review: initialism…

Bay Scallops
Bay Scallops
SPQR, San Francisco

An unassuming eatery tucked away in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, S.P.Q.R. is probably best known as the more casual cousin to A16.  Both restaurants are were co-owned by Nate Appleman, who was, for a time, the culinary darling au current of America.

But Appleman has quieted down lately.

After a stream of national accolades, including winning the James Beard Award for Rising Star and being named one of Food + Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs, Appleman unexpectedly announced that he was quitting both restaurants late last year (including a possible A16 outpost in Tokyo) to pursue the bright lights of New York City.

Sweet Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes
SPQR, San Francisco

Having gone off the grid for a brief moment, Appleman resurfaced with restaurateur Keith McNally at his back.  Together, they just opened Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria this past week.

But if you don’t know of Appleman, A16, or Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria, you can probably gather from this restaurant’s name – short for Senatus Populusque Romanus – that it serves, ostensibly, Italian food.

I visited S.P.Q.R. last May (2009), months before Appleman’s departure, with two friends, The Queen of the Night and Aaron, both of whom had been before.

Jones Farm Rabbit
Jones Farm Rabbit
SPQR, San Francisco

The structure of the menu has changed since our visit (presumably, following Appleman’s departure), so this review is, admittedly, nothing more than a snapshot of the past.

The antipasti were the main focus of our lunch.  They were priced at $8 apiece, $7 if you ordered three.  We ordered nine and tacked on a dessert.  CLICK HERE to see all the photos from our lunch.

-

Antipasti

Jones Farm Rabbit
Frisee, pancetta, carrot, and mustard.
($8/$7 if ordered with two others)

Bay Scallops
Agretti, preserved lemon and chiles.
($8/$7 if ordered with two others)

Tuna Conserva
Fennel, ceci beans, celery, radish, and mojama.
($8/$7 if ordered with two other antipasti)

Beef Tongue
Pickled horseradish crema.
($8/$7 if ordered with two other antipasti)

Tripe
Fennel, chiles, pickled onions, mint and parsley.
($8/$7 if ordered with two other antipast)

Sweet Potatoes
Pancetta, fried chiles and pecorino.
($8/$7 if ordered with two other antipasti)

Marinated Beets
Fresh ricotta.
($8/$7 if ordered with two other antipasti)

Brussels Sprouts
Garlic, parsley, capers and lemon.
($8/$7 if ordered with two other antipasti)

Zuppa
Porcini mushroom bread dumplings, chives and pecorino.
($8/$7 if ordered with two other antipasti)

Desserts

Ricotta Fritters
Orange marmalade and crema fresca. ($7.50)

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Tuna Conserva
Tuna Conserva
SPQR, San Francisco

The food here is simple, and for the most part, delicious.

The “Jones Farm Rabbit,” for example, was a fine frisee salad with carrots, parsley, tender strips of rabbit, and a tart, grainy mustard dressing.  I liked that it was served warm.

The quality of the cooking, however, varied.

The “Tuna Conserva” ended up being more about the ceci than the conserva. It’s a pity since those ceci should have spent more time in water and heat. They were hard and gritty.

Tripe
Tripe
SPQR, San Francisco

Bay Scallops,” on the other hand, were wonderfully cooked, even if they weren’t as sweet as I had hoped they’d be.  But a spritz of lemon added character, making up for the absent chiles and preserved lemon promised by the menu.

There were salting issues.

Looking like crinkle fries, strips of fried “Tripe” were crispy on the outside, soft within.  They were laced with tissue-thin shavings of fennel, which I especially enjoyed.  Although the bold spicing was appreciated, it was slightly under-seasoned, surprising given how salty some of our dishes were.

Brussels Sprouts
Brussels Sprouts
SPQR, San Francisco

The “Brussels Sprouts” were not what I expected them to be. Instead of a plate of meaty, caramelized sprout halves or quarters, this was more like a pile of cindered sprout leaves. It was like eating a pile of greasy, crepe paper. Immensely flavorful – garlic, capers, chile, parsley, and lemon – it was also terribly oversalted.*

So was the “Zuppa,” a warm, brothy soup with soft porcini bread dumplings. Run roughshod with salt, each of us took one sip and pushed it aside; barely edible.

But the good news is that where S.P.Q.R. hit the mark, it hit it squarely.

Beef Tongue
Beef Tongue
SPQR, San Francisco

Chunks of “Sweet Potatoes” were fried until they became creamy, lacquered nuggets of candy. With a shower of lacy Pecorino shavings, we hardly missed the pancetta and fried chile, which seemed non-existent.

A fluffy cloud of incredibly fresh ricotta seemed to float above a garnet bed of “Marinated Beets.” Milky and light, the ricotta was great.  The beets were good.

And soft slices of “Beef Tongue” sported a beautiful crust. Sauced with a tangy horseradish crema, it was the best in show by a wide country mile.

Marinated Beets
Marinated Beets
SPQR, San Francisco

Wine?  We didn’t order any.  Aaron and I were facing a longish dinner at Manresa that night.

But, being the self-proclaimed “fried dough ho” of Pacific Heights, The Queen of the Night lit up like a flaming saganaki when she saw “Ricotta Fritters.”  So we did order dessert.

Not particularly a fan of fried doughstuff, I have to admit that these were very good.  They were like balls of warm chenille in a thick, crunchy shell.  They were dressed with a fragrant marmalade and accompanied by a wonderful vanilla crema dipping sauce that I was tempted to throw back in one shot.

Ricotta Fritters
Ricotta Fritters
SPQR, San Francisco

Our servers were pretty on top of things early on in our meal, when the restaurant was relatively quiet.  But as the lunch crowd rushed in, service suffered.  By the end of our meal, we were abandoned for long stretches at a time.  Attempts to flag down a server in that tiny restaurant proved surprisingly difficult.  We nearly had to beg them for our bill.  With a line out the door, we couldn’t figure out why they weren’t shoving us out the door.

Can I recommend SPQR?  Based on my one meal, I’d have hesitated six months ago.  But now that it’s under new supervision, I’d be curious to know how the restaurant is performing in the post-Appleman era.  There’s a new menu.  Presumably, there’s a new chef, too.

SPQR
1911 Fillmore
San Francisco, California
415.771.7779

* SPQR’s open kitchen is within sight of most of the restaurant’s tables.  After we were served our Brussels sprouts, I saw one cook accost a bowl of freshly-roasted (fried?) Brussels sprouts destined for another table with three fistfuls of salt.

~ by ulterior epicure on March 19, 2010.

2 Responses to “review: initialism…”

  1. It would be great (for DD & I) if SPQR were in the Sunset, dear friend, but it’s in Pacific Heights. We’re curious to check the new chef out as well. Initial feedback has been positive… We had a fine experience at SPQR, but found a dish at A16 also overly salty (under Appleman’s reign).

  2. @ claudine: That’s what I thought, but Google told me Sunset. <_< I'll look forward to your report of the revised SPQR! So envious of your Bay Area denizens; so much good food at your finger tips!

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