I'm not wholly sold on the idea of small plates as a completely satisfying dining experience, especially when the plates themselves look like dollhouse versions of complicated fancy fare, rather than the straightforward Spanish tapas that inspired the fashion. When there are more than two of you at the table, I find such dishes awkward to share, and frequently I'm not satisfied by the mouthful I'm able to try. Sometimes it's as if the small-plates trend is reminiscent of the worst excesses of the nouvelle-cuisine movement, often characterized by wags as “less food for more money.”
That said, there are small-plates places I respect and admire: the two Cesars in the East Bay, whose strong-flavored food comes the closest to replicating the tapas I feasted on in Barcelona and San Sebastian; Bocadillos, another Spanish-style spot; and I love the lusty Mediterranean cooking at Terzo.
Pres a Vi, a new restaurant in the Presidio, is the San Francisco sibling of a popular small-plates spot in Walnut Creek called Va di Vi, which, we're told, means “It's About Wine” in the Catalan language of Spain. And Pres a Vi “loosely translates to 'captivated by wine.'” The small plates are not, however, noticeably Spanish. On the first menu we see, at a festive December lunch, there's a strong Asian presence, with dishes identified as Thai (chicken papaya salad) and Singaporean (wild boar satay), as well as lots of mentions of such ingredients as sesame oil, wasabi, yuzu, and nuoc cham. But there's also a Middle Eastern lamb burger with zatar mayonnaise, Spanish-inflected (but written in French!) croquettes de jambon with romesco sauce, and a nod to good old America with a crab salad club sandwich with applewood-smoked bacon. No wonder the postcard available at the host stand says “Global Cuisine” and “Wine Bar.”
The wine program at Pres a Vi is truly impressive. In addition to the lengthy international wine list, which is full of surprises among its 350 bottles, there are almost 50 wines available by the three-ounce taste or six-ounce glass. And there's a separate two-sided list offering 16 imaginative and intriguing wine flights, three half-glasses of white, red, or assorted wines, beautifully described. This is a way that I love to drink: It's interesting, educational, and entirely irresistible.
The Presidio is San Francisco's newest restaurant neighborhood — several places have opened there in the last few months, with more to follow. Alas, the decision to retain the rather nondescript architectural style of the erstwhile Army base has resulted in uninspiring buildings, and Building D, a large chunk of whose ground floor is occupied by Pres a Vi, has all the charm of its name. Inside, the look is better: The restaurant's designers have made good use of gleaming dark wood, and there's a wine-referencing barrel-vaulted ceiling, as well as an exhibition kitchen tucked away in the back that is best viewed from a tall communal table. During the day you might catch a glimpse of the bay, more likely from the enclosed patio than indoors; at night, a bit of the well-lit Palace of Fine Arts.
But our attention, at a festive holiday lunch celebrating the discovery of our long-lost East Coast cousin Gwen, who turns out to live in Presidio Heights, is focused on food. A tall shot glass of brandy-enriched creamy lobster bisque is so delicious that I wish I could swim in a deep bowl of it. Instead, my sister and I take tiny sips and leave the rest to our mother, the Lobster Queen of the Bay Area. The Lobster Queen (and everybody else) is disappointed with the overly deconstructed lobster salad, two chunks of shellfish looking lonely on their plate, shared with some frisée, a squiggle of blood orange-vanilla syrup, and a tiny portion of blood orange gel; difficult to share or to make sense of.
We do better with the duck buns, the familiar Chinese rolls stuffed with fragrant anise-scented shreds of Peking duck confit, hoisin sauce, watercress, and cilantro, and the Singaporean wild boar satay, the surprisingly mild-tasting meat brushed with a black soy-honey glaze and served with a refreshing papaya-mint salad wrapped in rice paper, of which we each get a tiny bite. Kumomoto oysters are baked under a mild blanket of crème of corn, truffle oil, and pecorino. The chilly Dungeness crab and avocado lumpia, a kind of Filipino egg roll, picks up most of its flavor from its roasted garlic dipping sauce. I wish there were more of the succulent pork belly lechon, a Filipino version of roast pork. But the two surprise winners are the popcorn tempura-battered rock shrimp, a generous portion that doesn't look like a “small plate” at all, tossed in the garlicky Vietnamese fish sauce nuoc cham, with bean sprouts, crispy noodles, and romaine lettuce, and the croquettes de jambon, little fried logs of Yukon Gold potato puree mixed with chopped Serrano ham, hot and smoky, and served with tomatoey romesco sauce, smoked-paprika aioli, and grilled onions.
The cherry brown-butter tart, with sesame praline ice cream and a port reduction, and sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce and crème fraîche ice cream, both sound better than they taste, alas.
But overall we had a swell time and had plenty of interesting things to eat and drink.
When I return a month later for dinner with Lee, my favorite vegetarian (she always manages to enjoy her food), I'm initially dismayed to see fewer choices that suit her than I remembered from my glance, last time, at the much longer dinner menu, three dozen items, rather than two dozen at lunch. We decide to order a salad and four of the five vegetable sides including roasted potato wedges, hold the ham. But when we ask our server if it is possible to serve the lobster apart from its bed of lemon-edamame risotto, he swiftly offers us a separate vegetarian menu, a new wrinkle, he tells us. From it we order vegetable lumpia — this time the house-made wrappers are faintly green with cilantro, filled with chunks of sweet potato, tofu, and julienned vegetables, but I find them even less flavorful than the crab-and-avocado version. The wild mushroom risotto, also from the vegetarian menu, is kind of clumpy, but full of good mushroom flavor. We enjoy the endive, frisée, and watercress salad, with sliced Gala apples, toasted Marcona almonds, and a creamy Gorgonzola dressing that I wish had more chunks of cheese.
Again my two favorite dishes are unexpected: a lovely and hefty multicolored heap of exquisite baby carrots lightly dressed with mint and honey, and a plate of chewy Savoy spinach, simply sautéed with lemon, garlic, and grapeseed oil, and garnished with a few bright red and orange cherry tomatoes. I am getting plenty to eat, so I am happy that the kitchen forgets to send out the pappardelle with broccoli rabe that we no longer want. I even take home about half of my surf 'n turf, a tasty assemblage of grilled rib-eye on horseradish mashed potatoes with wild mushrooms paired with two enormous panko-crusted prawns whose coating could have been crisper, but whose white meat couldn't have been any sweeter. Its lengthy menu description even manages to leave out a long strip of fresh ginger and two tiny rice rounds topped with spicy onion shreds.
I pack up the flesh in order to have room for an inexplicable chocolate dessert plate featuring a chestnut torte whose chestnut flavor is elusive, a Mexican chocolate “custard” that is more like a bundt cake, and a crunchy beggar's purse filled with a chocolate pudding that tastes much like the other two confections. But the rest of the evening has left us with a sweet taste in our mouths.