Chef Michael Tusk first appeared on my radar six years ago when he opened Quince. Since, the restaurant has quickly climbed the ladder of culinary esteem in San Francisco and beyond, its local cult following has blossomed into a national following.
With a week’s notice, I was barely able to swing a reservation on a Sunday night.
Since I was already in the Bay Area, a visit to Quince seemed necessary – especially before the restaurant’s impending move from its current location (in Pacific Heights) to a much larger space in Jackson Square.
Leaning mostly on candlelight, the small, unassuming space has an old world charm about it. It’s intimate. It is not fancy. Subtract the white linens and add some lights and you’d have a pretty nice looking modern-day bistro.
The cuisine here is not hard to classify. It’s French-Italian, and almost classically so.
Although the menu had been strictly á la carte, Quince recently instituted a $68, 4-course prix fixe menu (with the occasional supplement).
The best way to experience Quince, I’ve been told, is to take the Chef’s Table in the kitchen. As that required six mouths (or, a minimum of $1,000, whichever you can manage better), we sat in the dining room.
Failing the kitchen table, the next best thing is to ask for the chef to cook for you.
Tusk wasn’t in.
So, after a quick glance at the printed tasting menu, we both agreed that ordering prix fixe was the better route.
I was asked not to publish my photographs publicly. And since I am a man of my word, I abide. Here is what aaron and I ordered:
Crudo of Scallop ($20 supplement)
Local halibut and sea urchin, cucumber, radish, and fino verde basil.
Chilled Freewheelin’ Farm Fava Bean Soup
Maine lobster and herbs.
Four Story Hill Farm Sweetbreads ($8 supplement)
Bintje potato puree, garlic scape and bulb.
Spaghetti ($5 supplement)
Sea urchin, green garlic, and hot pepper.
Dungeness crab, Meyer lemon and Martin’s young rapini.
Agnolotti dal Plin ($20 as an extra course)
Traditional Piedmontese filled pasta.
Tagliatelle ($20 as an extra course)
Morel mushroom and celeriac spuma.
Fennel, carrot, pixie tangerine, and basil.
Liberty Duck Breast and Sausage
Turnip, bull’s blood beet greens, and badda bean gratinata.
($15 as an extra course)
Olive Oil Semifreddo
Sbrisolona and cherry granita.
Golden beet leaves, sorbetto and white chocolate crema.
Quince isn’t exactly a drop in the bucket. It can be quite expensive. If you can restrain yourself and stay within the four smallest corners of the prix-fixe, you’ll easily fly out of the restaurant for under $100 a person.
But the menu is a mine field, littered with tantalizing traps. Give in to any one of a number of temptations and you’ll easily sabotage your wallet.
Supplement sirens beckon: at least one item in each category carried a surcharge.
Are they worth it?
In the case of the “Four Story Hills Farm Sweetbreads” – no. The two small nuggets were adequately cooked (at least the one I ate was, my friend found the other one a touch dry), and the softened garlic scapes and bulbs imparted a wonderful, vegetal aroma. But I really didn’t feel that the extra $8 I paid translated onto the plate.
On the other hand, in the case of a twirl of spaghetti generously heaped with chopped sea urchins sautéed with olive oil and green garlic – yes. Creamy and warm, I wanted to crawl into the bowl and roll around with my mouth open. This dish, alone, convinced us to pony up for two more pasta dishes – $20 each – as an extra course. (Although we were told before ordering that we could ask to have an additional pasta courses in lieu of a main course, we wanted to get a full picture of Tusk’s repertoire.)
If you’re going to spend the money at Quince, spend it on the pastas.
They’re the restaurant’s calling card. Everybody says so. And, after having tried them, I say so.
But, even as I type this, I’m reminded that the “Gnocchi,” for instance, probably weren’t the best example of the kitchen’s pasta prowess. That dish failed to grab either of us as much as the other pastas did. Though fluffy, the little starchy rounds, coated in a thick, buttery sauce, were just a tad gummy. And there was very little crab or crab flavor – just a bare knuckle plopped on top. The dish was a bit ordinary.
The “Agnolotti dal Plin” were a better example. The thinly rolled pasta had a pleasing elasticity to it, though its unyielding firmness caused the agnolotti to split at the seams when forked, forcing the filling out. That was a problem. The filling of finely ground duck meat, however, was flavorful, moist, and rich.
The server told us that the agnolotti were sauced with brown sage butter. Thick, glossy, and viscous with a rich, meaty flavor, both Aaron and I thought it was demi glace. Maybe it was both?
Now, the “Tagliatelle” was magnificent. The golden strands of egg pasta boasted a satiny surface and a taut bounce. An abundance of morels were tucked among the strands. Simply slicked with a touch of olive oil and topped with a fresh shaving of cheese, its “sauce” – a creamy, pungent celeriac spuma – was poured to one side of the bowl for self saucing. Surprisingly bitter, the earthy spuma paired wonderfully with the morels and the pasta. This tagliatelle dish and the spaghetti with sea urchin were the two highlights of the night.
