Thursday, April 28, 2011

SPQR in San Francisco

Dazzling Italian Worthy of an Empire
1911 Fillmore St., San Francisco
Pacific Heights
PH: 415.771.7779
Open for dinner daily, 5:30–10:30 p.m. (till 10 p.m. Sunday); weekend brunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
(4% SF health tax added to bill)

With all the Italian pies I’ve been eating this past year in the Bay Area, it’s nice to be reminded sometimes that Italian cuisine isn’t always just about pizza. At SPQR, the Italian flavors shine in fresh California ingredients, delicate offal dishes and luscious pasta.

A few years ago, SPQR took over the spot of the once popular restaurant Chez Nous on Fillmore, but it firmly established itself as a trend-setter itself under the helm of Chef Nate Appleman. I’m sorry to say I didn’t get a chance to visit SPQR under Appleman’s tutelage, but it’s still inspiring under current Executive Chef Matthew Accarrino.

Accarrino, who’ve worked at Thomas Keller’s Per Se and Tom Colicchio’s Craft in Los Angeles, was working in the kitchen when I made my first visit to SPQR on a rainy day for a late Sunday brunch. The tiny restaurant once had a no reservations policy, so waits were long especially for dinner. But now reservations are accepted, although both times I visited I simply dropped in and pulled a seat up at the marble bar.

Side note: There’s also a chef counter in the back, but that’s so popular people actually request those seats when making reservations. So if you want to sit back there, I’d suggest making a reservation even if it’s just yourself.

SPQR (if you haven’t learned yet the letters stand for “Senatus Populesque Romanus” referring to the Roman Empire) features a menu of seasonal ingredients. For my brunch, I started with what was listed on the menu as a green salad ($10).

But when the salad arrived, it looked more than just a simple green salad. It was beautiful with a variety of seasonal greens with gorgonzola, pickled onions and apple slices. Dressed elegantly in a sherry vinaigrette, the salad had a lot of character and was quite filling. There were these interesting baby garlic croutons that were crunchy, but because they were so tiny many of them settled to the bottom of my bowl.

For my main dish I ordered the sunny side up eggs with crispy pig ears ($12), a simple but lovely presented dish of perfectly cooked eggs with the angular, thinly sliced crispy pig ears in a deep rust-brown color.

The soft yolk of the eggs oozed all over the pig ears and warm petite potato slices. The pig ears were sometimes inconsistent, with some pieces nice and crispy while others were chewy. But the overall dish was satisfying, accented by a mild chili vinaigrette that gave me a nice heat in the back but didn’t overpower everything.

I returned for dinner on a weeknight, again pulling up a seat at the bar since I didn’t have a reservation. I barely glanced at the menu because I was enticed by the special Assaggio di Primi, or pasta tasting menu. I’m always a fan of chef’s tasting menu, giving you a chance to sample a variety of dishes in small plates. And the price seemed fair at $46 for five courses. (The pasta tasting menu is available from Tuesday through Thursday.)

The first pasta dish of this night’s Assaggio di Primi was a cauliflower agnolotti that looked picture-perfect for spring. The agnolotti was stuffed with aged cheddar and the overall plate was complex with flavors coming from fonduta, cipolini agrodolce, wood sorrel, and of course the cauliflower. I cleaned the plate, eating everything, even the flower.

Next was the shellfish risotto, which had a primarily shrimp flavor and, unfortunately, a really shrimpy smell. The smell wasn’t fragrant as much as it was like raw shrimp. Although a beautiful looking dish with an interesting use of brussel sprout to add some texture, this was my least favorite dish of the night.

No problem, because the menu was redeemed by the ricotta proscuitto raviolo, which looked luxurious with the slivers of prune on top and crunch of hazelnut. But it was the quail egg inside, luxurious and perfectly cooked just like the eggs in my brunch dish, that made this raviolo so comforting.

The short rib pansoti was a pasta dish I haven’t tried before, basically folded pasta thinly filled with the short rib. The pasta had the color of what the menu listed as “bulls blood beet,” which made me feel like I was eating those blood cubes in Vietnamese soup. You can’t really see it clearly though because it was covered in a snow blanket of ricotta salata.

The last pasta dish was the most hearty – a linguini al cocoa with beer braised pork cheek and mimolette cheese. This cocoa linguini had the same dark hues of the previous pasta dish, but it gained a spot of brightness when I mixed the brown linguini with the broccoli crema, giving the pasta a nice spring green color. I have to say, I don’t remember eating much of the braised pork cheek, focusing more on the pasta.

After eating five plates of pasta (is risotto really a pasta?), I could have ended dinner there but I was tempted by the olive oil pound cake ($8). The slice of cake was so moist and delicious, but the bitterness of blood orange slices (the pith and peel was left on) was off-balance to the subtle sweetness of the cake and ice cream.

On the night I went for dinner, Chef Accarrino wasn’t in the kitchen, but his kitchen crew was firing on all engines because they still delivered impeccable dishes that supported Accarrino’s vision.

On both my visits, I found lots of regulars eating at the bar and had great conversations with them about why they keep coming back. A great neighborhood restaurant that maintains a cozy feel, SPQR seems to regularly serve up comfort with bits of surprise.

Single guy rating: 4.25 stars (Elegant Roman Cuisine)

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

SPQR on Urbanspoon


foodhoe said...

Your brunch dishes sound so exciting, especially the crispy pigs ears and I love chili sauce with my eggs!

Carolyn Jung said...

A pasta tasting menu? My heart be still! I have always wanted to try the one at Babbo, too. ;)

A. Rizzi said...

Dinner looks lovely. Gonna have to sample.

I'm curious about the rating system, is it based on quality of food or price, or a combination of the two? Would a delicious but inexpensive dive be able to attain 4 stars or is that reserved for fancier places?