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Third Time's a Charm 

The plates are small but the flavors are big at Terzo

Wednesday, Jun 21 2006
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At some point a lexicographer for the OED, or perhaps William Safire in one of his "On Language" pieces for the New York Times Magazine, will trace the origin of the currently fashionable "small plates" menu appellation. He'll no doubt mention that it was an outgrowth of an earlier fad for tapas — the bar snacks popular, even essential, in Spain to bridge the long gap between the midday meal and the traditional 10 p.m. — or later — dinner. He may even be able to trace the first appearance of the phrase. But I don't know if a dictionary writer can do justice to the wacky range of things I've been offered as "small plates": devilled eggs direct from the picnic basket, next to elaborate layered concoctions daunting to deconstruct; straightforward plates of olives given equal weight with dishes featuring, say, a joint of duck confit, which looks just like a main course, only smaller, and which several hungry diners have no idea how to share. I'm used to taking a couple of bites of every dish on the table, so enforced grazing doesn't throw me, but more than a few people have told me that they just don't get the small-plates concept. They're used to ordering a course or two, according to their hunger, and enjoying every bite themselves. And it's less food for more money, I've been told, because ordering several small plates per person can quickly add up.

My friend Peter has no such qualms; in fact, he's happy sharing, happy grazing. Lately, when I've invited him out to dinner, before I mentioned where we were going he has suggested Terzo, a new small-plates place in Cow Hollow (though he's accepted the Hong Kong seafood and Mediterranean fare I offered in its stead without grumbling). "You like Rose Pistola and the Rose Cafe, too," he pointed out when I asked about his obsession with Terzo (referring to the owners' two previous restaurants; this is their third — hence the Italian name).

So for our third dinner I honored his suggestion, and it turned out to be a brilliant one. I liked the slick, sleek modern decor of the double storefront, its clean, sharp-edged, pale wood tables (on the small side) offset by a cheerily burning wood fire (on an already warm night, as the hostess cheerfully and wryly acknowledged as she placed a new log on it). The zinc bar paid homage to the past, as did the old-fashioned filament bulbs suspended above our heads. From the frequently changing menu of 16 small plates (priced from $7 to $12 and simply described — "Roasted Beets" on one line, "With Tahini, Coriander & Sumac" on the next), and four even smaller ones (an uncomplicated green salad in a red wine vinaigrette, marinated olives, crispy onions, and spiced toasted nuts, from $4 to $7 apiece), we chose seven plates, which our thoughtful server brought to us in a well-paced feast of three removes (changing plates and utensils in between).

We started with crisp flatbread judiciously topped with bright-green fava beans, snowy clumps of marinated feta, and fragrant mint, a simple but devastating combination; fat mussels in the shell, steamed with aromatics and sherry; and smoky grilled asparagus topped with a fried egg (which improves almost anything) and sided with a dab of singularly hot and peppery romesco sauce. These were succeeded by two massive yet almost airy beef meatballs confidently set atop polenta flavored with green chilies in a fresh marinara sauce, and delicate ravioli filled with creamy ricotta flavored with green garlic, floating in clear broth with bits of Meyer lemon, tender English peas, and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Everything was delicious — and not just delicious but also thoughtful, clever, just what it should be. I was in love with this food. I thought we had chosen with consummate skill, even though the consistent quality should have whispered in my ear, Probably everything on the menu is good.

Our last dishes arrived: singularly juicy and succulent grilled pork sausages, obviously house-made, with braised beans and chopped erbette chard, and a salad of multicolored roasted beets coated in a sauce that allowed me to voice one small quibble: I wasn't nuts about the tahini. (And I would have liked some bread to mop up the fine sauces.) We saw the chef, Mark Gordon — late of Chez Panisse and 42¡ — work the room, when he wasn't on the line, with well-deserved pride. His food is terrific.

It had been one swell meal, and its finish was just as dazzling as what had gone before. An irresistible, dense-textured chocolate and caramel tart in fine pastry was perfectly set off by a sprinkling of crunchy fleur de sel crystals; its opposite in flavor and texture, a slice of spongy lemon budino, got a puff of lavender whipped cream.

We exited into the dulcet, still-light evening in such a good mood that we weren't ready to call it a night, so we window-shopped up and down Union Street in the sweet air.

When, a couple of weeks later, one member of the couple I'd invited for dinner had to drop out, Peter agreed to join Suzanne and me with alacrity. He and I had noticed a glass case of bar tapas by Terzo's door when we'd left our first meal, and when we asked about them on this visit we received an additional menu with half a dozen offerings (all $4), from which we chose three: sweet onion and thyme tortilla, lemon-rosemary chicken wings, and little toasts topped with chopped soft-cooked egg and avruga (black-dyed herring roe). I immediately decided to try to recreate the egg and roe dish at home, and it was fun picking up and gnawing the wings. But I was most seduced by the expertly balanced subtle flavors of the room-temperature, frittatalike tortilla. Mmm!

That exclamation goes for almost everything else we tried. The carefully trimmed grilled artichoke hearts, with stem, laid atop slivers of Serrano ham and preserved lemon. Grilled halibut dabbed with sharp, garlicky green charmoula upon fresh garbanzo beans was a revelation; when I scooped up the last spoonful, Peter said that he'd never seen me so greedy. The slow-cooked lamb cheeks barely held together, and came served on fluffy couscous tarted up with English peas, spring onions, and sharp hot harissa. Quibbling again: I found the Sardinian fennel soup, chopped translucent vegetables in a clear broth, a bit one-note and pale, once we'd shared its floating crostone toast freighted with creamy ricotta; also, the three rosy slices of Niman beef were a little dull, needing salt (not on the table) or something to liven them up. Even so, the rosemary roasted potatoes underneath the beef were as good as can be, melting in the mouth yet intensely potato-y. Mmm again, and mmm for the pesto lasagna, an impressive stack of impossibly thin pasta layered with ricotta, béchamel, and garlicky pesto sitting in bubbling marinara.

We considered ordering the squid braised in red wine with aioli, but opted for dessert instead. But then, when a plate of the squid (and another heaped with a mountain of crispy onions) was delivered to the next table, Peter and I said "We should have ordered that and the onions" almost in unison; by then, however, our own table was covered with sweets. We enjoyed a tender chunk of fresh ginger cake with crème chantilly, buckwheat crepes strewn with stewed blueberries and stuffed with (not quite enough) ricotta cheese, and a triangle of Brillat-Savarin cheese paired with fig compote and toasted almonds, that we washed down with a shared glass of exquisite Banyuls. (We'd drunk a French white — a mix of Viognier, Rolle, and Marsanne grapes — during the first dinner and a light red Tempranillo at the second, and enjoyed both.) Every plate we'd sent back to the kitchen was scraped clean. We couldn't let a crumb escape us.

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Meredith Brody

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