In case you haven't already gathered, dining and the rituals surrounding the consumption of food has always been the primary subject of this blog. The food alone is not really what draws me to the writing, although a marvelous feast is never insignificant. My muse is something less tangible than a good salad or a perfectly prepared steak. I write to acknowledge that there is something more to eating than the nourishment of the body. There is a nourishment of spirit that takes place when humans gather to break bread. I'm not the first to notice. In addition to meaning something like Dinner Table Philosophers, The Deipnosophistae is an Ancient Roman tale believed to have been written by Athenaeus. It purportedly recounts the events and conversations that take place over the course of three dinners shared between various artists, scholars, jurists, musicians, philosophers and other learned men of his day. Written sometime around 300 A.D. Legend has it that Plutarch was among the guests. As they discuss intellectual pursuits, sing songs and wax prolific on all manner of contemporary topics, the brightest among men exchange their ideas while partaking of meat, cheese, bread and wine.
The trappings and traditions that accompany a group repast have always been as important as the meal itself — we draw strength from the company; pleasure from the camaraderie, intellectual treasure from the sharing of knowledge. The consumption of spirits (in moderation of course) serves to loosen the tongue, allowing those gathered together to speak freely. When we are truly among our peers we wish to share our best ideas, and draw inspiration from each other. Delicious food charges our brains with pleasureable endorphines, certain flavors resurrect specific memories from our collective history. There is more to loving a grandmother's favorite soup than the right amount of seasoning on the palate. Each specific dish has the power to conjure an experience so clearly that we relive it in the eating. We need only find the right dish, with the appropriate combination of flavors. So we continue to seek.
It is these things that keep me coming back to the table. Food would be empty without the ritual, reduced to a meaningless intake of calories consumed with no objective other than survival. For though we must eat, if we do not learn to savor, we are missing the ultimate point.
My point on this occasion is that I found Acquerello in San Francisco to be an establishment that understands the ritual of dining in all its levels of profundity. While eating there recently for another auspicious occasion (the departure of the Grad Student for her European tour), we might just as easily have found ourselves in Ancient Rome dining with the Deipnosophistae. The ambience was simultaneously simple and opulent, white table cloths and butter yellow walls, the conversation stimulating, both from the multitude of well-informed staff and my companions at the table. At each table could be found simple flower arrangements of two or three fat and lustrous roses, each bloom harvested perfectly to best savor every moment of its efflorescence. The service a panoply attentiveness and well-executed procedure. The citizenry of Ancient Rome understood fine dining, and I had forgotten how well Italians remember this. It is no accident that this is a restaurant that recalls the history of Italy's food legacy to perfection. Italians understand food, perhaps in a way that no other culture does, or perhaps we are just more in tune to the rituals. Either way, this meal was a feast for the senses, as well as the palate. No formal repast enjoyed by the original Deipnosophistae could have been better. For those who want something special, and wish to combine fine dining with all the sensational grandeur of Ancient Rome, still experiencing the more refined flavors and artistically classic presentations of today, then that meal should be had at Acquerello in San Francisco.
Upon our arrival I remember being surprised that the interior was successfully maintaining a distinct old world charm without seeming at all stale or dated. We began by ordering a lovely bottle of Italian sparkling wine. Bella Vista Pasopere. The sommelier, sensing we were curious and eager listeners, gladly gave us a lesson in wine-making. He explained that Prosecco is made from the grape of the same name, and that it is a particularly sweet varietal. To achieve a "brut" Prosecco, the vintner must with-hold the dosage, a sweetened liquor that acts as a sugar agent to aid in carbonation.
The menu was a prix fixe designed and presumably prepared by Co-Owner and Chef Suzanne Gresham. The first treat that arrived from the Chef was a small cocktail. A refreshing combination of orange juice, sweet vermouth and bitters. The drink was a lovely melon color, its citrus flavor sweetened with vermouth and balanced with bitters — a perfect palate cleanser to begin the meal. That ceremony of cleansing the palate, a step in an evening that continued in a liturgy of ritual.
The amuse bouche arrived next. While not an Italian concept, it was wonderfully adapted to this Italian meal. It presented itself as a lovely bit of lamb tongue, gently stuffed with a seasoned goat ricotta, plated with a dash of cranberry relish. The colors were appetizing, the taste was refreshing and unexpected.
In Italy, courses are generally offered in a particular sequence, in accordance with centuries of tradition. While those traditions have loosened over time, there is a progression to an Italian meal. Usually it would begin with antipasti, a course that would in America be called an appetizer. Then one proceeds to the Primo, which is usually a pasta, and then to the Secundo, which we would term the main, but is more accurately the protein of the meal, be it fish, chicken or meat. Of course nowadays a prix fixe meal has many more courses than a classic Italian meal, all of them smaller in quantity. But the concept of ritual progression is still honored at Acquerello, though elevated to something far more elegant than in times past.
