how my first turkey turns out. I don't really have a roasting pan that's big and my oven only has one rack, so it'll be a mystery on how I'll get everything done. Tune in tomorrow to see.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Test Kitchen: 5-Spice Glazed Sweet Potatoes and Walnut Toffee

I guess if people had to pick a Thanksgiving dish other than the turkey, sweet potatoes with marshmallow might be among the favorites, if you believe this month's Test Kitchen poll.

54 percent of you voted for me to try Food and Wine's Five-Spice Glazed Sweet Potatoes with Walnut Toffee recipe, beating out a cornish hen meal and a cranberry sauce (I actually love cranberry sauce, but it's forever the bit player at the Thanksgiving table, it seems).

This particular recipe is from Chicago Chef Shawn McClain and he puts a spin to sweet potatoes by adding the Chinese-influenced five-spice and substituting marshmallow with a walnut toffee.

As usual, I did just half the servings of the recipe. And it was a good way to get a sample of the dish and whether I should add it to the Thanksgiving table this year.

You can click here to see the complete recipe on the Food and Wine Web site. But as always, you can read on to see how it went when I tried to make it this weekend.

I started out by peeling and cubing the sweet potatoes. I have to say I was confused about what the recipe meant by 2-inch chunks. Because chopping them into 2-inch squares to me seemed like super big pieces. I couldn't imagine cooking such large chunks of yams, so instead I cut it to be more like 1 to 1.5-inch chunks, roughly. If anyone has an idea of what they meant by 2-inch chunks, let me know. Because the photo of the finished dish (above) from the magazine didn't look like 2-inch chunks. Anywho, I placed them in a baking dish with a cup of water, covered it with foil and started the baking process.

As the sweet potatoes baked in the oven, I worked on the walnut toffee, which is a separate recipe that you can find here. I started by melting some sugar, corn syrup and butter in a saucepan until it became a light caramel, which looks something like the above. See how it's still almost white and just barely golden? I guess that's what they meant by light caramel.

Once the caramel was ready, I added baking soda and salt like the recipe said and then threw in the chopped walnuts and quickly poured everything on a parchment paper-lined baking tray I prepared earlier. I was supposed to quickly flatten out the whole thing, but you know it's been cold in the Bay Area so the caramel hardened pretty fast. See, above was the thinnest I could spread it out. I've never made toffee before but it was pretty easy and looked kind of nice.

With the toffee done, I put my attention back to the sweet potatoes by making the glaze. Along with five-spice, the glaze includes freshly grated nutmeg, butter and brown sugar. (Oh my gawd, Adam Lambert is screaming in my ears as I'm typing this. No, he's not in my apartment he's on TV. Oh, where was I?) After the glaze melted into a bubbling mess, I brought out the yams from the oven and poured off any excess water, which was a challenge to do with the near mushy yams bumping each other. I think I cooked it a wee bit too long. After applying the glaze with a pastry brush so as not to break the sweet potatoes, back in the oven they went to finish cooking for another 10 minutes.

And then when they were done, I plated them up and sprinkled the walnut toffee I made earlier and chopped up into bits. Here's how my version turned out. What do you think?

My tips and warnings about this recipe:

  1. Definitely don't overcook your sweet potatoes because that makes it harder to apply the glaze on them near the end of the cooking process.
  2. You probably don't need to make as much walnut toffee as the recipe says. You can keep some as a snack for later.
  3. When making the toffee, have your baking sheet ready and all the ingredients within reach because everything happens pretty fast once the caramel gets to the right consistency.
Ease of cooking: Yet another really simple recipe to follow, even learning to make the walnut toffee. It takes about an hour to prep and cook the entire recipe and you can totally make the toffee ahead of time.

Taste: I actually liked the hint of five-spice for the yams, which were sweet from the glaze. The spice flavor gave the dish an interesting twist. I can't say I was a big fan of the walnut toffee, though, mostly because I'm not a big sweet person. You're basically making candy and throwing it on top of the dish. The walnut toffee is a bit chewy and gets stuck in your teeth as your eating, so if you have a relative that talks a lot at the Thanksgiving dinner table, then feed the relative the toffee and your relative will be busy chewing for awhile. Despite this, it is simple enough that I'm planning to make it this Thursday for Thanksgiving.

Overall Grade: B for ease of recipe and interesting flavor. Creative use of toffee, but not recommended for older adults with dentures. ;-)

Don't forget to vote for which recipe I should test from Food and Wine's December edition in the poll on the upper right column. You know this is the holiday issue so lots of ideas for your holiday parties.

Previous test kitchens:
Smoky Shrimp and Chorizo Soup
Rabbit Ragout with Soppressata and Pappardelle
Puff-pastry Tomato Tarts
Bucatini Carbonara

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dish on Dining: Starbelly

Beretta Clones Itself in the Castro
3583 16th St. (at Market), San Francisco
Castro neighborhood
PH: 415.252.7500
Open Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.; Sat. & Sun., 10:30 a.m.–11 p.m. (till midnight on Friday and Saturday), weekend brunch served till 4 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted
Reservations for 6 or more only, otherwise call within 45 minutes before you arrive to be placed on walk-in wait list

I’ve written in the past about the lack of real “destination” restaurants in the Castro, a neighborhood in which one would most likely find the discretionary income—even in today’s economy—to enjoy a night out for cocktails and dinner.

