Monday, July 09, 2012

Dinner @ Seven Hills

Sunday nights.  Sigh.  Always a night that I want to eat out, but so few options.  Many places are not open, and those that are usually do not have their executive chefs working, and none have fresh fish.  And I was going to be dining with a vegetarian, so steakhouses were out.  Italian seemed like a great fit, particularly as I've been on a quest for some good pasta.  I've had some decent italian in the city, but nowhere recently that has really made me want to go back (except for Quince, but that is a formal, pricy experience, or Cotogna, which while casual and the right price requires reservations way too far in advance).  Any recommendations?  I'm really just looking for fresh pasta, cooked al dente, with some delicious sauce.

So we headed to Seven Hills, in Nob Hill.  Open on Sundays, they take reservations, and they get very good reviews.  Upon entering we were greeted by Alexis, the charming owner, and were seated immediately.

I liked the feel of the restaurant, it was casual and very welcoming.  Service was good, friendly, just the right level of attentive.  Share plates and utensils were brought out, dishes cleared in a timely fashion, etc.  Water was provided in a jug left on the table so we could refill as needed.

The food was all good, and prices were very reasonable, but nothing was remarkable.  It felt more like eating a good meal at someone's home, rather than eating restaurant food.  I don't mean that in a bad way, but there was nothing to elevate it to a level where I'll remember it in a week.  Ingredients were good, execution was decent (although the pasta was universally overcooked), and it seemed like a lot of care went into the dishes, but at the end of the day, they really were just exactly what you expected from reading the descriptions.

I'd go back if someone wanted to, but I'll continue to try other places first.

Sautéed pea tendrils with garlic.  $4.
Upon sitting, we were presented with 3 menus: the standard menu, the wine menu, and another, titled "While you decide ...".  It includes a bunch of little bites, mostly finger foods in the $4 range.  Note that these are not appetizers, as the main menu includes those ($8 - $12).  This is a cute idea, and not something I'd seen before.

We were intrigued by the pea tendrils, which seemed like a really fresh, seasonal delicious treat.  What we got was exactly as advertised ... just some pea tendrils sautéed with olive oil and garlic.  Nothing more.  They were tender, fresh, and tasty, but nothing that any of us couldn't have easily prepared at home.  This started the theme of the night of home cooking, rather than fancy restaurant food.

We mostly just found this dish amusing.  We knew it would be smaller than an appetizer, but there were only 5 tendrils on the plate.  $4 is cheap, but for 5 tendrils?  
Amuse bouche: butter bean and garlic frittata.
After we ordered, an amuse bouche arrived, a little square of butter bean and garlic frittata, drizzled with some olive oil.  The olive oil was high quality, the salt level was spot on, but there wasn't a lot of flavor in the butter bean nor the frittata.  It had a very slight eggy aftertaste.  Not remarkable.
Sourdough bread, butter.
Bread service was ... sourdough bread.  Served slightly warm, definitely not hot.  Not nearly warm enough to melt the butter.  It had a good crust, a soft interior, but was sourdough, which you probably know by now that I can't stand.

The butter was really flavorful, high quality.
Burrata: tomato water, radish, sun gold cherry tomatoes, Arrowsmith Farms micro basil, green onion, Trapani sea salt, Sicilian extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  $11.
I'm a sucker for burrata.  I love it.  Such creamy deliciousness.  Whoever thought up stuffing cheese with cream is a genius!  And tomatoes are just starting to be delicious, so this sounded pretty fantastic.

This was pretty much exactly what I expected.  Creamy, fresh, tasty burrata.  Not any more notable than any other burrata.

The radish was crisp and really flavorful.  I thought it was a little strange with the burrata, but it was enjoyable.  The cherry tomatoes were perfectly ripe and also quite flavorful, but there were only a few of them.  I would have liked more actual tomatoes.  It was all finished with a big pile of micro basil, green onion, salt, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.  The greens didn't add much, but the oil and balsamic went nicely with the cheese.

