Friday, June 01, 2012

Dinner @ Acquerello

Tonight we went to Acquerello, an italian Michelin starred restaurant that has been in operation for 23 years!  They have received a star every year since the guide has covered San Francisco.  One of their classic dishes that has been on the menu for 20+ years is a foie gras pasta dish, loaded with fresh shaved truffles.  And since we've been on quite the foie gras crawl lately, we had to go try it out before the ban.

They offer several menu choices: three courses for $70, four courses for $82, or five courses for $95, where you can pick from starters, pastas, meat and seafood main dishes, and desserts and cheeses.  Or you can have the six course classic tasting menu for $95, which features many dishes that they have had on the menu for 20+ years!  They also offer a more contemporary nine course seasonal tasting menu for $135.  And with the a la carte version, you can pick courses from the classic menu as well.

We were a group of three, and decided to each do a three course, but share the dishes.  Rather than picking nine different dishes however, we doubled up on the foie gras dishes, creating our own tasting menu of a foie gras starter, two pasta courses, a main dish, a cheese course, and desserts.  This worked out really well, allowing us to sample all of our top picks on the menu, while still getting a sizable portion of the dishes we wanted most.  The kitchen was very accommodating and actually split most of the dishes for us, so we weren't needing to divide things up ourselves, use share plates, or pass dishes around.  Speaking of my group of three, I'd like to take a moment to introduce one of my frequent dining companions.  I'm sick of using the awkward phrasing of "my dining companion who doens't like sweets", so, let me introduce you to Emil.  I'll be using his name from now on.

Service was very good.  Attentive, informative, patient with explanations of things as I frantically scribbled my notes.  The sommelier in particular presented the bottles to me so I could copy the labels, and he really worked with us suggesting wine based on our tastes.  Service was all done synchronized style.  The only slight downside was that we were not offered coffee until after our desserts had been served.  I would have liked some with my very sweet dessert, but as it was a semifreddo, it would have been too late to wait for coffee and let the dessert melt.  Pacing was a little too fast, with very, very little time between courses.  I would ask them to slow down in the future.

The dining room was very open, with vaulted ceilings and a lot space between tables.  It seats only 45 diners.  They easily could have fit a bunch more tables in the room, but have clearly chosen not to for quality sake.  The decor was classic and elegant, fresh roses on the tables.  Furnishings included purse stools (seriously, so nice!)  And speaking of lavish furnishings for the ladies, the bathroom was particularly noteworthy.  It was like a suite.  Huge.  With a gorgeous full length mirror, burning candles, and giant vases of fresh flowers.

The food was amazing.  The most striking aspect was how everything was delivered at the perfect temperature.  We have had so many mishaps lately of hot dishes arriving lukewarm, frozen dishes arriving half melted, etc.  At Acquerello, the hot dishes were piping hot.  Every dish arrived at the table under a cloche, which definitely helped with this, but they also seemed like they had literally just come out of the fryer/oven/etc.  The frozen desserts arrived in solid state.  By far the most appropriate temperatures I've ever been served food in a restaurant.  I think their small size and staggering of seatings helps make this possible.

The next most striking aspect of the food was the seasoning.  It was just dead on, particularly the salt levels.  Flavors really popped.  The dishes were really balanced.

And finally, the cooking execution was flawless.  And the ingredients were clearly very high quality and fresh.  This all added up to create some very, very good food.  I highly recommend, and will certainly return.
Aperitif: orange juice, red sweet vermouth, san pelligrino bitters.
Within moments of being seated, we were presented with an aperitif.  It was sweet, with a strong orange flavor from the orange juice, but slightly bitter as well.  Nicely balanced, refreshing, and enjoyable to sip while perusing the menu.
Amuse bouche: English pea arancini, parmesan cream.
One we ordered, we were soon served an amuse bouche of cheesy English pea arancini, topped with a dollop of parmesan cream.  These were probably the best arancini I've ever had.  Delivered piping hot, clearly fresh out of the fryer.  The exterior was delightfully crisp.  They were fried obviously, but not too oily.  The inside was cheesy, the rice cooked perfectly, and they had a slight pea flavor to them.  The parmesan cream on top didn't seem to add anything to them, as they were cheesy enough already.