I couldn’t fault any of the dishes for being sloppy or poorly executed. There was not a single misstep in the entire meal. There’s a sharpness and precision to the cooking. It’s clean. It’s crisp. Flavors are distinct. And the ingredients were unquestionably fresh and of the highest quality.
Yet, next to the pastas, the rest of the dinner, overall, seemed a bit flat.
For example, there wasn’t anything wrong with my “Liberty Duck Breast and Sausage,” per se. The meat was juicy. The sausage was moist and flavorful, as were the red beet greens. And even the bada bean gratinata – something akin to pinto bean mash – offered an interesting departure from the norm. But, the dish was thoroughly unstimulating. Next to Aaron’s steamed “Alaskan Halibut,” which was painted with a colorful and refreshing mix of citrus and fennel, my duck seemed tired.
So were the desserts. Though quite good (and very pretty), I wouldn’t say that either of them was great.
I fail to understand how the “Olive Oil Semifreddo” got its name. It neither tasted like olive oil nor had the semblance of semifreddo. It was more like vanilla flan. The macerated cherries on this plate stole this show.
I preferred my “Aprium Torta,” which presented a meticulously assembled montage of gold. The craftsmanship was amazing: straight-edged squares of a dense, butter crumb cake (think pound cake) layered with aprium jam*; a scoop of yellow beet sorbetto; painstakingly crimped and delicate yellow beet chips made to look just like leaves; and a swatch of rich, white chocolate crema. Dots of mint oil added a new dimension.
The only thing I can accuse Quince of is stinginess. We found most of the plates puny.
The dish that jumps to the front of this line is Aaron’s first course, “Chilled Freewheelin’ Farm Fava Bean Soup.”
There were just a few, tiny dices of lobster meat and one fava bean for each finger on my right hand. Neither of us needed more food at that point – but there was barely enough soup to coat the flat-bottom of the bowl. If I hadn’t had a large lunch, I would have been sorely disappointed.
The double-shucked favas, however, were very good. And the chilled, milky soup had a beautiful pastel green color and good fava flavor.
The $20 that I paid for a plate of “Crudo” seemed hard to justify, as well. It was the first course from the $95 seven-course tasting menu, and it looked like it too – the portion was tiny. A small sea urchin tongue sat on a carpet of thinly sliced sea scallop surrounded by four mini, pink rosettes of halibut.
To be fair, the quality of the raw seafood was incredibly high. Drizzled with a touch of olive oil and garnished with fresh basil and sea salt, everything was clean and sweet.
But they were quite generous with the bread – an assortment of foccacina (mini foccacia buns glistening with a patina of olive oil) and grissini. The foccacina were tad dry, but the grissini were crisp, with a pointed, chile heat.
And the cheese service – a $15 add-on -was quite big-hearted. There wasn’t a terribly exciting selection on their cart, but it was an eclectic one. Interestingly, among the fifteen or so cheeses, there was not a single Italian one. (I only note this because the menu seemed to anchor around The Boot.)
With the half dozen wedges and slices of cheese I selected came a plate adequately covered with dried dates, and thinly sliced white bread, walnut bread, and apples.**
* * * *
Quince offers more than a decent meal. The food here has soul. But it has not much passion – pretty and tasty, but not much more.
Not to pigeonhole Chef Tusk, as his talents are clearly high and wide, but his pastas were definitely the highlight. If I go back, I’ll focus on them.
Prices are a bit high. But, as I mentioned, the quality of the ingredients and the care/attention given to them is unquestionably keen. I just wish there was a little more of those ingredinets on the plate.
Service at Quince was surprisingly good. I had expected a more uptight lot. Our server – a tall, rosy-cheeked German fellow – couldn’t have dispelled that misplaced belief with a heartier bonhomie. A former server and keeper of the cheese cart at Gary Danko, both Aaron and I found him quite amiable.
After recklessly frolicking through the minefield, hitting almost every supplement, my half of the bill (I paid for the supplemented first course, one of the extra pastas, and cheese) landed in the neighborhood of $200. No wine.
While initial reports had Quince moving in May (2009), our server informed us (in late May) that the move had been pushed back to July. At the time of this writing (at the top of August 2009), Quince is still serving diners at its original location. The latest word I’ve gotten is that the new date is set for September.
I’ll be curious to see how Quince fares in its new home. I hear that the significantly larger space will increase the number of covers in the dining room as well as add on a larger bar/lounge area with its own, more casual menu.
Executive Chef/Patron Michael Tusk
1701 Octavia Street
San Francisco, California 94109
[Note: The restaurant has since moved to its current location at 470 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco, California 94133; the telephone number remains the same.]
* Aprium = Apricot + Plum. It tastes just as the order of fruits suggests, unlike its counterpart, the Pluot (Plum + Apricot), which takes on the flavors and textures in the opposite different order. That is, apriums taste and look more like apricots whereas pluots taste and look more like plums.
** This is what I selected:
Weybridge (cows’ milk, Vermont)
Marin County (goats’ milk, California)
Cloth-Bound Cheddar (cows’ milk, Vermont)
Westcombe Cheddar (cows’ milk, England)
Cana de Cabra (goats’ milk, Spain)