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SF notes: Quince

I don’t have a whole lot to show for my dinner at Quince. Save for a few brilliant dishes that hint at just how much talent Michael Tusk has, the restaurant takes itself far too seriously for a comfortable night out and delivers too little to justify the excessive fuss. Even taking the snooty, staff that envelop every spare inch of this tiny restaurant, out of the equation, you are still left with a feeling that Quince could be a lot more if it didn’t let the foam of accolades go straight to it’s (proverbial) head.

Photo shoot cut short at Quince

Except for a lonely frog leg amuse, I don’t have any pictures of the food. You’ll have to settle for my mini-diary, instead (I was quite bored).

  • 9:25 Arrive at Quince. Parking is 10 dollars. They’ll be happy to add it to my bill through magic of vertical integration. You have got to love San Francisco!
  • 9:26 Enter the restaurant. Everything stops for a split second. Feeling From Dusk Till Dawn sort of awkward.
  • 9:27 Menu arrives with a tasting menu flap open. Subtle. I think the Quincinites want me to order this. Maybe I should order a la carte just to spite the man. Somehow I think the symbolism would be lost on these people.
  • 9:29 Hmmm. The tasting menu is $20 more than what’s listed on the web site. Quince is going to compete with Alinea and La Reve for value with only half the number of dishes. This place has Rocky Mountain Oysters the size of watermelons. Game on! I am ordering the tasting menu!
  • 9:31 First impressions. The space is tiny. Dining room looks comfortable, but quite cold and much more formal than necessary. Something like 16 tables set up in a grid pattern with as many waiters moving through the room like Pac-Men. They seem attentive and efficient; everything is done in carefully measured motions as if they work in a laboratory. If I didn’t know better I’d think this is a social experiment or a focus group.
  • 9:35 Starting the figure out the social order here. Waiters (toasters) wear brown Oxford suits and are perpetual motion through the dining room to make sure everything is in order. It may look like they aren’t hovering, but your every move is carefully observed. Once in a while the toasters will whisper something to each other, disappear into the kitchen and come out with a set of plates placed on the table in a set of perfectly choreographed motions. While the toasters are watching you, the skinjobs in black suits are watching the toasters. One of the four skinjobs works the front door, while others work the wine island, but their real function is to make sure the toasters don’t malfunction. After the dishes come out the skinjobs make a quick pass to observe the plate settings on the table and facial expressions of the diners. Nothing goes unnoticed, as the staff churns through the dining room like some programmable biomass. Basically, Quince is a creepy fucking place.
  • 9:37 Waiter arrives after noticing I have been sitting there a little while with nothing to do. He seems nervous. I really don’t mind, but I have a feeling the skinjobs are going to feed him to the pigs if I as much as raise an eyebrow.
  • 9:38 House baked bread basket. Looks good. Tastes… bland and sort of rubbery.
  • 9:40 Fried Frog Leg and Potato amuse. Cliched as it is, but it tastes like the garden variety chicken. This reminds me of the Escargot and Chicken Oysters Fricassee I had once at db bistro in New York. The escargot were supposed to give the dish its gravitas, but the chicken oysters completely outshined the rubbery little snails, tossed in only to justify the caliber of the chef and the price. I’d take great chicken over average frog legs any day of the week.
  • 9:42 Skinjob lady arrives at my table and informs me that photography is against house rules. I am nearly speechless, but I comply. First time this happens to me. Strange though, there are pictures of Quince dishes all over the net.
  • 9:51 Sformato of Black Trumpet Mushroom, Stracchino Cheese. A light soufflé thingy with black trumpet mushrooms that have a far more pronounced flavor than some truffles I’ve had lately. It’s a good dish, but the sauce is so impotent it could have been made with just about anything that melts. Stracchino cheese has a mild, but deep flavor, and its nowhere to be found here. Seems like an opportunity lost.
  • 9:59 Sea Scallops, Potato, Wild Nettle. The scallops are fine, but quite unremarkable. Still waiting for the fireworks to begin.
  • 10:10 Interesting. The table in the corner is taking flash photographs, lighting up the entire room. Flash photography in a restaurant is incredibly rude, so I wait for the skinjobs to converge and turn the offenders into human hamburger. Strangely enough, nothing of the sort happens even after a dozen or so shots. Just as I get ready to call the skinjob lady over to explain herself to me, she finally approaches their table. Minutes later they are back at it again.
  • 10:16 Saffron Chitarra, Dungeness Crab, Hot Pepper, Bread Crumbs. This dish is absolutely perfect and unlike anything I’ve had before. Very balanced blend of flavors and textures. The pasta is just the right density, crab is sweet, right amount of seasoning and a great kick of heat from hot peppers. Best part: bread crumbs provide a really nice contrast to the pasta and crab and brighten the whole thing up. I could eat an entire plate of this. Considering forgiving Michael Tusk for hiring the insufferable front house staff, but only for a moment. Really, how does a place this fussy send out a dish with crab shell fragments?
  • 10:32 Tortelloni, Castelrosso Cheese, Honey, Walnuts. Another perfect dish. No confusion over the meaning of "al dente" here; the pasta is delicate and complements all the other ingredients quite nicely. Again, not a single flavor out of place. I’ve never had castelrosso cheese before, but it seems very heat sensitive, which makes the tortelloni even more technically impressive. I could really go for another half dozen pasta courses at this rate.
  • 10:35 With tables this close together, and no dining companion to distract me, I can’t help to absorb the conversations around me. Quince really wants to be an elevated neighborhood joint, but with reservations impossible to secure without at least a weeks, often months, notice the place is stuffed to the gills by pseudo intellectual foodie snobs. The Ivy league windbag next to me is talking about the flavor profiles on his scallops being off and making sure to pronounce "panna cotta" with a perfect Italian inflection, as if making a point to correct the house staff. I want to stab this guy in the throat. I wonder if this is against house rules, as long as I don’t use my camera to do it.
  • 10:45 Sonoma Organic Veal, Erbette Chard, First of the Season Asparagus and Peas. The meat course is weak. I’d read that Quince doesn’t do mains well, but its really weak. The veal tenderloin is a shade of pink north of proper, the garnish entirely ordinary, demiglace is too strong. You can do much better in anytown French bistro. I should have stuck with the pasta dishes.
  • 11:00 Chocolate Hazelnut Bombe, Olive Oil Gelato. Not bad, but it doesn’t quite close out the dinner with a statement either. I think I am still hungry.

Quince is a fine restaurant, but it only transcends the average with it’s pasta. Maybe not so unusual in Italy, but it really is special here in the states. Does a one dimensional restaurant like Quince deserve the accolades it gets? Glowing critic reviews, clogged reservation lines, it’s Michelin star, breathless declarations that Quince is the best restaurant in San Francisco by foodie bloggers? Probably not. I think that’s more a function of the always hungry for more food scene in San Francisco than anything else.

Here’s the bizarre ending to this story – I might go back to Quince again. If I sit with my back to the dining room, stay away from the under powered tasting menu and weak meat mains, I can focus on the spectacular (and expensive) pasta dishes Quince turns out so well. A pair of earplugs to filter out the foodie windbags, and it might just be a good time.

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