This was a great start to the meal and a big sign of what was to follow: perfectly executed food, served piping hot!  My 3rd favorite dish, Emil's 6th favorite, and the 5th for the other diner.
Rosemary bread, olive bread.
Bread service included two types of bread, both served very warm.  They were soft, with a nice chew, and a decent crust.  The rosemary bread was my favorite, with a really lovely, subtle rosemary flavor.  The olive bread I believe was a sourdough, and I wasn't a big fan of.

Not amazing breads, but bonus points for being served so fresh and warm!
Goat butter, sea salt.
Accompanying the bread was buter and sea salt.  I was expecting olive oil, as Acquerello is italian!  The butter was a goat butter.  It was goaty.  I dislike goat flavor, so I didn't care for this at all.  There was also some very flavorful sea salt, served with a cute mother of pearl caviar spoon.  Points for the spoon!
First Course: Pear and foie gras raviolo, dry-farmed organic comice pears filled with truffled torchon of foie gras. (2/3 size).
This was the only savory course we picked from the a la carte menu.  As it was one of two foie dishes on the menu, we had to get it.  We ordered two of these, and the kitchen split them three ways for us.

In the center of the plate was the star: the pear and foie gras raviolo.  Under the very thin, crisp, sweet slices of pear was a truffled torchon.  The sweetness of the pear was a good pairing with it.  The torchon was creamy, filled with big chunks of black truffle, and perfectly salted.  A nicely done torchon, definitely the best seasoned one I've had in ages.

Surrounding the foie raviolo was a salad of sorts, made of tiny cubes of celery, micro celery springs, chopped black truffle, and dressed with olive oil.  The celery cubes had a nice crunch, the greens were so fresh, and the olive oil was really high quality, with a strong olive flavor.  There was a plentiful amount of truffle, also with a really strong flavor.  This stuff was delicious.  We all soaked up every last bit of the olive oil and truffle bits with our bread, I thought it tasted great with the rosemary bread.  The flavors all paired well with the pear and foie as well, adding light and crispy components to the rich and creamy foie.

The sommelier paired this with Feudi Di San Gregorio, Lacryma Christi Bianco 2009.  We ordered 2 glasses of this for the 3 of us, and they again nicely split it for us.  It was dry, sweet, and a perfect pairing, particularly with the pears.

My and Emil's 2nd favorite dish of the night, and the other diner's 4th.  I recommend, and would order again.  A great example of their use of really fresh ingredients and flavors that just popped!
Second course: Lobster panzerotti in a spicy lobster brodo with ‘diavolicchio’. (1/3 size).
From the classic menu, this dish seemed pretty universally loved, so even though I've been a little down on lobster these days, we went for it.  We ordered only one, and again, the kitchen split it three ways for us, presenting us each with a generous portion of two panzerotti and three chunks of lobster meat.  I am a little skeptical that this was really just one order, as that would be a pretty sizable dish for just one of several courses on the menu, but I'm not complaining!

The pasta was perfectly cooked al dente.  It had a great chew to it.  The filling was a generous amount of chopped lobster and had a lot of lobster flavor.  The chunks of lobster meat on top were pretty standard.  The sauce was again perfectly seasoned, salty, but in a great way.  The drizzle of spicy olive oil on top added a nice kick.

I thought this was good, but other than the strong flavor of lobster, I didn't get a lot out of this dish.  Great execution, but I wanted something more from it.  It was my 5th pick, Emil's 4th, and the other diner's 2nd.
Third course: Truffle-stuffed chicken breast, leek custard, potato gratin, and shaved cremini mushrooms.
This was the main dish from the classic menu.  Since I had dictated every other course we ordered, I let my dining companions pick the main.  I don't normally order chicken in a restaurant, but I figured if it was on the classic menu, it was at least going to be a very good chicken preparation.

And it was.  The chicken was pounded thin, then prepared sous vide and finished in the oven.  It was perfectly moist.  It was very good, but ... it was just chicken.  Finished with a truffle madeira sauce, that had a lot less truffle to it than our other truffle dishes.

