Rockin' Flavors

Vernon Morales' new spot at a former concert venue brings out the best in its ingredients

To begin at the end: After our dinner at Winterland, my friends Robert, Gail, and I were brought a rectangular white porcelain plate bearing three small, plain-looking cookies, three fruit jellies, and a little white porcelain cup containing nut brittle. We'd already dined solidly on three courses each, plus two elegant freebies -- an amuse-bouche of soup and a small extra sweet, sort of an amuse-dessert -- so it wasn't as if we were hungry. (I remember a meal at Chanterelle in New York when the unexpected arrival of a plate covered with tiny fresh raspberry tarts at the very end of a lavish meal elicited despair because none of us was up to the challenge, and we thought asking for a to-go bag would be déclassé.) And these offerings looked a little severe, a little ordinary. But as we tried each one, cries of appreciation were heard. The citrus pâtes de fruits were impossibly tender and fragrant; the cookies were frangible, buttery, similarly delicate; and the brittle was crunchy, also buttery, and full of fresh nuts. We were thrilled by each component in the assortment of friandises, and also by the contrasting textures and flavors: salty and sweet, crunchy and smooth, crisp and melt-in-your-mouth. This extra fillip at the end of an extraordinary meal encapsulated the philosophy of chef Vernon Morales, veteran of the Flying Saucer in San Francisco and El Bulli in Spain: Everything we'd eaten was carefully thought out, combining flavors and textures in both complementary and oppositional fashion, and was exquisitely cooked so that each dish brought out the best in its ingredients.

It was a hell of a meal, though not quite as challenging as we'd expected from early reports on the place. I was looking forward to trying the dish that was most talked about when the restaurant first opened: an appetizer of a poached egg served in asparagus broth with bacon ice cream. But it was nowhere to be seen on the menu that we were handed. "Where's the bacon ice cream?" I asked, only to be told that the new summer menu had just been put in place the week before. I was reminded of the first time I dined at WD-50 in New York, whose mad-scientist chef, Wylie Dufresne, has been cited as an inspiration by Morales, and was planning to order a pavé of fresh oysters he'd invented by somehow gluing together the slippery beasts without compromising their integrity. It, too, had gone missing, though when I asked our server why, she replied, airily, "Oh, he took it off the menu because it was all anybody was ordering."

We found lots of other appealing dishes to order on the menu at Winterland, though we looked in vain for the unusual, even wacky, combinations we were expecting, such as licorice-glazed rabbit. We felt the chef might be pulling back a little, creating more accessible food. Foam, the airy sauce invented by Ferran Adria at El Bulli and abused ever since all over the world, was unmentioned. The small ramekins of gingered carrot soup that arrived as our gifts from the chef contained a tantalizing surprise, however; not just refreshing segments of pink grapefruit, but also an icy spoonful of sharp turmeric (the spice that gives mustard its color) granita, which played off the soup with color, taste, temperature, and texture. It was a triumph.

The low-tabled lounge at Winterland is a 
prime spot to enjoy one of the restaurant's 
inventive cocktails.
James Sanders
The low-tabled lounge at Winterland is a prime spot to enjoy one of the restaurant's inventive cocktails.

Location Info

Map

Winterland

2101 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA 94115-3119

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: Haight/ Fillmore

Details

Roasted white corn soup $8

Cuttlefish and bacon $10

Salt-cured anchovies (bar menu) $6

Pork duo $23

Veal chop with chanterelles $29

French toast $8

Melon salad $8

563-5025

Open Monday through Thursday for dinner from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Bar menu served Thursday, Friday, and Saturday until 12:30 a.m. Closed Sunday.

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: difficult

Muni: 2, 3, 4

Noise level: moderate to high

2101 Sutter (at Steiner)

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We also loved the beautifully arranged plate of octopus carpaccio that we shared, tempted by the menu's separate listing of several "crudo" plates before its appetizers. The squares of octopus, perfectly arranged in rows, were not actually raw, but cured and blanched, still chewy, dusted with orangy smoked paprika, and the geometric pattern was enhanced with carefully placed, impossibly tiny dice of crisp, sweet Asian pear and threadlike lengths of crunchy, briny, brilliant-green sea beans. There could have been an increased proportion of pears and beans, as far as I was concerned, but they were terrific with the octopus. All three of us were reminded of the cooking of our friend Peter, fond of both sea beans and Asian pears, and thought that he'd be happy here, in the stylishly modern room, sitting on a comfy banquette, admiring not just the plush drapes that shut out the world (or Sutter, anyway) but also the stylish modern cuisine.

Our happiness increased with our three starters: a bowl of satiny roasted white corn soup, improved with the trifecta of vanilla oil, flaked Dungeness crab, and the earthy fungus that grows on corn, huitlacoche, wittily echoing the main ingredient of the soup; a delicately sautéed soft-shell crab on a bed of creamy avocado with cubes of mango and a passion fruit dressing; and an escabeche of lean, chewy rabbit and suave, plump snails. This combination, like a little stew, was slightly tart from its spicy marinade of citrus and onions, served with calasparra rice (which we were told is used for paella in Spain, and later found out comes from the Spanish province of Murcia), its fat, short grains green with parsley and sided with a purée of garlic. All three dishes were stunning, and we cleaned our plates.

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