The star of the dish, surprisingly, was the tomato water.  It was really light, and intensely flavorful.  It was really quite delicious.  It made me really, really wish I liked sourdough so I could use the bread to soak it all up.  Those at the table who like sourdough did so, and said it went really well.  I resorted to just drinking it by the spoonful, like a chilled tomato soup.

My second favorite dish of the evening, and I'd order it again.  $11 for this portion seemed reasonable.
Hot buttered crostini (side to burrata)
The burrata came with some hot buttered (or possibly oiled?) slices of crostini.  They were lightly toasted, so mostly soft, which helped them soak up the tomato water.  Crostini topped with burrata with tomato water spooned over it was a winning bite.
Red potato gnocchi, fresh bay shrimp, fennel oil, Fontina cheese cream sauce. ( Half portion). $10.50.
All pastas were available in half or full sizes.  Since we weren't starving, we opted for the half sizes.  Given the starters and our desire to save room for dessert, these were the perfect size.

The gnocchi were well executed.  Fluffy, light little pillows of potato, but I wouldn't have known they were red potato (nor do I really care).  They were some of the fluffiest gnocchi I've ever had, really reminding me of mashed potatoes.

The shrimp were small bay shrimp, cooked well enough, but they didn't really add anything to the dish, besides a fishy aroma.

The sauce was quite delicious, cheesy, but not too heavy feeling.  It was finished with a little fennel oil, which gave it just a slight essence of fennel and additional depth.

The dish arrived piping hot, clearly fresh.  Given how many times we've recently received cold food, this was particularly notable.

$10.50 seemed like a great price for this size dish.  It was total comfort food, basically cheesy mashed potatoes.  My favorite dish of the evening!
Spaghetti with Grandpa George’s Sausage, caramelized onions, bell peppers and tomato sauce.  (Half portion) $10.50.
The spaghetti is one of their famous dishes, one of only two that is always on the menu (the other is the Ravioli Uovo, but since that contains truffle oil and my dining companion hates truffle oil, we didn't try that one).  We obviously had to try one of their famous dishes!

The spaghetti wasn't traditional style at all, it was more like pad thai noodles, which surprised me.  They were well flavored and clearly fresh, but overcooked, much past al dente and bordering on mushy.  This was disappointing, as their pasta is all homemade and where they are supposed to shine!

The sauce was just a basic red sauce. It honestly didn't seem much better than anything I could buy at the grocery store.  There was some small chunks of bell peppers in the sauce, that were also overcooked and very mushy.  I didn't find any of the caramelized onions, although I was looking forward to them.

The sausage was supposed to be the star of the show, a old recipe from "Grandpa George".   I liked the form factor of large, uneven chunks and there was a plentiful amount of sausage in the dish.  Unfortunately, like the sauce and pasta, it was completely unremarkable.

Like the gnocchi, this dish arrived nice and hot.  Parmesan cheese was shaved over it tableside.  The half size portion was again a great size, and $10.50 was a good price.  My least favorite of the entrees, and I would not order again.  It really reminded me of something any of my friends, or myself, could have easily prepared at home.

I asked for a wine recommendation, as I love a nice glass of red wine with my pasta.  The waiter recommended a Sangiovese Blend, Chianti Classico, Felsina Berardenga, Italy, 2009, $12.  The wine by the glass was served in a little carafe, with the waiter pouring the initial bit into your glass, and then leaving the carafe at the table.  It was cute, but I didn't really see the point, as it was just a single glass worth.  I didn't care for my wine at all, it wasn't very smooth.  One of my other dining companions ordered a Malbec, and his arrived really cold, and he had to wait for it to warm up.  Wine does not seem to be their strong point.

[ Not pictured]
Euvitis wild mushroom tortelli, brown butter, thyme and grated pecorino cheese.  $21. 