It was topped with plentiful shaved cremini mushrooms, which gave the dish a nice earthiness.

The "potato gratin" was really just some chunks of roasted potato, fairly standard.

The leek custard had a very strong leek flavor and was pretty creamy.

This was the most modern of the dishes we had, incorporating sous vide and the leek custard.

This was two of our least favorite dish and Emil's 5th pick, and I wouldn't order it again.
Ridged pasta with foie gras, scented with black truffles and Marsala.
And the dish that I'd read most about, from the classic menu.  It was basically why we were there.  It has been on their menu for something like 20 years and just gets the most amazing reviews!

And perhaps for the first time, a dish that really lived up to its hype!  This was amazingly good.  I am so glad we ordered two of these.  Any of us could have easily finished an entire order ourselves.  Even the dessert-o-holic in me considered canceling one of our dessert orders and getting another one of these.  I wish we had!  Just writing this makes me drool.

When this arrived, silence spread over the table as everyone took their first bite.  One diner had his eyes closed, with a look of pure ecstasy on his face.  It was worthy of these reactions.

The pasta was perfectly cooked al dente.  It wasn't anything amazing on its own, but execution was spot on, and it served as the perfect vehicle for the sauce.

Oh the sauce.  Words cannot describe this sauce.  It was creamy.  It was full of richness from the foie gras.  Full of earthiness from the truffles, of which there were substantial shavings of.  It had a slight sweetness from the marsala, which complimented the richness from the foie.  This was just absolutely amazing.  Once we were out of pasta, we soaked up every last drop of this sauce with the bread we had discarded earlier.  Thank goodness we still had that, or I'm kinda certain we would have been licking the plate.  I'd be willing to bet money on the fact that it has happened there over this sauce!

This also paired so well with the bottle of red wine we were drinking, a 1998 Coppo Pomorosso Barbera d'Asti.  The wine had a little too much tannen for my taste, but it worked really well with this dish.

Hands down, winning dish of the evening.  We all agreed.  Would order again in a heartbeat, if I could.  It will be interesting to see what they replace this with, after the foie ban begins.  This is one of the top pasta dishes I've ever had.
Cheese platter: pear mustard, Robiola delle Langhe, Bigio, honey with pine nuts, candied fennel, Testun al Barolo.
Emil does not like sweets, but loves cheeses.  And Acquerello is known for their cheese cart!  In the same way that I was eyeing the petit fours cart all night, he was eyeing the cheese cart!

When it came over, it had a selection of 9 cheeses: 3 hard cheeses, 3 sheep cheeses, and 3 soft cheeses. He selected one of each type.  It was wheeled away, and the cheese returned paired with some fruit spreads and toasted walnut bread.

Not being much of a cheese person, I just took a bite of each, and don't have a lot to say about them.  My favorite, predictably, was the soft, creamy robiola.

The accompaniments all seemed somewhat misnamed.  The pear mustard really didn't taste anything like mustard, it was more like applesauce, but with pear.  The honey with pine nuts was mostly pine nuts and raisins, perhaps coated with a little honey?  The candied fennel was in little cubes, with a strong anise flavor, and not much candying.

Anyway, the cheese lovers of the group seemed pretty happy with these selections, making this Emil's and the other diner's 3rd pick, and my 6th.
Bourbon caramel semifreddo with Amaretti crumbs and drizzle of chocolate sauce.
Dessert from the classic menu, that I'd read such rave reviews of.  And since I love ice cream and caramel, I thought this would be a home run for me.  Sadly, I didn't like it much.

The semifreddo was a really creamy, almost perfect consistency.  It had a strong caramel flavor that I really enjoyed.  However, it was just far too sweet and I didn't pick up on much of the bourbon flavor.

I liked the Amaretti crumbs, they had a great almond flavor, added a crunch, and went very well with the semifreddo.

I also really loved the chocolate sauce, it was actually hardened on top, and very chocolatey.

There was also what looked like a piece of chocolate, that turned out to be a very thin, very crisp, chocolate cookie.  I didn't try it until the end, thinking it was just a piece of chocolate and I was trying to avoid too much caffeine in the evening, but I think it would have gone nicely with the semifreddo, perhaps cutting some of the sweetness since the cookie was fairly chocolatey and bitter.