My next course was a beautiful Parmesan Budino, sprinkeld with Mushrooms "Trifolati" and sprinkled with shaved Parmigiano "Vacche Rosse." The dish was a creamy truffle-flavored bowl of something akin to a cheese pudding. It was like a savory dessert, softer than a risotto and somehow richer.
The rest of the family each ordered the Chopped Beef Tartare with Parmesan cream, Quail Egg and Truffle Drizzle. My taste of their dish revealed the meat to have a spicy quality, just a hint of pepper enhancing the naturally fatty flavor of the raw beef, yet allowing the quality of the meat itself to remain the star of the dish.
For her second course, the Grad Student ordered the Ridged Pasta with Foie Gras, scented with Black Truffles and Marsala. The pasta was perfectly al dente, and the truffled sauce, gently sweetened with Marsala was provocatively creamy. The finishing touch was the rich, savory, foie in the dish.
The GS also ordered a Corn Pasta Ravioli with brown butter. She is allergic to fish, and most restaurants have been exceedingly accommodating. This ravioli was awash in the summery sweet corn, and smothered in gently browned butter. The dark rich smoky fat in the butter gave the corn a slightly melancholy air, as though it had been imbued with the end of summer. How appropriate for October, which is our Indian Summer here in California.
When the GS's meal arrived it had put our own tasting menus off sync, so the restaurant thoughtfully provided the BH and I two a savory little taste sensation with which to bide our time while we awaited our own meals. We were presented with a tiny dish of two ravioli, one pasta pillow was a concoction of Teleggio, the other a mix of Asiago cheeses, each sitting gracefully in perhaps the best simple tomato sauce I have ever tasted. Since both my grandparents were from the old country, I can assertively state that I know my tomato sauces.
The service was timed to perfection, and no sooner had I blissfully savored the last bit of tomato sauce around my tiny pillows of past, than my Lobster Panzerotti arrived. This was a lovely little mid-section of lobster served in a spicy lobster brodo with "Diavolicchio." Diavolicchio Chile Peppers, also known as "little devil" chilies, are one of four varieties of hot peppers that bring the heat to the spicy cuisine of the Basilicata region of Italy. These little red peppers drying in bundles have been found hanging from kitchen ceilings all over Italy and were. The sweet pink meat of the succulent piece of seafood was a perfect foil to the kick of the peppers. All in all this dish had a lovely, well-balanced flavor profile.
Next up was a dish of Red Abalone with Italian Butter Beans, that I had requested as a substitution from the Chef's Tasting Menu. The abalone was served with a chavel romaine in a piping-hot seaweed brodo. BH had the Butter-poached Lobster Tail, which was an abundance of seafood, including stuffed calamari and crusted mussels. The Grad Student had the Souvide ‘Bavette' of American Kobe Beef with braised oxtail stuffed squash bone and basil. All three of these dishes were spectacular.
Being cheese lovers, and having sensed that this was an establishment that took pride in its table-side service, we thought we would let them do their thing. The cheeses were unique and all were uniformly excellent. The cheese selection that really stood out for me was a type called "cuzie." Cuzie is an Italian dialect term for a goat cheese that has been aged in tobacco leaves. The unusual preparation was intriguing and as I am fond of most any aged cheese, I asked to try it. It was amazing. The tobacco leaf came through in the cheese and it was like a good cigar, without the nasty burn of the smoke or any associated health risks. Perhaps this should be the future of the tobacco industry. A healthy way to savor the natural smokiness of the leaf of the tobacco plant, and I swear it was delicious.
We shared three beautiful desserts, my BH ordering the Valrhona Dark Chocolate Ganache with bing cherries and mascarpone; I had the Bourbon Caramel Semifreddo with Amaretti Crumbs and a delicate drizzle of chocolate sauce. The whipped cream and bourbon pudding made this light, chilled flavorful delight. The Grad Student decided to join us and ordered the Vanilla Scented Panna Cotta with moscato poached peaches, plum sorbet and marcona almonds. Each dessert was a heavenly melange of flavor and texture.
The staff were extremely gracious about making our substitutions work within the dinner service. It is worth remarking that overall the service at Acquerello was absolutely first rate. They were knowledgeable, organized and attentive to detail, which made the entire experience absolute bliss.
The Ancient Romans understood the value of progressive, ritualized dining. Whether instinctively or by trial and error, they recognized an inherent value to the human spirit of savoring each course gradually: first with sight, smell and then taste. This method of eating had stimulative benefits that went well beyond the taste buds alone, encouraging conversation and furthering a healthy development of human interaction. Though they may have indulged in their traditions a little too enthusiastically, that which remains of their customs has been refined into something that if not overdone, can greatly improve the human condition. I found my experience elevating, as though the Deipnosophistae were once again seated at the table.
I'm a writer. A diner. A designer and an artist. I write because I must create. Enjoy!
About this restaurant
Acquerello is a surprisingly good mix of classic Italian and Modern Fine California Dining. Surprising, not because the food is good, but because the combination of flavors, presentation, staffing, service and ambience really combine to create a full-fledged "experience." Read my review and then check it out!