Falling in Love, Slowly

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

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.

Living Room: Quince's creamy décor made 
us want to move in.
Anthony Pidgeon
Living Room: Quince's creamy décor made us want to move in.

Location Info

Map

Quince

470 Pacific
San Francisco, CA 94133

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: North Beach/ Chinatown

Details

Nettle sformato $9

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

775-8500

Open for dinner nightly from 5:30 to 10 (Friday and Saturday until 10:30)

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: valet $8, otherwise difficult

Muni: 1, 31, 38

Noise level: moderate

1701 Octavia (at Bush)

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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.

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.

By the time of my last visit, with Peter, who'd enjoyed a dinner there a few weeks earlier (especially a starter of oxtail terrine), I felt happy and confident. And we had another superb meal, starting with ivory spears of asparagus alla Fiorentina, which I thought meant with spinach but which turned out to be topped with pancetta and shards of pecorino, and a daringly bitter sformato made with wild arugula, softer and puffier than the nettle version and perfect with a thin white wine from the Alto Adige region. (From the first, I was impressed with Quince's wine list, which features an ample number of wines under $30; after trying several previously unfamiliar Italian bottles, I found it as assured and confident in its choices as the pasta preparations.) We continued with fat fettuccine, mottled green with nettles, in a pool of pungent olive oil, and gnocchi, simply sauced with butter and peas. Peter, a dumpling fancier, said, "These gnocchi are ethereal." If they are on the menu (which, I'm told, changes by as much as 70 percent from day to day) the next time I go, I will not be able to resist them.

We shared a plate of tender roast leg of pork with long-cooked green beans and scarlet turnips. And then Peter had a wedge of nectarine crostata with toasted almond ice cream; I had three scoops of Spring Lady peach ice cream with a dab of softly whipped cream and a few toasted almonds; and we floated out into the spring night. I remembered, driving home, how many other restaurants, including both Chez Panisse and Oliveto, had worked their way into my affections over time -- and now I can't envision the Bay Area scene without them. Michael Tusk is a worthy successor to his mentors. The dreamy restaurant he and Lindsay have created features a cuisine that's all his own.

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