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Da Marco really is good. No, really. It really is.

I remember reading a piece by a guest critic in the Chronicle several weeks ago and being quite surprised. A bad meal at Da Marco? Disappointment at t’afia? Genuine excitement over Beaver’s and The Grove? My recent experiences have been almost the exact opposites. Maybe people look for completely different things in food in New Jersey and San Francisco than we do in Texas.

Ironically, my own dining itinerary included a recent romp through San Francisco and some of the very same places visited by Alison Cook’s critic friends in Houston. I found San Francisco to be a mixed bag. Local foodies were fawning all over Canteen. I loved the place, but found basic execution lacking. Quince, a highly regarded Michelin starred restaurant, was less than deserving of all the hype, in my experience. Incanto, on the other hand, blew me away and made me wish desperately that Chris Cosentino gets sick of California and moves to Houston, where his rustic food and big, bold flavors would be a huge hit. Incanto is hardly struggling for business, but it doesn’t have nearly the acclaim I thought it deserves in the San Francisco food circles.

Can palates really vary that much from coast to coast, or do restaurants just routinely have off nights when they misfire?

I stopped by Da Marco for a dinner on Saturday that was as good as ever. I kicked things off with a hamachi crudo with wasabi roe. Not exactly an Italian classic, but it was a nice way to start and the olive oil based dressing somehow grounded it to the rest of the meal quite nicely. Da Marco wasn’t all fireworks that night. My wife ordered an arugula salad, butternut squash ravioli and a side of polenta in an attempt to assemble a vegetarian meal. All three dishes were dressed in so much pecorino or reggiano that the cheese completely overwhelmed most other ingredients, but that seems like a problem that stems from a less than traditional Italian dinner progression. More important, my food was great.

It’s a bit ironic that I tried the same rabbit cacciatore dish that was panned by the guest critic the very next night and thought it was fantastic. Braised chicken and rabbit are hit and miss in restaurant, where kitchens prep everything ahead and assemble at dinner time, because they are less forgiving to over or under cooking than more robust meats.On this particular night the rabbit thighs were fork tender, yet retained their distinctive rabbit texture and rabbit flavor. The sauce, often too heavy on the wine or tomatoes, was well balanced. Combined with the fresh cherry tomatoes and polenta it made nice little clumps of rabbit flavored goodness.

The polenta, reportedly sludgy the night before, was cooked to right density and texture. Risotto, polenta and eggs are the most deceivingly difficult things to cook. Find a restaurant that can execute them correctly and it’s a sign of good things to come from the kitchen (I once read about a chef in Oakland that only cooks risotto once a year, because it requires so much concentration). Polenta sins come in many forms – undercooked grains of corn meal that retain their individual texture, polenta with consistency of runny grits or reliance on butter fat, rather than starch, to achieve creamy consistency. Da Marsco suffers from none of these flaws. I’ve had polenta at Da Marco on three different occasions now and it has been near perfect every time.

Does Da Marco’s kitchen oscillate wildly from night to night or have my taste buds have been ruined by years of Tex-Mex abuse? It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle.

March 30, 2008   No Comments