As promised, I’m back with my full review of SPQR in San Francisco. I had heard great things about this place being an awesome spot to grab an upscale, casual meal. Seeing as I love fresh pasta like no other, we booked a table to celebrate my birthday. Even better – we got the chef’s counter!
Now, this chef’s counter experience was pretty much the exact opposite of our last chef’s counter experience. It was almost exactly what I expected from a kitchen – kind of loud, a lot of repeating of orders, people getting in trouble. Oh yeah, that happened.
Anyway, you’re getting another behind the scenes look at the prep that goes into these beautiful dishes. I do have to warn you, though – this kitchen moved much faster than the one at Commis, and since the menu was a la carte instead of fixed, there were always several dishes going on at once. This means that I didn’t really get shots of our actual dishes being made (except once), but the gist is the same, right? 😛
It’s always fun to watch food being made. Oddly enough, it seems that even with open kitchens, these chefs don’t seem used to cameras being in their faces. Does that mean you people don’t bring cameras with you to dinner to document everything? How weird. 😉
Even though we were the first seated at the counter they placed us off to the side a bit instead of smack in the middle. This put us closer to the expediting station aka the spot where the chef yells at his sous chefs.
As we were sitting waiting (there was a lot of waiting. Dishes started coming out long before we ordered even though we were like the second people seated of the night) I kept thinking, “man, this place smells strongly of cheese” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you love cheese. You’d just think it wouldn’t be so strong, you know? Stinky cheese smell when you can’t see any cheese is kinda suspect. A little later I discovered that those containers of awesomeness (middle picture containing gorgonzola, parmesan and a couple other cheeses) were right on the other side of the counter in front of me. So the whole place didn’t smell like cheese, my spot did. Good thing I love cheese.
SPQR doesn’t offer a tasting menu outright, just a normal a la carte menu broken down into antipasti, primi and secondi. We ordered something from each so that we could get a feel for the menu. Side note: I heard the chef telling one of his sous chefs to set aside a certain cut of meat for an off-menu tasting menu. I’m not sure if this is an option that you can ask for or if they had some VIPs coming the next day, but if you’re hungry, you could consider asking about it. I wanted to try asking about this, but we just weren’t hungry enough for it that night.
We started off with a hamachi crudo that was an off-menu special of the evening. It was delicious. The huge, thick chunks of hamachi tasted extremely fresh and paired surprisingly well with the toasted hazelnuts and cucumber. This was Aldwin’s favorite of the night, which isn’t surprising since he loves hamachi.
Oh my yum, I wish this dish were more photogenic because it certainly tasted better than it looked. The liver mousse was so smooth, and I loved the balance between the gamey liver, the sweet pear and the hint of tang from the balsamic. I may need to attempt to recreate this at home.
From the beginning of our meal I kept seeing the chef prepping those foil blocks in the bottom left and I wondered that those were. He would mound a bunch of cheese on top of the block then set it on a shelf up high. Putting what looked like fresh food up on a high shelf is enough to make anyone curious, am I right? Turns out it was our duck lasagna. Really, this should be “lasagna” because it was layers of meat and cheese and no pasta, or at least none that I noticed. The whole dish was very meaty and rich. In fact, I was looking for a bit more freshness or acid to cut the richness. Also, I didn’t really get the whole “pastrami” inspired part. I expected the duck to taste pastrami like, but I just got duck. I do admit that I didn’t really have a lot of it, though, because my focus was on…
…this beauty right here. The off menu specials of the day were simple pasta dishes (in my case a raviolo with egg yolk) topped with white truffle. I had intended to get one of SPQR’s fresh pasta dishes (long noodles so I could judge the pasta itself), but I’m a sucker for fresh truffles. And white truffles? Heck yes. Overall the dish was surprisingly light, and the truffles were the star. I was actually surprised how balanced the flavors were. I was afraid the cheese would overwhelm the truffle or that there would be too much filling (that thing was thick), but it was my favorite dish of the night.
Sidenote: The guy plating above got ridden pretty hard by the chef. It was kind of quiet and passive aggressive, but it was really obvious the chef was not happy with his performance while we were there. To be fair, at one point this guy apparently cut up some cauliflower to the wrong size and got in big doodoo for “cutting corners”. That part was obviously deserved.
For the protein course we chose to share the pork tasting. This thing was a head scratcher. From right to left it included pork blood sausage, crispy pork ears, pork loin, the celery root “millefoglie” and a “porkette”. I’m still not entirely sure what a porkette is. I’m picturing Porky Pig’s wife over here, and I’m pretty sure that’s not right. Pretty sure. Whatever it’s supposed to be, it was fried and fatty.
Anyway, the seasoning on the blood sausage was really good, but I couldn’t get past the gaminess. It was just too strongly metallic for me, though I did give it a good few bites because I thought the seasoning was interesting. The pork ears were good – crispy, light and not at all greasy. The loin was disappointingly dry. I know pork loin is notorious for drying out quickly, but I did expect better from a Michelin starred restaurant. The porkette was good but a bit greasy. Aldwin loved it, so I let him have at it. I loved the celery root “millefoglie”, but I felt like there really wasn’t enough of it compared to all the meat on the plate, especially since the meat was rich, fatty pork.
For dessert I picked the lime cake with pink pepper, and they sweetly brought it out with a candle for my birthday. I loved the flavor combo of the fragrant lime and pink pepper. So fun! The cake itself was denser than I expected but still good. Overall not one of the best desserts I’ve had, but I definitely appreciated how light this was after having that plate full of meat as a final course.
Sidenote: I had to take a photo of the flames they were using to cook each dish. Seriously, if that’s what they mean by high heat, my stove does not get hot enough.
We got tea service with dessert, and this tea was so good it deserves its own little blurb. Seriously, so good. It was smooth with almost a hint of sweet from the aging. Definitely something I’m going to be on the lookout for next time I hit the tea market. If you happen to be a tea snob like me, please point me in the direction of some aged formoosa oolong!
We received a couple of chocolate marshmallows with the check. They tasted fine. Nothing special. I was more impressed by all the burners going on high at once. 😛
Overall, I’m feeling pretty torn about this place. On the one hand, I felt like their protein based dishes were too heavy handed on the meat without much to cut the richness, but on the other hand, their lighter dishes had some fun, delicious flavor combinations. I may want to come back to try some fresh pasta, but I’m not itching to.
I do have to say that compared to other one-starred restaurants I’ve been to, SPQR didn’t feel like one Michelin star to me. The service was super friendly but not very attentive. Half of what we tried had really good flavors, and the other half felt really unbalanced. At the level of one star, I really think overcooked proteins just shouldn’t happen, but maybe I’m expecting too much.