By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Max A. Cherney
By Anna Roth
By Alex Hochman
By Anna Roth
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.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
Tajarin with sage $14
Garganelli with prosciutto and peas $16
Gnocchi with butter and peas $16
Squab al mattone $27
Spring lamb $28
Cherry crostata $10.50
Open for dinner nightly from 5:30 to 10 (Friday and Saturday until 10:30)
Parking: valet $8, otherwise difficult
Muni: 1, 31, 38
Noise level: moderate
My mother was disappointed when our server returned from the kitchen to tell her the restaurant was out of the buttermilk panna cotta she'd chosen, but she enjoyed the apricot and blueberry cobbler she got instead. The only problem I found with the wedge of fresh cherry crostata (with house-made pistachio ice cream) was that it was too small. The quince paste on the carefully selected plate of three cheeses (with an extraordinarily good creamy Taleggio) was the first appearance in two visits of the place's namesake. ("It's not in season," a friend said, but "It was on my first visit!" I replied.)
As with the pork, Quince still hadn't snapped into focus for me. When I said as much to Jenny, she replied, "But it's our favorite new restaurant!" and immediately invited me to join her family there for a dinner already booked for Sunday, a couple of days hence. I thought with a sigh of the big Memorial weekend barbecue I'd have to forgo, with its promise of many different kinds of barbecued ribs, but felt I needed to understand Tusk's cooking. I already knew I liked charcoal-grilled ribs.
It was the right call. I got to the restaurant first, and while waiting espied a couple eating thin pasta that even from many feet away I could see glistening with butter; it's called tajarin, a server told me. When I perused the menu, every pasta among the eight listed (two more than I'd seen before) looked tempting, and I decided I'd have a pasta dinner, starting with the tajarin. While Greil enjoyed a salad of sliced raw porcini, fennel, and parmigiano reggiano; and Jenny pressed tastes of her sparkling anchovy and mussel salad on me; and Emily exclaimed over her beautiful plate of rosy seared tuna with a salad of radish, cucumber, and green olive; I fell in love with my exquisite pasta. The portion I had thought was a half turned out to be the whole thing -- a tiny, tangled haystack of the thinnest, most fragile tagliatelle imaginable, sauced simply with butter and a bit of fresh sage, a banal preparation turned genius. I was reminded of the server's response when M.F.K. Fisher, told that a sauce she'd savored was chives, butter, and cream, said, "So simple?": "So simple, Madame! But, you know, with a master ...." This was the pasta of a master.
As was the little gift we received from the kitchen, a few bright green spinach ravioli filled with fonduta, meltingly creamy fontina. As was my main course, house-made garganelli, a pennelike pasta sauced with prosciutto, English peas, slivers of white asparagus, and cream. As was Greil's plate of tagliatelle in a creamy Bolognese -- he looked up from it to say, "This is perfect." I was having a conversion experience, like the one I happily watched my friend Mary have at a lovely lunch upstairs at Chez Panisse, where I took her after she'd revealed that she just didn't get the place. I also remembered what Robert had told me about his strategy at Oliveto: "We just order all the pastas that we can." (My own strategy there: I order all the charcuterie that I can. Whatever.) I liked the braised duck with fingerling potatoes, sweet translucent turnips, and cherries, and the crispy snapper with braised artichokes. But the pastas were thrilling. The pastas were the best.
I had the same feeling about the dessert menu that I'd had about the pasta menu: I wanted to order every one. But I forwent the cherry galette, the peach ice cream, and the apricot sorbet with blackberries (ah, the bounty of spring) for the astonishingly light, multilayer coconut cake with strawberries and whipped cream and a taste of bittersweet chocolate mousse. I impulsively got a panna cotta to go and drove it directly to my mother: It was hauntingly scented with peach leaves, like the most elusive flavor of almonds, and beautifully shaky.
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