Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Thermidor at San Francisco’s Mint Plaza

A Setting Perfect for the Mad Men Crowd
8 Mint Plaza, San Francisco
PH: 415.896.6500
Open lunch, Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.; dinner, Mon.–Sat., 6 p.m. till closing (closed Sundays)
Major credit cards, reservations accepted
Healthy SF tax added to your bill

Walking into the elegant-yet-small space of the new Thermidor restaurant in the Mint Plaza area, you’d half expect to see Don Draper sitting at one of the contemporary white seats with the black-and-white reserved sign on the table top. The mid-century American décor and menu of classic dishes like lobster thermidor harken to an era when the drinks flowed freely like the lurid comments from cigar-smoking men.

But Thermidor is more a modern take on the expense-account dining days of rooms like the Waldorf Astoria or Ritz Carlton. The exposed concrete columns and bare floors say industrial SOMA more than formal Pacific Heights.

I visited Thermidor — from the people behind Spork in the Mission — accidentally during its soft opening a few weeks ago. I was going to a dance performance in SOMA on a Saturday night and was planning on getting some dinner at nearby 54 Mint when I passed the glass doors of Thermidor. (There’s no obvious signage outside the restaurant, which is between 54 Mint and Chez Papa Resto.)

I decided to check it out and sat at the bar at the entrance. I ordered one of its specialty drinks called the Watsonian Squire ($9) made with Spanish brandy, oloroso sherry, honey, lemon, and orange bitters. The drink is served up in a sugar-rimmed martini glass, and it was so smooth and balanced that I got another one. (The bartenders were friendly and come from some of the best bars in town, such as Bourbon and Branch.)

The menu is heavy on appetizers, which all cost $6, and then some big-ticket entrees like petit filet mignon ($26) and the aforementioned lobster thermidor ($32). Since I was just eating at the bar, I put together a meal with a few small plates.

First up was the Caesar salad ($10), traditionally made with romaine and creamy dressing and topped with snow-like parmesan cheese and bread crumbs. But it was presented in a surprising way with the romaine cut across and laid sitting up on the plate. It looked inventive and fresh, and was quite enjoyable with the crunchy bread crumbs.

Then came the Scallops Newburg ($12), which was a dayboat scallop served in the shell with fresh lobster bits. The portion size seemed a bit small for the price, as I scraped the bits of scallops and lobster meat from the creamy sauce. Everything tasted rich and decadent, but it just didn’t seem to be enough.

So I ordered two more dishes, the crostinos ($6) with short rib ragu, horseradish cream and chives, and the Pasta Shell ($6) with housemade ricotta, bread crumbs, and spicy tomato sauce.

The meat on the crostinos seemed a bit dry, making it difficult to eat on the crunchy bread. I expected it being a ragu that would stick to your ribs, and it didn’t leave me with that sensation. The one pasta shell on the plate was nice and hot from the kitchen and the ricotta cheese was creamy, but the sauce didn’t seem to be that exciting. It tasted like any other tomato sauce.

I returned to Thermidor for another visit after its official opening, arriving for dinner. Most of the dining room in the center (there’s also seating up on a mezzanine level) were reserved, so the hostess seated me at one of the bar tables, which actually is a nice, comfortable spot away from the bustling bar. (I think the word is out that the Thermidor bartenders mix some mean drinks.)

I wanted to start with a salad but the menu weighs heavily on rich sauces with the classic American dishes from that era when men didn’t care about their cholesterol. Since I already tried the Caesar, I opted for the only other salad on the menu. On this night it was a special summer salad called Sharilyn Melon Salad ($12).

The salad was beautifully plated with the cantaloupe melon balls sprinkled with greens, thinly sliced onions and ricotta salata. There were also bits of black olives, cherry tomatoes, and tiny Armenian cucumber slices. The salad was perfect for summer (or at least what counts for summer in San Francisco) with the sweet cool melon balls topped with a sprinkling of sea salt.

For my entrée, I went with the Chicken Kiev ($22), which was mentioned during the Mad Men season premiere so I felt like I was fitting well into the 1960s. At Thermidor, its pounded chicken breast is encrusted with panko instead of bread crumbs. It was golden brown and served with thin green beans and a sherry-mustard vinaigrette. Around the chicken were tiny stunted carrots and slices of charred onion.

The Chicken Kiev also was stuffed with some herbs and chili, that created a subtle heat that sneaks up on you. But there wasn’t much of the filling so I didn’t get it with every bite. The center of the chicken seemed perfectly cooked, and tasted great when mixed with the sharp vinaigrette that cut into the richness. But some of the edges of the chicken breast seemed a bit dry from the cooking. What helped save the dry bits of the chicken was the incredibly creamy puree potatoes underneath.

For desserts, Thermidor has an innovative dessert called “Coffee, Cigarettes and Doughnuts” in a nod to the smoke-filled room era, with the cigarette being a thin pastry tube filled with tobacco-infused white chocolate and custard. Despite how cute it sounded, I couldn’t get past the idea of eating anything with tobacco, so I ordered the Baked Alaska ($8.50).

Now, I’ve never had a Baked Alaska, but I do know it comes with a meringue topping. Thermidor’s reinterpretation of this classic is a small sponge cake with raspberry sorbet encased in a yuzu meringue shell. Then served with hibiscus sauce and sugared cucumber bits.

It was quite a beautiful presentation, but the Baked Alaska was the size of a tea cup and the sponge cake itself was hard, just like what you might imagine eating a frozen ice cream cake would be like. I liked the raspberry sorbet, but I wished there were more of the yuzu meringue. The hibiscus sauce was intense and nice, but there really wasn’t much of the Baked Alaska to use up the sauce.

Thermidor is a beautiful new restaurant with great service, especially at the bar, but I’m a bit perplexed by what it’s trying to say during these economic times. The portion and pricing seems off for some plates, and I wonder who can always eat and drink like they’re on an expense account for an ad agency? (Even today’s ad agencies can’t dine this way.)

The kitchen also seems a bit inconsistent, with some dishes (notably the salads) successfully delivering wonderful interpretations while others falling short on technique or texture. I like the chef’s attempts and reinvention, but it needs to be polished over time.

Overall, Thermidor is an interesting new-old take at San Francisco dining and will be extremely successful if it improves on its dishes along with the economy.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (Glamorous Americana)

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

Thermidor on Urbanspoon

Related reviews:
Wayfare Tavern: "American Comfort Cloaked in San Francisco History"
Hugo's Frog Bar and Fish House: "Where Everything's Big and Loud"
Spork: "Not Your Grandfather's KFC"


foodhoe said...

single guy, I have a fashion question, are skinny ties in? The salads (although pricy) look delicious and I especially love the new presentation of the caesar! I made chicken kiev for my 8th grade home economics final, and have a soft spot for that dish going way back. I like the addition of vinaigrette and the green beans too. I would have liked to try the cigarette...

Mrs. L said...

I'll keep this place on my list and see if reviews talk about it improving. Loved the salads you got!

Single Guy Ben said...

Foodhoe, I'm no fashion expert but I do know skinny jeans are in, and trim-fitting suits are in, so that must mean skinny ties are in too. So funny you made chicken kiev in school. :)

Passionate Eater said...

Shucks--I love the concept of a 1950s era restaurant but am a little disappointed that the portions are so paltry. Didn't they have big plates of steaks and potatoes back then? You did an awesome job at photographing the food and making it look bigger, but the Baked Alaska literally looks like it is one bite and as for the Scallops Newburg fits in one shell!