There has been one version or another of the Cliff House on its magnificent rocky site overlooking the Pacific since 1863. The first one burned to the ground on Christmas Day 1894; the second succumbed to fire, ironically, a year after surviving the 1906 earthquake. The third was built in 1909, and has been feeding hordes of San Franciscans and visitors ever since.
But, at least since I was a child, the Cliff House has never had a reputation for good food. It's an amazing location, yes, with views of rocks where sea lions often frolicked, but "best for brunch" was the word. Relax over eggs benedict and a Bloody Mary on a beautiful day overlooking the sea, and everybody's happy. Second choice: a decent Cobb salad or unremarkable fish and chips at lunch. But, as once seemed to be the law with S.F. restaurants that boasted a distinctive view, there was nothing on your plate worthy of distracting you from it.
The Cliff House is now operated as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. A $19 million renovation completed in 2004 preserved the neoclassical columned facade but changed the interior, adding an entire new wing housing two levels of restaurant space with 24-foot floor-to-ceiling windows.
The entry is confusing and has an indistinct decorating style. On the left is a huge cartoony cowboy figure rescued from the late, lamented Playland at the Beach; on the right, an even larger chic planter fights for attention with a bronze bear sculpture. On one side is a cheerful-looking bar with an old-time-looking tiled floor and woven wicker chairs; on the other, a modern dining room. These turned out to be the casual-style Bistro Bar and the Terrace Room, used for private dining and the buffet-style Sunday brunch. We were directed downstairs to Sutro's, which since December has been home to celebrated San Francisco chef George Morrone, who has completely revamped its menu.
Morrone, who earned four stars with his creative cuisine as opening chef at Aqua and Fifth Floor, most recently served his famously playful food at the lavish Redwood Park in the Transamerica Pyramid and the equally plush but much smaller Tartare (named for his signature dish). Tartare closed in 2005, and since then he has kept a lower profile as executive chef at the Boca Steak House in Novato.
We were just in time for the last shreds of pink lingering in the sky after a magnificent sunset, and happy to be led to a window table in the now extremely stylish and comfortable room, which features framed memorabilia from the vanished nearby Sutro Baths.
The menu was lush and ambitious, with a new emphasis on local, seasonal products, also crediting chef Brian O'Connor. The offerings include such dishes as Maine lobster ricotta-mascarpone ravioli ($27) with blood-orange tarragon butter, and prime rib of veal ($35) with marsala sauce, roasted parsnips, and rosemary Thumbelina carrots. It's quite an appealing list.
We loved the venison carpaccio ($14), half a dozen constructions of crisp rösti potatoes with raw slivers of the mildly gamey venison, complemented with toasted hazelnuts, a dab of sweet and sour huckleberries, and a slick of hot spiced oil. The seductive little mouthfuls cleverly juxtaposed textures and flavors. Equally complicated and alluring was "George's original Ahi tuna tartare" ($14), presented in deconstructed form, the habanero-infused sesame-oil–coated cubed fish topped with a raw quail's-egg yolk and surrounded by pine nuts, minced garlic, diced Asian pears, and shredded mint, deftly mixed at table and served with toast triangles. Tuna tartare may have become a cliché, but this version was extraordinary.
In a silly service error, the cold dishes were served well before the hot ones. The subtly spiced dark-green cream of broccoli soup ($10) was garnished with a profiterole, balanced on a broccoli floret, itself further garnished with a slice of excellent cheddar and a ham crisp. It was very good, but the peppery Dungeness crab bisque ($12) was stunning, freighted with tons of succulent sweet crab and paired with a somewhat superfluous risotto cake and a long sourdough toast spread with saffron aioli.
We were uniformly delighted by our first courses. For our main courses, we chose mostly seafood ("When you watch the ocean all day, it makes you want to eat seafood," Morrone says, reasonably). A big chunk of poached Loch Duart salmon ($27), coated with a rich hollandaise full of chunks of lobster, was served atop carefully cooked roasted radishes, chewy royal trumpet mushrooms, and oddly none of the white asparagus mentioned, which seemed to have been replaced with leeks. Whole roasted local Petrale sole ($28), boned at table, was spicier than anticipated, coated with a mixture of hot Espelette pepper and fleur de sel, and served with an intensely lemony cold haricots verts salad and an herbed tartar sauce. Seared dayboat scallops ($27), in a garlicky scampi sauce, were topped with lightly poached rock shrimp and paired with saffron pearl pasta. The duet of organic chicken ($26) featured a sliced roasted truffled breast atop salty chive-potato purée and a yummy pot pie made with truffled confit of leg.
To my admittedly modern tastes, the salmon, the sole, and the breast of chicken were ever so slightly overcooked. The sole suffered the most, because the glory of this delicate fish is its tender texture. After the flawless starters, we were slightly surprised, but we still enjoyed the well-conceived food and indeed cleaned most of our plates.
We saved a little room to try two desserts (both $9): the unusual and very spicy caramelized pineapple, flavored with vanilla and hot bird's-eye chile, served with green jalapeño ice cream (cooling after the heat of the fruit) and macadamia nut brittle, and an unusually dense butterscotch pot de crème, served wrapped with a huge almond tuile.
Morrone has kicked up the food at Sutro's more than just a notch with his hot spices and exciting flavor combinations. The Cliff House is now a destination for much more than just gazing at Ocean Beach.