One of my other dining companions went for the mushroom tortelli, basically, large mushroom filled ravioli.  He opted for the full size, which was a ton of ravioli.  They actually made a mistake and brought him only the half size originally, but acknowledged it as soon as they brought it, and brought him the second half before he'd finished the first.  He probably wound up with hotter pasta the whole time this way, so it wasn't really a big deal.

Being my curious self, I of course wanted to steal a bite.  He graciously gave me an entire tortelli.  The pasta was again a little overcooked, not al dente, not a nice chew on it.  The filling was very finely chopped wild mushroom, and it just seemed like mush.  Flavorful mush, but the mouthfeel was not very pleasant.  It was finished with a brown butter sauce that was just kinda oily and not very flavorful.

I liked the flavor of the mushroom, so I ranked it above the spaghetti, but barely.  I wouldn't order again.
Weaver's coffee, decaf french press.  $3.25.
Coffee was from Weaver's, served in individual french press, with a pitcher of cream (I'm pretty sure it was cream, not half and half, as it was very, very rich).  The coffee was excellent, very bitter, a lot more complex that most decaf.  It did arrive fairly far in advance of the desserts however, which I did not like, since I like to have sips of my bitter coffee to balance out the sweet dessert.

I also appreciated that the waiter said "decaf french press" as he sat it down, confirming without my asking that it was decaf (you'd be surprised how many times I double check, and find out that they had brought me regular!).  $3.25 for a full french press was a good price.
Butermilk panna cotta, wild blueberries, coconut water.  $8.
And time for desserts, my favorite part of the night!  Most of the desserts on the menu sounded great, so I had a hard time narrowing it down to just two.

As you know, I love a good panna cotta.  When I asked the waiter about the different desserts, he told me this was his favorite.  They always run some variation of a panna cotta on the menu.

It was served in a glass, so I wasn't able to do my standard wiggle test.  It was a decent consistency, decent flavor with a slight buttermilk hint to it and not too sweet, but, like the other dishes, fairly unremarkable.  There were some blueberries in it that didn't really add or detract from it.  The coconut water on top was a nice touch, with a slight coconut flavor that really enhanced the dish.  It was also fun to have the more waterly liquid in there.

$8 was a fine price for this, and it was my favorite dessert of the night, but it was not very notable, and I wouldn't order again.
Frozen wild mixed berries, warm white chocolate crème anglaise.  $9.
This dessert sounded intriguing, and potentially right up my alley.

One of my favorite simple little treats to make for myself is some frozen berries, topped with whipped cream, nuts, and granola.  I pretty much always have a freezer stocked full of frozen fruit and nuts, a can of whipped cream in the fridge, and granola in the pantry, so this is a fun little play on a fruit crisp or crumble that I can make for myself on a whim in about 30 seconds flat.  Which I do, at least several times a week.  I love how frozen berries turn into something almost like ice cream, yet while still tasting like delicious fresh fruit.

I also have a thing for crème anglaise.  We've been known to lap it up by the spoonful on numerous occasions when it comes as a side for a dessert.  I still dream of the crème anglaise that comes with the souffle at Alexander's!

Anyway, the description of this dish sounded a little boring, frozen berries with warm white chocolate crème anglaise, but given the $9 price tag, I assumed there must be more to it.  I was wrong.

We were brought a bowl with a few types of berries in it, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries.  Then the server poured the warm sauce over it tableside.  And ... that was it.  Exactly as advertised I guess.

The fruit wasn't particularly good nor flavorful.  Seemed like generic frozen grocery store fruit.  I guess I'm spoiled as I freeze all my own fruit fresh from the farmer's market, but I was surprised at how flavorless the berries were.

The sauce was just sweet.  It didn't offer anything.

None of us liked this dish.  We all were surprised by the lack of flavor.  $9 for this dish made no sense. While the prices of all other dishes that night seemed very reasonable, this seemed far overpriced.  It was small, and not complicated in any way.  Even more strangely, it was more expensive than the panna cotta, so it isn't like they just had one fixed price for all desserts.

Worst dish of the night for everyone, and we obviously would not order again.
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