Every year, hundreds of restaurants open in San Francisco; out of those, maybe two dozen are singled out by the media and hype machines as Major Openings, and one or two eventually emerge as the Restaurant Events of the Year. Tosca Cafe is one of the latter, lucky few. How could it not be: Revered New York chef April Bloomfield, together with business partner Ken Friedman, has taken over one of the city's most iconic bars — North Beach's Tosca Cafe. Stories prevail about the legendary back room, about people like Francis Ford Coppola and Hunter S. Thompson and Christopher Hitchens hanging out there, about Sean Penn shooting off guns with Kid Rock and Winona Ryder one crazy night. And Bloomfield, of the Spotted Pig, the Breslin, and the John Dory, is one of Manhattan's culinary stars, known for bringing her brand of British nose-to-tail cooking to the United States. Her opening a restaurant in San Francisco is a big deal, and her opening in this particular location is an even bigger one.
Hype's a funny thing. In Tosca's case, it's certainly bringing in the crowds — the restaurant doesn't take reservations, and I was greeted on one visit, after 7 p.m. on a Friday night, with news of a two-and-a-half hour wait for a table. The lovingly restored bar, complete with gleaming antique coffee machine and new backlit wine rack, was packed two and three people deep, so we had to fight our way to the hostess stand near the back dining room to put a name in.
But boy, the room looks great. Its original murals have been restored and uplit, its ceiling retains the patina of years of cigarette smoke, and the red banquettes remain, though they're now real leather instead of a scuffed-up substitute. In short, the buzzy restaurant has an air of fabulousness about it, thanks to the wisdom of Friedman and Bloomfield, who didn't change its fundamentals. The question, of course, is whether it has more to offer than atmosphere alone.
I think it does. With a few exceptions, the open kitchen is turning out very good Italian food, with a heavy dose of Bloomfield's signature focus on meat. There are large hunks of crispy pig tails, crunchy and fatty bits that require a bit of gnawing (though its inedible fried bay leaf garnish was a bit weird). There's a take on an oxtail terrine with tangy meat still on the bone. Silky braised fennel was so good I found myself eating it straight from the jar. And that was just the antipasti. Chicken liver spiedini, open-faced sandwiches spread with liver, had the flinty richness of the liver with an offset of marsala and balsamic vinegar. Fluffy house-made focaccia had the proper amount of oil, with a tinge of garlic and rosemary.
But the pasta is the highlight of the menu and the dishes that I keep turning dreamily back to in my mind. Bucatini was a beautiful blend of just-ripe tomatoes, with a little chili pepper and bits of crunchy guanciale mixed in; it was a perfect, just-chewy-enough version of amatriciana. Gemelli was an upscale version of mac and cheese, little squiggles of pasta in a creamy sauce, livened up with black pepper and Pecorino. And the grilled short-rib entree, a big, bone-in chunk of meat on the plate, was as buttery and luscious as you could want, and served with an interesting chickpea mash for a spin on meat and potatoes.
There were some missteps. Poached octopus (moscardini) was more oily and broken-down than one would like. Pork sausage had an herby, porky flavor, but its texture was all wrong; it seemed overemulsified, more like meat pulp than sausage.
And then, there are the prices. Three meatballs, about the size of walnuts, cost $15 — and yes, they were made with a unique blend of pork, beef, and salty guanciale; yes, their texture was spongy and spot-on; yes, the bright, complex tomato sauce they were served with was wonderful — but $5 per small meatball was a steep price to pay for it. That was nothing compared to the "roast chicken for two," $42, which turned out to be half of a roast chicken on grilled bread, stuffed with ricotta and pine nuts. It was delicious, if a bit undercooked — but $84 for a whole chicken is nothing short of highway robbery, especially considering the other options in town (Zuni's is $48; Fog City's, which I reviewed last week, is $29).
"New York prices," sniffed a friend I'd brought to dinner, the same one who'd earlier told of an S.F. food icon he knew who was refusing to eat at the new Tosca out of principle. The East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry is alive and kicking. And though I think it's a good thing that we're importing New York chefs as well as exporting ours to New York (see: Danny Bowien), I did have to agree that Tosca's cost-to-portion ratios seemed more Midtown than North Beach.
Right now, with all the bright-lights-big-city vibe, and Bloomfield herself front-and-center in the open kitchen — head down, hair in a tidy bun, working the line as though she's not a famous chef — Tosca Cafe feels like the place to be in S.F. at this moment. It's anyone's guess what will happen when the hype fades, and Bloomfield's not in the kitchen every night (along with four New York restaurants, she has a new cookbook, her second, coming out). Maybe it will turn back into the neighborhood bar it used to be, the magical place where anything can happen after a few "house cappuccinos," which true to the bar's history of unexpected surprises is not coffee, but an iconic cocktail made with armagac, Buffalo Trace bourbon, steamed milk, and Dandelion Chocolate ganache. Maybe its wild days of movie stars and celebrity writers are over. We'll have to wait it out. Tosca's second act has just begun.