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Falling in Love, Slowly 

It took a number of visits over many months before our critic tumbled for Quince

Wednesday, Jun 23 2004
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It's unpredictable. You can fall in love at first sight or over a long time. And there are no rules (despite what you've read). I was nuts for Tom Collichio's food at Gramercy Tavern in New York from the first bite of the first dish I tasted (foie gras au torchon, at an unforgettable lunch on a lovely spring day), but it took me considerably longer to warm up to his cooking at the nearby Craft (a dinner one crisp fall night, from which all I remember is a dish of sautéed hen-of-the-woods mushrooms in a shiny copper pan). Part of the long, slow seduction involved sampling sandwiches at his unassuming 'Wichcraft next door. Conversely, I didn't get Wylie Dufresne's cooking at N.Y.'s Clinton Fresh Foods, which I found overpraised, but I can remember every bite of the extraordinary dinner I had a number of months ago at the city's WD/50: foie gras topped with anchovies, pork belly with fava beans, roasted pineapple.

I set off for my first dinner at Quince, on a Sunday night with Suzanne and Stan, with some excitement: The chef/owner, Michael Tusk, had cooked at both Chez Panisse and Oliveto, two of my favorite restaurants (well, nearly everybody's), interspersed with stints in France and Italy. (His wife, Lindsay, ex-front-of-house at Oliveto and Boulevard, performs the same function here.) The place had been open barely a month, and not many eateries of such ambition had debuted in San Francisco lately. I hadn't been to the location before, a small, squarish room on the ground floor of a Victorian on Bush and Octavia that had started life as an apothecary, and whose last occupant (the Meetinghouse) had been closed with bitter words from the owner for the neighborhood and city that hadn't supported the restaurant.

I was a little thrown by the menu, which was divided into three courses, with pasta given its own listing in between First Course Selections (aka starters) and Third Course Selections (main courses). Yes, that's traditional for Italian menus, but I rarely order four courses (including dessert) a la carte, and we tried to ask the server if doing so here was recommended or would give us more food than we would be comfortable eating. His response was vague; we ended up ordering two pastas to share as a second course.

Afterward I had a blurry and indistinct impression of our meal. Suzanne, a veteran of Chez Panisse herself, and Stan were much more enthusiastic. I'd only tasted two dishes that I considered memorable. One was a nettle sformato, a dish similar to a crustless quiche that I'd seen only once before on a local menu -- Quince's square chunk was firmer than the soufflélike version I'd had previously, and the vegetable's slightly bitter flavor was new and exciting in this preparation. And we were all nonplussed by the succulence of the roast chicken cannelloni. Tusk's rendition confounded my expectations; I don't think I've ever found that dish so delicate yet so full of the flavor of the bird. Sharing a modest portion among us, we only got a few bites apiece; not only did I want more, I wanted lots more -- even more than was on the plate.

But I left without quite understanding the meal. "Maybe it was too early in the restaurant's life," I thought, and waited a few weeks before booking a table again. By that time, the early buzz had become a roar, and try as I might for a weeknight dinner, I was offered, apologetically, tables at 5:30 p.m. or after 9, the former too early and the second too late for most of my companions. When I scored a prime-time Wednesday night table for four, I was thrilled. We arrived five minutes early, and every table was full; we had to wait 10 minutes past the hour of our reservation, but then we were given a delightful table, boasting three banquettes tucked in a corner window. It was a perfect vantage point, in the pearly evening light, from which to appreciate the creamy painted walls, the four luscious baroque Murano glass chandeliers in another glossy shade of cream, and the three framed pictures of pale yellow quince. During my last visit, on a dark winter night, the room looked underdecorated to me. Tonight I wanted to move in.

But again I felt we had an uneven, though interesting and intermittently delicious, meal. I recognized many of the suppliers credited in the otherwise modest menu descriptions: Wolfe Farm quail, Laughing Stock pork, Paine Farm squab. The fat, disjointed quail, on a bed of sharp greens interspersed with fat halved cherries, was at the same time wildly salty, wildly juicy, and wildly delicious. I loved the earthy giblet confit sprinkled atop the bitter salad of wild arugula. But the firm terrine of pork, prettily served with translucent slices of radish and whole-grain mustard, tasted a trifle pale, and the orderer of the Monterey Bay squid and olive crostini didn't get the dish she expected: She'd envisioned sautéed squid with green olive crostini on the side, and what she got, a plate of the tiny toasts topped with a salty (again) mixture of chopped squid and olives, left us all underwhelmed.

At this dinner also we got two pastas to share. We all loved the supple tagliatelle with fleshy morel mushrooms, but only I was happy with the pennette with tripe, mint, and pecorino. It turned out that I should have canvassed my companions more thoroughly, because two of them weren't tripe enthusiasts. I liked the chewy little stew atop the chewy little quill-like pasta, but missed the scent of mint entirely.

Two of our main courses were perfect: The rare slices of Elliot Ranch lamb were as tender and tasty as lamb can be and wonderful with a purée of fava beans, and the squab al mattone (flattened) was meaty and succulent, and partnered beautifully with fresh English peas seasoned with shreds of prosciutto. My mother, who ordered the squab, felt about those peas the way I had about the cannelloni. But I thought the black sea bass, though nicely cooked, was overpowered by bitter ramps and salty Taggiasche olives, and my oddly plated pork with chard alla parmigiana (a heap of the dark green chard in the center, surrounded by a vast acreage of colorless pig) needed another flavor or another texture to snap it into focus. I found the dish a trifle austere, though rigorous and pure. Tusk's cooking depends a great deal on top-notch ingredients, and he does let them shine: a minimalist in form and content, encouraging maximal flavor. But this dish was a little too minimalist for me.

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Meredith Brody

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