American Comfort Cloaked in San Francisco History
558 Sacramento St., San Francisco
Open weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and weekends, 5 to 11 p.m.
Major credit cards, reservations accepted
Only someone of the stature of celebrity chef Tyler Florence would have the balls to open a restaurant in the same spot of the former Rubicon restaurant, which kick started the careers of local culinary luminaries like Traci des Jardins, Jeremy Fox, Elizabeth Falkner and Denis Leary.
Florence — of Food Network fame — has been a Bay Area resident for the last few years (he calls Mill Valley home) and Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco’s Financial District is the first of several restaurants he plans to open in the region. The completely renovated space has resulted in a restaurant that blends nicely with the nearby brick alleys of the neighborhood while adding modern twists like the open kitchen on the ground floor.
Barely a month old, the place was packed when I visited last week for dinner with my friend David. The front bar was surrounded by financial-business types and the main floor’s booths were already filled. David and I dined upstairs in an area that had the feel of a Colonial inn. (There’s also a mini bar at the top of the stairs that was also crowded with people either waiting for a table or just hanging out.)
David and I dined at Rubicon a long time ago, and we were trying to figure out what was different. For me, the space definitely felt tighter. I remembered Rubicon being more open (I think it’s because Florence took up dining space for the open kitchen). David was mostly trying to remember if there was carpeting before (now there’s dark-stained wood floors).
There’s an old world charm to Wayfare Tavern, from mounted deer heads and stuffed ducks (you know, Florence has this feel at his Mill Valley store too) to every dish embossed with an eagle and shield. While you might think the place is stuffy, the Levi jeans worn by the staff signals a more casual ambiance.
Florence’s menu is a mix of classic American dishes with California touches. Several items have already created a buzz among the foodie chatter, such as the buttermilk fried chicken, creamed corn and pineapple upside-down cake. One thing’s for sure, many of the items weren’t helping David’s or my cholesterol.
It didn’t help when the server brought the house bread, a huge brown thing that looked deceivingly like a drumstick. When you pulled it apart, you could tell it was airy and made with lots of butter because it was so flaky. It was like a super airy croissant. David enjoyed it and I liked it too. (UPDATE: Oh, someone tweeted me to let me know this is a popover. Makes sense now that I think about it. And no, I’ve never had a popover until now.)
Wayfare has a few specialty drinks and David really enjoyed his order of the Leidesdorff, which we found out later is the name of the alley outside the restaurant. Sorry, I didn’t take notes on what was in it, but it looked like a frothy tropical drink you’d get in South Beach.
For our dinner, we started off by sharing a few items. First off was the Grilled Monterey Bay Calamari ($10), which is lightly dressed with lemon, chili, and olive oil with some sprinkling of parsley and breadcrumbs. Everything tasted fresh and the mix of breadcrumbs gave it a nice texture to compliment the calamari.
David had noticed under the “sides” section the Padron peppers ($8). I recently enjoyed eating these at Lafitte so I was totally for the idea of ordering them as an appetizer and not later with our entrees. The bright green peppers were roasted and simply tossed with olive oil and sea salt. The plating wasn’t as creative as Lafitte’s version with apricots, but this was meant as a side so it’s a bit unfair to expect anything more.
Wayfare also offers a raw bar, so we ordered a half dozen of fresh oysters (three kumamotos and three hama hamas). The oysters were served on a stand and with a container of mignonette and cocktail sauce. The kumamotos were plump and sweet, but the hama hamas were a bit salty. Still, they were all delivered fresh and cleanly shucked.
For our entrees, David ordered the Crisp Pacific Halibut ($25), which arrived with a pile of cooked broccoli rabe and several Tomales clams on top. David said the fish was perfectly cooked, and he enjoyed the mix of flavors surrounding the dish, including preserved lemon in the sauce. We talked a bit about how restaurant often gives up on the fish course, usually offering up something simply seared and served on some starch. But here it was a grand presentation with a lot of components.
I ordered the Leg of Lamb ($27), which was cooked medium (per my request — they asked, I’m not pretentious that way) and served with perfectly cooked tender heirloom carrots, a bean ragout and cooked cippolini onions. I felt the lamb pieces were mixed, with some that was meaty and nicely cooked to those that seemed a bit fatty and chewy. Still, I loved the meaty jus on the plate that evoked a sense of wild game in rich butter. Don’t get me wrong, this didn’t taste like wild lamb, but the richness made it feel complex and hearty.
David also ordered a side of the popular creamed corn ($8), but mostly to take home for his 2-year-old daughter. We tried a bit (sorry Ella!) and David thought it was great, but I felt it seemed a bit sweet, almost like a touch of sugar was added. I know fresh summer corn is naturally sweet, but I had white corn at home recently and it was sweet but not super sweet like this dish. Still, it was a nice puree with generous chunks of corn drizzled with olive oil.
Of course, we had to end our dinner with the Pineapple Upside-Down Cake ($8), which came looking like an individual-sized cake instead of a slice. The cake was topped with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream and a macadamia nut brittle. The cake itself was airy, and reminded me of eating a doughnut (without a hole) while David thought it was more like a crumb cake (partly because there were brown sugar crumbles on top with the pineapple). What I liked about it was the pineapple flavor was muted and not super sweet.
I also enjoyed the salted caramel ice cream, which had a nice rich flavor. But I didn’t feel like it was a harmonious match with the sweetness of the pineapple. Even the slightly beige color didn’t seem to enhance the presentation with the yellow from the cake. Separately, they were amazing. Together, they were good.
Side note: The noise level is extremely high, even on the second floor where it seemed like it would be a more quiet experience. I don’t know if it were all the Tyler Florence fans or the acoustics of the restaurant, but it got harder to hold a conversation as the evening progressed.
The service was friendly and attentive. There are definitely more than enough servers and wait staff to make sure you get anything you need.
As for the chef, you might have expected that he was busy all night. When we arrived, David spotted Florence feverishly working at the open kitchen counter putting the final touches to dishes. As we left, he was caught in the mosh pit at the bar as he was greeted by fans.
It’s been many years since Florence has been in the kitchen (I remember enjoying dining at the hip Cafeteria in Manhattan when Florence was executive chef in the ‘90s) and some might wonder if a television chef still has the chops for a restaurant or whether it’ll all just be for show. But the early sign from Wayfare Tavern is that this celebrity chef respects the food and the city. And the result could well be another San Francisco institution.
Single guy rating: 4.25 stars (Not your father's Rubicon)
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
Other buzz restaurants:
Lafitte: "Not Quite a Revolution But Revelation"
Frances: "Exquisite Interpretation of the Neighborhood Restaurant"
Gather: "Vegetarians and Carnivores Come Together to the Table"
Sunday, July 25, 2010
American Comfort Cloaked in San Francisco History