Luce is the restaurant in the new Intercontinental Hotel on Howard at Fifth Street. Let's just get this out of the way: it's a terrible location. But don't let that stop you from going to this restaurant; we had one of the best meals we've had in the city. More on that later, but first logistics. We parked catty corner from the hotel in a lot that promises a $10 flat fee, but the machine didn't work. The homeless guy with a gimp said he'd protect the car with his life for $5, even though the sign specifically said not to pay "unauthorized persons". We took him at his word; the car was still there after dinner, as was the homeless guy, so I "tipped" him $3. ($8 for parking in San Francisco is a total bargain; the last time I parked at the W Hotel, it cost me $24 with validation!)
The hotel is designed to defend itself against the very same kind of homeless people we encountered in the parking lot. You have to enter through the main door; there are security people every 10 feet. So this is not a trip for the faint-hearted, including GoingOutAgain, who was beginning to question our last minute decision to try Luce, despite the lack of reviews on Chowhound.
Persevere! The meal was a complete delight for us and the four other tables occupied on a Sunday evening. The wine list was pretty broad, and includes both expensive and inexpensive selections. We decided to try the "Luce" 2004 Montalcino Super Tuscan. This super tuscan is a product of the joint venture between Frescobaldi and Robert Mondavi (a beautiful, but not inexpensive bottle at $127). There is some connection between the name of the wine and the name of the restaurant, but I haven't been able to find what it is online after leaving the restaurant.
The chef is a French lady named Dominique Crenn, who must be one of the most creative chefs whose output we've had the pleasure to eat. For instance, GoingOutAgain ordered the Black Ink Trofiette "Carbonara": baby calamari on a pasta soaked in black ink with a poached egg, pancetta, and parmesan cheese with plenty of garlic. Her comment was that there is a tartness that cuts the richness of the egg and pasta. I had the Calamari Brochetta: calamari filled with goat cheese with sprig of rosemary stuck through a small black olive; surrounded on the plate with a tomato chutney, sliced kumquats (possibly pickled), and a fennel slaw. The variety allowed me to combine the elements into different tastes, leading to a remarkable variety from an appetizer. (The whole menu under-describes what you actually get, which is a refreshing change from menus that give you every gory detail and leave nothing to surprise you on the table.)
For entrees, GOA ordered the "Wild-Caught Sea Scallops". The scallops came two ways: three with truffled caviar on a scallop ceviche and three with a bacon tortellini in a Pernod foam, all arranged around an arugula salad of tangerines & cauliflower. The scallop ceviche was an amazing trick to put on top of a grilled scallop; who would have thunk? And the combination of pancetta and scallop was also a pleasant combination.
I ordered the "Niman Ranch Aged Rib Eye Steak". Before the entree arrived, the waitress delivered three salts to give me a chance to decide which one to use to flavor the steak. The steak itself was a filet topped with Medjool dates and braised oxtail with a date-reduction sauce and surrounded by seasonal vegetables. The entree came with a side of polenta bianca, a white polenta fried and accompanied by a gorgonzola dolce latte sauce. The steak itself was perfectly cooked, but the combination of the dates and the sauce and oxtail was an amazing complement, a delicately balanced set of tastes.
Dominique Crenn came out to visit with us twice and I must admit that I was so charmed that I was considering asking her hand in marriage, despite the fact that she wore a wedding ring and my girlfriend was sitting across the table from me. I asked who inspired her and she gave her mother credit, as well as a chef in Brittany, whose first name is Olivier (but enough of the Luce meant I can't remember his last name).
If we can figure out the parking and manage the relatively unwelcoming environment, we plan to make Luce a regular on our itinerary in gastronomic San Francisco.