Cocoa Nuts

At Alfred Schilling, there's no escape from chocolate

Our weekend visitor was an unrepentant chocoholic, and when we stepped into Alfred Schilling at noon on a warm weekday, she paused at the glass cases in the front to stare at their wealth of obelisk-shaped truffles, filled with such delectables as champagne cream, caramel, and dark chocolate. Eventually the maitre d' and I managed to herd her toward the tables that line one wall of the restaurant's cavernous space, but she did glance back longingly.

Alfred Schilling is not the sort of restaurant that lets you forget about dessert. The truffles are just part of the opening fanfare of temptations that greet you; they include a variety of pastries, creams, mousses, and ganaches. It's a wonder the food itself is any good, but it is.

Only a line of low stainless-steel tables piled with baskets of fresh fruit and vegetables and huge sacks of sugar separates the dining area from the kitchen. The openness gives the place a cool sensuality; the floors might be concrete, the dining area itself a far corner of what is essentially a candy factory, but the voyeuristic possibilities are vast: You can literally watch the chef assemble your meal, and he can watch you eat it.

Our lunch menu was modest in both scope and cost. I wanted soup but was told there was none. A decent substitute was a glass of raspberry-infused iced tea ($1.50), served from a huge pitcher into a properly tall glass.

The Visitor is chiefly an eater of fish; she zeroed in immediately on the salmon burger ($6), served between slices of lemon brioche that resembled disks of French toast: yellowish and lightly caramelized from the grill. My experience of salmon burgers has been uniformly unpleasant -- they've always tasted fishy -- but Alfred Schilling smoothed away those briny edges to create a meaty, slightly creamy patty that tasted distinctly but not overwhelmingly of salmon.

The brioche was equally lovely. The Visitor had fretted a bit because her idea of brioche is traditional: a rich breakfast bread that takes well to sweet jams and spreads, but not necessarily to fish. Salmon burgers, she thought, like regular burgers, belong more on focaccia. But after consulting with the server she took the plunge, leaving me to the beef.

The hamburger ($6) nested between slices of focaccia that had emerged from the oven a deep bronze outside but moistly tender within. The meat itself was cooked rare, as ordered. Around the edges of the plate were a spinach salad, a little haystack of finely julienned carrots, and a pile of garlic potato quarters -- all appealing and healthy, but not the same as french fries.

I knew the Visitor would pay a visit to the truffle counter, and she did, but not before having dessert: a mango cream ($3) served in a sponge-cake boat and tasting intensely of the tropics. For someone who eats chocolate constantly, I thought, her choice was admirably restrained. Of course, before we were more than a few steps out the door, she was nibbling at a truffle, deliriously happy.

The dinner menu included a prix fixe special (at $24.50) with the whimsical name "Willy Wonka." I'm a sucker for prix fixe if not Willy Wonka, and I was curious to know how the kitchen would accomplish the dish's conceit -- shoehorning chocolate into each of its parts, including the pasta -- without making everything taste absurd. Certainly the idea sounded interesting, though interesting seldom means good.

The chocolate pasta was a flat milk-chocolate noodle, much wider than fettuccine. It tasted not of chocolate but of the sauce, a tomato coulis dotted with chunks of mango and scallops ceviche. The dish was a little too cold for the flavors to develop properly, and the pasta, while tender, was visually dreary.

The main course, osso buco with orange chocolate sauce, on the other hand, beautifully joined all its flavors. The veal shank had been braised to an almost pastrylike butteriness; the meat easily flaked off the bone. The sauce was richly spicy and reminiscent of a Mexican mole, except that the tang of orange replaced the smoky fire of chilies.

Beneath the shank was a bed of sweet-potato puree (creamy and rich, a little sweet for my taste), while a crown of deep-fried won-ton strips rose from the top. At the side of the plate was a scattering of deep-fried artichoke hearts that varied wildly in tenderness. A few were meltingly good, but many were tough and woody.

My dinner companion, unable to accept the eccentric glory of chocolate pasta, steered carefully in the menu's mainstream. Fish flan spinach salad ($4.50) turned out to be a kind of whitefish mousse served on a bed of greens. A garnish of finely diced white grapefruit added a welcome bit of acid. As in the salmon burger, the fishy quality of the flan was clear but muted: a preparation in perfect balance.

Salmon papillote ($12.50) was a large filet steamed in a paper bag. The cooking technique was gentle (an important consideration when cooking fish), and it protected moistness. But it also didn't add any flavor, and while salmon is one of the tastier fishes, it still needs help. A smearing of butter sauce on the filet wasn't enough to lift the fish out of the doldrums. The array of julienned vegetables (zucchini, carrot, celery root, red bell peppers) brought some color to the plate, but they too could have used a kick of flavor.

Dessert, so often overkill, is mandatory at Alfred Schilling. My friend, having a choice, picked the banana mousse ($3), an oblong sponge cake striped with chocolate and hollowed out to accommodate a large dollop of banana mousse. On top: fanciful twistings of dark chocolate spaghetti. The whole thing tasted like banana cream pie.

The Willy Wonka dessert was chocolate Medusa, a chocolate-orange ganache whose flavor was deep and subtle. It sounded and was rich, but the size of the portion was just right: more than a tease, but not so large as to cause distress. I have slowly been learning the discipline of tasting desserts rather than eating them, but I didn't regret the indulgence of polishing off the Medusa. At Alfred Schilling, restraint of that sort would be heresy.

Alfred Schilling, 1695 Market, S.F., 431-8447. Mon 7 a.m.-7 p.m.; Tues-Sun 7 a.m.-10 p.m.

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