This dessert would have paired really nicely with a bitter coffee or espresso, something to cut the sweetness.

My least favorite of the desserts, and second to last overall.  Emil's least favorite, and 6th choice for the other diner.  I would not order again.
Crème fraiche panna cotta with strawberry granita, basil, and Marcona almonds.
I love a good pudding/custard dessert, and as such, I've had a lot of panna cotta lately.  This one was slightly above average, but not outstanding.

The panna cotta had a balanced tartness from the crème fraiche, while still being sweet enough for my taste.  It was a rather strange consistency however, kinda grainy.  And served in this bowl, you didn't get to see it wobble (which, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have).  The bowl however was stunning!

It was topped with two strawberry preparations: a granita and compressed strawberries.  These were very sweet, very flavorful components.  The compressed strawberries seemed like they had been infused with even more strawberry flavor!  They paired well with the crème fraiche.

The green dots were a basil puree, which was really intensely basil flavored and refreshing.  It paired well with the strawberries in a savory way, but I wasn't really a fan of it.

There was also a chocolate and hazelnut crumble.  I loved this component.  It not only added a great crunchy texture, but the chocolate itself had a really deep, rich chocolate flavor, and it paired so well with both the strawberries and the panna cotta.  This single component really elevated the dish for me dramatically.  Without it, I would have considered this a pretty generic dish.

I think it could have done without the granita and the basil puree, and just been the panna cotta, the compressed strawberries, and the chocolate hazelnut crumble, but I understand where they were going with the fresher, ligher components as well.  Emil liked the basil and the panna cotta, but found the strawberry components far too sweet, and did not like the chocolate hazelnut pairing either.

My favorite of the desserts.  I'd order again, but would probably rather try something else first.  My 4th pick of the night, and second to last for the other two diners.
Petit fours: chocolate cookie with chocolate cream filling, red currant gelée, white chocolate and orange ganche lollipop, St. George whiskey truffle, lemon curd and strawberry muscatto gelée parfait.
When the petit fours cart came around, I had no choice.  I had to get one of everything :)

(Clockwise from top left)

Chocolate cookie sandwich: chocolate almond cookies, which were soft, but didn't have much chocolate flavor, filled with an equally uninteresting chocolate filling.

Red currant gelée: ver sweet, with ok berry tones, but pretty generic, and it had too much sugar coating.

White chocolate and orange ganache lollipop: the filling in this was strongly orange flavored, and I didn't pick up on any of the white chocolate.  It had a really strange consistency and mouth feel  The dark chocolate coating was high quality, with a good flavor and snap.  I didn't taste the pink peppercorn that was sprinkled on the outside.

St. George whiskey truffle: This was a standard milk chocolate shell, with a creamy boozy filling.  Not remarkable.

Lemon curd and strawberry muscatto gelée parfait: The curd layers were slightly tart from the lemon, but way too sweet.  The gelée layers didn't have much flavor, or else it was just masked by the curd.  On top was some pistachio crumble that I suppose paired well with the curd, but I don't really care for pistachio much.  There were also white chocolate pearls that were the best part of the dish, but weren't exactly remarkable.  This was very hard to eat, as even with the tiny spoon provided, dipping it into the cup caused the pearls and crumble to split out everywhere.

I wouldn't want a single one of these again.  These were by far the weakest part of the meal.  I love my desserts, but I didn't actually like any of these, even slightly.
Take home treats!  Almond biscotti.
With the check, we were presented with a box of take home treats.  Of course I couldn't wait to open it!  Inside was a pile of freshly baked biscotti.

I generally find biscotti fairly forgettable, usually just kinda hard, not very flavorful.  I enjoy a chocolate dipped biscotti from time to time, particularly when dipped into the froth of a cappuccino, but besides that, biscotti is not something I really care much about.

These however, were very good biscotti!  They were slightly softer than I am accustomed to, perhaps because they were freshly baked that day.  Good amount of almond chunks in them.  Very buttery.  Really quite tasty, even without a cappuccino.
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