But things appear to be changing with the opening a few months ago of Starbelly and this month’s entry of Frances, the long-awaited restaurant by Chef Melissa Perello, formerly of Charles Nob Hill and the Fifth Floor.

I’ll have to save Frances for a later post. Today, my focus is on Starbelly, which has drawn crowds to the tiny spot in what I consider the traffic triangle hell of Market-16th-Sanchez. By the same people behind the popular Beretta in the Mission, Starbelly has transformed the former Asqew Grill eatery into a handsome and equally popular neighborhood hotspot.

Starbelly even functions the same as Beretta: Beautiful bar with fancy cocktails, check. Thin crust pizza and assortment of small and large plates, check. No reservations but a 45-minute call-in policy to get on the wait list, check.

Hearing about the crowds, I decided to meet my friend Ken at 6 p.m. on a weeknight. I called ahead to put my name on the wait list, but when we arrived, we didn’t have a problem getting a table. Probably because it was one of the worst tables in the house.

Unfortunately, we weren’t taken to a prime table in the back near the large communal table or supposedly large patio. Instead, we got a two-top at the front entrance near the window. Normally I wouldn’t mind sitting by the window and people watching, but this two-top was squeezed near the corner. The waitress had to squeeze by me every time to serve the table next to us, and as the night went on and the people waiting in the front increased, I was basically surrounded by butts. Look to my right: the waitress’ butt as she’s helping the table next to me. Look to my left: the butt of some guy waiting for a table and standing in the front area among the crowd.

Poor seating aside, Ken and I both ordered a glass of Malbec and started ordering a few dishes from the menu, which seems to lean heavily on the California seasonal-inspired cuisine as opposed to the mostly Italian offerings at Beretta.

We shared the Pan Roasted Diver Scallops ($14) because Ken and I both love scallops. I learned a big lesson, though. Whenever ordering scallops, be sure to ask how many scallops you’ll actually get on the plate. Even though it was listed under the “small” category, I figured we’d probably get three small scallops. Instead, the dish came with just two. And for $14, that seemed a bit skimpy.

Plus, the scallops were overly browned. The taste was OK, and it sat on a light gingered yam puree with pepitas, which was a nice seasonal touch but hardly made up for the darkly browned scallops.

Ken also ordered the Fuyu Persimmon and Butter Leaf Salad ($8), which looked pretty and tasted fresh with the thinly sliced persimmons. Ken shared a bit of the salad with me, and I really loved the addition of the Oregon hazelnuts, which were toasted to a nice crunch, adding a fun contrast to the persimmons and butter lettuce.

Ken also ordered the house-cut fries ($5), which you can guess I didn’t eat much of since I avoid deep-fried foods. The thinly cut fries, almost shoestrings, were served with three kinds of dip. I did try one piece to test the texture and taste, and I have to say I was thrown by the texture. It tasted fake. Ever eat something that had been so overly cooked that it basically turned into dust? This was what the fries were like. They were so fried that their exterior were definitely crispy, but the interior didn’t taste like potatoes anymore and just tasted like nothing.

Starbelly has a large pizza selection, and our waitress said because they’re thin crust, they’re not super filling. Ken and I shared the Fall Squash and Sage pizza ($12), which looked beautiful when it arrived. It was also topped with black garlic, fresh goat cheese and more toasted pepitas.

I enjoyed the flavors from the thinly sliced squash and the deep flavors of the sage and black garlic. The crust was super thin, very similar to the paper-thin crust at their sister restaurant Beretta. And just to remind you, I thought those thin crusts were too thin. I’m not a lover of the paper-thin crusts.

While Ken was pretty much filled from his starters and the pizza, I ventured into the entrée section to order the Pan Roated Lingcod with Brussels Sprouts and Bacon ($16). The plate was a nice size, and I didn’t mind the searing on the lingcod (it wasn’t as charred as the scallops). The fish had a nice flavor and the texture was perfect, and I enjoyed the rustic combination of Brussels sprouts and bacon, which turned it into a very hearty dish.

We ended our night with dessert, which was a Toffee Cake ($7). The tiny cake was topped with dates and served with mascarpone. I didn’t really like the addition of the dates, and the mascarpone was bland and needed some sweetener. But I really enjoyed the warm cake with its light fluffy texture and spiced flavors.

Side note: The service was a bit off. I don’t know if it’s a matter of the restaurant being new or if it was an off night. But the hostesses always seemed a bit bored, not sure what to do other than telling people they had to wait; and our waitress kept rushing us. She would literally hand us the menu and come back for our orders within 60 seconds.

Judging by the crowds, Starbelly is a certified success and a welcome addition to the Castro. But I think the crowds are more a reflection of the hunger from neighborhood residents for a really good restaurant. As more good restaurants open up in the Castro, I think people will eventually see Starbelly as a decent restaurant serving up seasonal dishes—but not a place worth waiting for.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (Just like Beretta)

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

Starbelly on Urbanspoon

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