Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Dish on Dining: Belden Taverna

Youngest star on Belden Place looking for big break
52 Belden Place, San Francisco
Near Chinatown
Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Sat., 5–11 p.m.
PH: 415.986.8887
Web site

With the weather getting warmer in the Bay Area, it’s always nice to find a good dinner with outdoor seating. I often forget about the charming scene at Belden Place, that tiny alley between Chinatown and the Financial District. I think it skips my mind because I often end up going to Belden Place when I have an out-of-town guest and want to act like I know a secret dining spot where people gather to eat on the street like some Italian neighborhood festival. Of course, it’s not a big secret.

But maybe the restaurant Belden Taverna remains the secret. The youngest member on the street that boasts such stars as B44, Café Tiramisu and Plouf, this sophisticated Mediterranean restaurant (it took over the spot that was once Café 52) doesn’t seem to be getting the same buzz despite its glamorous interiors and well-executed dishes.

I found myself on Belden Place when my nephew was visiting recently on his college spring break. We strolled passed the boisterous tables of each restaurant in the alley, eyeing their menus and checking out the scene. (I tried to edge my nephew toward B44, but he didn’t look like he was in the mood for tapas.) Despite the fact that the restaurants at Belden Place continue to draw both tourists and after-work business types, the hostesses at each establishment still feel the need to entice you to select their spot, like it’s some kind of beauty pageant and the winner gets dinner with Miss U.S.A.

We eventually settled on Belden Taverna because it was the most California of the bunch. (We had Italian the night before, and like I said, my nephew didn’t look like he was hungry for Spanish.) Sitting outside under the setting afternoon sun is a perfect way to start a meal, even though you have very little privacy with the tables set up like communal tables.

Belden Taverna calls itself a Mediterranean restaurant, but I felt like it was more an Italian-California restaurant when looking over the selection. The restaurant’s chef, Adam Hrebiniak, is quietly developing an appealing menu based on his experience working at such places as Zax Tavern in Berkeley and Boulevard in San Francisco.

Our server was very friendly and helpful. (Which is supposedly a vast improvement from when the San Francisco Chronicle reviewed it last year, dinging the restaurant for the awkward service and wine selection. The wine selection must have improved as well because the Russian River Sauvignon Blanc I ordered matched perfectly with my meal.)
I got the Sauvignon Blanc to pair with my starter, the Grilled Pear Salad with Prosciutto and Arugula. I loved the taste of the prosciutto married with a light vinaigrette. It was refreshing and filling, even though the pear slices were a tad too grilled.
My nephew had the wild mushroom risotto appetizer. How anyone would offer a rich dish like risotto as an appetizer, I’ll never understand. But all was forgiven when I tasted it. The risotto was warm, like it came straight from the pot to our table. It was pure Italian comfort food, with a distinctive broth taste and nice crispy garnish on top.
For our entrees, I had the fettuccini with crab (because I didn’t get to eat as much crab this season as I’d hope) and my nephew had the spicy Italian sausage penne. My fettuccini was a light dish, dressed simply with olive oil and fresh basil and cherry tomatoes. While there was a lot of crab to make me happy, the taste wasn’t as tantalizing as our starters. My nephew’s sausage penne definitely had more flavor, with a mild spicy flavor blended with the rich tomato sauce. I found the penne enjoyable but my nephew thought the pasta could have been cooked longer. I admonished him because he’s used to baked pasta that’s totally soft, but I told him that his penne was perfectly al dente, which is how it should be.
For dessert, we shared a banana bread pudding. When it came out, I was confused that maybe we had ordered some kind of chocolate cake because it really resembled that. My nephew loves bread pudding, but I’m not a big fan so I wasn’t all that thrilled about dessert. My nephew felt it needed more vanilla and less chocolate sauce.
Despite the lackluster ending to our meal, I felt the overall experience was extremely pleasant and satisfying. The dishes seemed fresh and well-executed and the service was well paced and friendly. And the advantage of eating outside on a beautiful San Francisco spring night is unmatched.

Single guy rating: 4 stars (expense it in the outdoors!)

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

Belden Taverna in San Francisco

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