Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Farina Focaccia & Cucina Italiana

A few years ago, one of my friends kept raving about a place for their cheesy bread.  Whenever someone suggested going out to eat, "CHEESY BREAD!" was always the answer.  I went a few times back then, but never found it all that memorable.  I vaguely remembered that they were known for homemade pastas, and their pesto in particular, but I hadn't been back in years.  I'd pretty much forgotten about the place: Farina.

Until of course, I saw them on LevelUp.  Unlike most places that seed their LevelUp accounts with $2, Farina goes above and beyond and seeds it with $20! I honestly thought it was a type-o at first.  Remembering my friend's enthusiasm for the cheesy bread, and seeing the large credit amount was enough to make me look them back up.

Yelp reviews weren't great, but a lot of reviewers were mostly complaining that it was too pricy.  I'm used to paying high prices for good food, so I wasn't really put off by that.  I was a little surprised that I couldn't really get anything on the dinner menu to fall within the $20 credit, but they also offer a Sunday brunch, and I love brunch!

So, I went.

The restaurant offers a plethora of seating options.  There are a few tables outside on the sunny Mission sidewalk.  A huge communal table and regular tables fill in the main area.  There is classic bar seating, and also a chef's counter area in front of where the fresh pasta is made.  And then upstairs they have outdoor rooftop seating.  The place is much bigger than it looks from the outside!  On my first visit, I was alone, so I just sat at the bar.  It was comfortable and had purse hooks.  On my second visit, I was seated in the main dining room.

Service was fine on both visits, the staff friendly enough.  They threw in a few words of Italian from time to time.  I talked to someone, I think the manager, about their use of LevelUp, asking if many people used it.  He said only about two per month.  I was a little surprised, how is everyone not rushing there to get $20 worth of free food?  He said they mostly see it as a promotional stunt, just getting their name out there.  Makes sense to me, as it got me there!

The restaurant prides themselves in doing many things in house - filtered water, still or sparkling, is offered when you sit down.  I know it sounds silly to rave about, but I love their sparkling water.  The level of carbonation is just perfect, not too much, and not too little.  I'd buy it if I could!  The table bread is freshly made when you arrive, and always offers several choices.  And the pasta you can watch being made before your eyes.  The menu states that you pay for all this with an additional service fee, which of course the Yelpers are very upset by.

The food was all ... fine.  Nothing was bad, but nothing was particularly memorable.  Given the dinner prices, I can't really imagine going back, but brunch prices weren't too high, and given $20 credit, were downright fantastic!
Bread basket: grissini, focaccia.
Within moments of my ordering, a lovely bread basket was set down in front of me.  I wasn't that hungry, and already thought I wouldn't be able to finish my pasta dish alone, so I figured I'd just try a bite of each of the bread options in order to review them for you, but mostly, I'd ignore the basket.  I'm not that much of a bread girl anyway.

First, I tried the grissini.  Hard style breadsticks, I believe with fennel seed in them.  They were crispy, and one bite was all I really needed.  If I'd been hungrier, maybe I'd want more, but they weren't anything special.

All was going according to plan.  And then, I tried the other bread.

Little chunks of focaccia.  I was a little weirded out by the form factor, as they were all different sizes, and seemed to have been ripped up by hand, almost as if it was someone else's leftovers.  But one bite and I didn't care.  It was warm.  It was doughy.  It was insanely flavorful, covered in olive oil and sea salt.  The perfect salt level.  Way more oil than I'd probably ever put on something, but it was so delicious.  I couldn't get enough of this!  At once, I was overjoyed that they'd given me, a solo diner, the same size bread basket as they were giving all other parties in the restaurant.  So much focaccia for me!

The bread was by far the highlight of the meal for me.  It was really, really quite good.  I asked about it, and they told me it was just focaccia with olive oil and salt, and that people often ask for butter or oil to go along with it, and they don't know why, as it is seasoned perfectly and served alone on purpose.

It made me wonder about the cheesy bread again, if the plain bread was this delicious.  Perhaps next time I'll just go get an order of cheesy bread :)
Bread Basket: Olive bread, focaccia.
On my second visit, I was already looking forward to my bread basket.  It arrived as expected, although not quite as fast as on my first visit.  There was steam coming out of the bread.  I think it was taken directly out of the oven.  Ojan was impressed with the freshness and quality of the bread!

Like last time, there was some focaccia.  It didn't quite live up to my memory, but it was warm and nicely salted.

The other selection was an olive bread.  It looked pretty boring, although clearly freshly baked.  I again assumed I'd skip this bread, but got strangely addicted to it.  The crust on it was perfect, and you really just can't beat fresh bread like this.  There were a few small pieces of olive in it.

Another above average bread basket!
Mandilli di seta al pesto Genovese: Handmade handkerchief pasta with Genovese basil pesto. $16. 
Since they are known for their handmade pastas, I asked for a recommendation amongst the pastas, and the bartender said it was no contest, this was the one to get.  It is their signature dish, and apparently they've won awards for it.

It arrived insanely quickly.  I'd only gotten through one chunk of the amazing focaccia when it arrived.  Literally, about 3 minutes after I placed my order.

The pesto was good, but I think the aroma of it was better than the taste.  It smelt amazing when it was set down in front of me!  I took a moment to just take it in.  It was flavorful, but honestly, I didn't find it to be that remarkable.  There was a lot of olive oil in the sauce.

The handkerchief pasta was two very large, thin sheets of pasta.  It tasted fresh enough I guess, but wasn't really all that flavorful or special.  And given that the entire plate was made up of two sheets of it, it was a little hard to eat, you had to cut it up strangely.  It was also a little soggy.  I wouldn't want pasta in this form factor to be al dente obviously, but this was definitely a little overcooked.

It was sprinkled with some cheese, I think parmesan.  The cheese did go really well with the pesto.

This wasn't bad, but it really wasn't that great.  I don't understand the hype, nor the price tag.  I thought the pesto was better on the focaccia than on the pasta, as I really just didn't care for the doneness level on the pasta, and the bread soaked up the oil in the pesto nicely.

The dish was $16, and after tax and tip, I expected it to just exceed my $20 credit, which was fine.  What I didn't count on was the other 4% cover charge they added!  "The cover charge includes our premium amenities: fresh artisan bread, focaccia, grissini and house filtered waters."  Hmph.  I guess I'm starting to see why the Yelpers are so grumpy.  At dinner time, this dish is $26.  The pasta I've had pretty much everywhere else has been better, and far cheaper, like Perbacco, Seven Hills, Cotogna.  $16 even seemed pricy for this pretty small portion.

I wouldn't get again.
Pansotti di Recco con pesto di noci: Handmade Genovese pansotti filled with ricotta cheese, spinach and borage served in a cream walnut pesto sauce.  $16. (Half-portion)
On my second visit, I tried another of their pastas.

The pasta itself was fairly unremarkable, clearly freshly made to order, with a decent level of doneness, but not much flavor.  It basically served as just a wrapper around the filling, which is where all the flavor was.  It was full of really fresh greens, nicely seasoned.  I didn't really taste the ricotta, which was fine with me.  They reminded me a little of the snow pea dumplings at Yank Sing, always my favorite piece of dim sum when I visit.

The sauce was creamy, had a slight nutty flavor, but wasn't all that remarkable.  I definitely preferred the pesto on my first visit, although I did enjoy having the sauce to lap up with my bread.

I split with Ojan, and the kitchen was kind enough to plate it separately for us, two plates of three large pansotti each.  The $16 price tag seemed reasonable for a full order of 6 of these.  Ojan really liked this dish, but I wouldn't order again.
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