I've alluded to this a few times, so I guess it's time for a real report.
My surprise birthday dinner turned out to be at Acquerello, perhaps the most upscale Italian restaurant in the bay area. Service here was quite formal, yet with a touch of Italian warmth and friendliness that sets it apart from a formal French style of service. The restaurant is very small and occupies what appears to have once been a small cathedral.
The menu consists of a five course tasting menu with wine pairings for $100, or a la carte selections of appetizer, pasta, and entrees--about $10, $20, and $30 respectively--portioned such that a full meal really calls for one from each part of the menu. We did one tasting menu and one set of a la carte items.
The wine here flows pretty freely. The staff here was willing to let us try extra wines and topped off by-the-glass orders at no extra charge. I was in the mood for a relaxing evening so I didn't actually capture the names of the wine. The by the glass selections rotate regularly, and from what I saw, they often open a few additional bottles that they match with the night's dishes. Riedel glasses are used, with appropriate stems brought for each glass of wine.
The first "surprise" course in the tasting menu was a small tartare of salmon and bass with a citrus sauce. A light, simple, and fresh starter. It was paired with a prosecco. An extra portion was given to Erika so I didn't have to eat alone!
The next course was salmon scallopini with a thick citrus sauce and rapini. Excellently fresh fish, tender on the inside with crisped exterior, and a vibrant and tangy sauce. Paired with an dark gold colored Orvieto-Classico-like wine ("something Croce" from the Veneto) which I actually thought was a little too full bodied for the acidic dish. Erika had a winter salad with greens, pears, gorgonzola and candied walnuts. A common combination, but done especially well here with paper thin slices of pear, crunchy and sweet walnuts, and decadently luscious and flavorful cheese.
For the next round, I had gnocchi with wild boar ragu. This was my favorite dish of the night. The gnocchi were rather firm and dense, but not gummy or chewy. They were pan fried to produce crispy browned goodness on one side. The meat sauce was a rich and stewy mix of porky boar bits and finely diced vegetables. This was paired with a valpolicella ("full bodied," as much as the grape can produce I suppose), which was a good match but something bigger and heavier might have been better. Erika had a lobster ravioli with was excellent, also probably her best dish of the night. Four small raviolis were packed with meaty lobster meat, several large chunks of meat were also thrown in the bowl like meatballs, and the whole was covered with an intensely rich lobster sauce. A vermentino was provided as a match upon our request, which was a nice wine and a decent pairing. But the sommelier said the "something Croce" from my previous course was the best match they had, so he poured us a little more of that to see for ourselves.
My final course was chicken with spinach and a porcini sauce. There were two cuts of chicken: coins of rolled breast with crispy, tasty, herbed skin, which was okay as chicken breasts go. The other part of the dish was thigh meat stuffed with spinach and cheese which was excellent. This earthy dish was supposed to be paired with a chianti classico, but the sommelier had opened a 1997 Barberesco and decided that was a better match. It was probably the best match of the night. Erika had sea bass over mashed potatoes. It was a good dish and went well with the left over vermentino (actually not left over but refilled--the crowd started to dwindle and it seemed like they were willing to let us finish off the open bottles!). But after all the wine, things started to get fuzzy at this point so I can't remember too much about that last course.
Complimentary biscotti were followed by dessert. I thought the desserts were the weakest part of the meal due to excessive sweetness, biscotti included. My dessert was probably the least sweet: angel cake with slices of strawberries and citrus wedges with fromage blanc ice cream. The fromage blanc was very good, but the strawberries were ripe enough. Erika had the meyer lemon torta della nonna: a napoleon like creation of alternating torta della nonna crackers, meyer lemon curd, and fresh whipped cream. The elements were delicious and Erika moaned with each bite before she cleaned the plate -- while I agreed it was tasty it was so sweet I could eat no more than a couple bites. The dessert wine that came with my tasting menu was a moscato d'asti spumante, which was an extraordinary dessert wine: beautiful floral nose, vibrantly effervescent, solid acidity, and delicious sweetness. This is what moscato is all about: I've had many still muscats from California that I thought were good but this completely changed my mind about what can be done with this grape.
Espresso, served after dessert was finished (a place that gets it right!), was excellent.
In summary: an expensive yet good meal, with an excellent and generous adventure in Italian wines, a little too sweet at the end. The closest comparison I have to this meal was a dinner 4+ years ago at Valentino's in L.A., which consisted of a tasting menu (all diners required to order if any do, not so at Acquerello) and one bottle of wine (no pairings were offered as far as I remember). From what I can recall, I thought the food was slightly better overall at Valentino's, but the wine and service were far better at Acquerello.