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Aster SF -- Big Let Down

ed fontleroy | Oct 12, 201702:51 PM

Extremely disappointing, and the disappointments started immediately.

Earlier in the day, I surprised my wife with a trip up to SF from LA for our anniversary. Being that it was a special occasion, I put time and effort into researching what I thought would be a great and unique SF restaurant experience. Based on the Aster's reviews, it’s intriguing menu, the wine pairing option and its single Michelin star, I chose it for our anniversary dinner.

The restaurant, which is perfectly rectangular, has around 15-20 tables along its perimeter that seat parties of 2 to 6. In the center of the restaurant is a long communal table. I had previously notified the restaurant that I would be there to celebrate my anniversary, hoping that would might garner a quality table (I did not request a particular table because I had never been there and, obviously, I didn’t have the restaurant’s floor plan in advance). When I walked in, I immediately saw that the entire restaurant was full, save for two seats at the communal table at the near end, closest to the front door and immediately behind the host's station. Preferring to have some intimacy for my anniversary rather than the sit at a communal table right in front of the front door and right behind the host’s rear-end (abutted by his rear, as it were), I asked if I could wait for a proper table, noting again that we had just arrived from LA to celebrate our anniversary. I was informed that those tables along the perimeter were reserved for people who notified the restaurant that they were celebrating a special occasion. Believing that I had just been handed a perfect opening, and that nothing I had just said was actually heard, I pressed my case and fully repeated host that (1) it was our anniversary, (2) that we had just flown in from LA to celebrate it and (3) that I had in fact notified the restaurant in advance. His reply was to state that it wasn't in their records. To which I said nothing can be done about that now, but the facts are the facts. Finally, after further pleading, I elicited a “I’ll see what I can do.” But rather than earnestly see if there was a way to accommodate us, he proceeded to stare and poke at his iPad reservation app in a way that can only be described as what a child does when he pretends to look for the homework in his backpack that he knows he doesn’t have in his backpack because he didn’t actually do the homework. Finally, he raised his head to say that if we came back in 40 minutes he "might" have a table. Needless to say, we opted for the seat behind the ass of a host - I mean, behind the host’s ass. Within three minutes of sitting down (37 minutes less than 40), two perimeter tables were vacated and being wiped down. I asked the host if we could have one of them. He said he would look into it (I thought he already had?) But rather than look into it, as minutes went by, he did other things. I know this because I watched do all sorts of other things. After a while, with menus and waters now being delivered and no progress from the host forthcoming, we resigned to stay where we were.

We selected our orders for each course of the dinner - a four course tasting menu ($75 per person)- and elected to have the wine pairing ($48 per person). We also elected to purchase bread ($5). The bread consisted of five slices of house-baked sourdough and “house cultured” butter. The bread was as run-of-the-mill as any bread I’ve had. The butter had an interesting, cheesey funk to it. Regardless, I must say that I object to having to purchase bread at a restaurant. In fact, I think it’s quite ridiculous. I can't even fathom the audacity it took to conceive of placing it on the menu as a charged item to begin with. Moreover, if you're going to sell the bread, at least make great bread. This wasn’t. It's wasn't even served warm. The crust was not crusty but chewy. Still, even if it had been great, it should not be a charged item. I thought about how if I had to pay for the bread at my 16 course tasting menu at Joel Rubichon, which came out on a bread cart the size of a mini Cooper, I'd have needed to take out a second mortgage. And that was great bread. And it was “free.” I think one should expect even exceptional bread to be free. But here it wasn't, and I, unfortunately, was very hungry, and so I paid $5, on top of $75, for a few lousy slices of bread.

My first course was "fresh and local" shellfish - specifically, three mussels and one oyster. As suggested by the menu and our server,I paid $8 extra for an optional uni to be thrown into the mix because - for some reason - a bite of fresh and local uni, which is a shellfish, should apparently be treated as a breed apart from other fresh and local shellfish on a $75 tasting menu at a Michelin one star. I suspect that at two star Michelin restaurants, when you select a plate of fresh and local shellfish and they happen to have fresh and local uni in the kitchen that is not otherwise incorporated in any dish on the menu, it might actually be served de rigueuer with a plate of fresh and local shellfish.

(Are you noticing a pattern of cheapness here? You should be, as it continues. At least they didn’t sell house-made ice for our waters.)

My wine pairing for the dish was a sake. I didn’t want sake and asked for a substitute. (Yes, conceptually, sake works with the dish and yes, it is a wine, but I think if you are going to go that far out of the standard expectation, you might want to flag it first.). No problem, they brought me a Chenin Blanc, which finally arrived just as my wife finished her wine, which is to say it took a long time. Alacrity was not a theme of the night. Other than the fly floating in the glass, which one server was sharp enough to hear me commenting about and briskly replace it, the wine was delightful.

My second course was a sort of mushroom ragu with charred lettuce. This dish was exceptional in both its dramatically stark presentation and its taste. Regrettably, it was served with a white wine so unremarkable that I can’t even remember what it was.

My third dish was trout with a marmalade-like miso glaze. It was paired with very sweet Riesling. My wife had the same. We understood the logic of the pairing but we both detest sweet wine. I profusely apologized to the waitress for being difficult (this was the second wine I rejected) and explained how we both really dislike sweet wine. She returned with the wine list and stammered about for alternatives. (At this point, I realized that I found it odd for a restaurant offering a wine pairing to not have a sommelier, or someone filling such a function, on hand.) The server suggested a Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. We opted for the Pinot, which was nice.

During an interlude between the entree and dessert, we were each served a spoonful of a vanilla ice cream sitting atop an oil like substance containing something that was possibly fermented. While it’s not clear to me what exactly it was sitting atop, it was abundantly clear that it tasted absolutely horrific, revolting and inedible. By this, I don’t mean that it was a disagreeable taste, subject to the caprice of one diner to another. I don't mean that it simply had a particular, pronounced flavor the one person might love while another can't stand, like, say, some might feel about the pungent taste of blue cheese or truffles or the bite of cognac. I mean, it was revolting, inedible. So much so that I couldn’t even drink what was left of my Pinot because my pallet was disfigured. I called a server aside to tell her and honestly thought I might be doing them a service, like some batch of whatever had turned bad and we were the first to be served it. But she insisted it something or other and that’s it tasted like it should. In other words, it was supposed to be revolting.

For dessert --for which we waited over (30) thirty minutes!! — we had ordered two different items from the tasting menu plus a cheese plate for an additional $12. Even though we asked to have the cheese plate instead of one of the dessert selections, this was not allowed. I could sort of - sort of - understand this policy if the cheese plate was anything worthwhile, but it wasn’t. It was two small slices of the same creamy cheese (maybe a goat brie?), a couple fig slices and a long cracker. It was to cheese plates what the earlier sourdough was to bread plates: uninspired and undeservedly expensive. The wine pairings for the desserts were a Sauternes and a Muscat. Of course, as a general matter, these dessert wines make perfect sense, but when you’ve already sent back wine because - as your server now knows - you don’t like sweet wines, then serving these varietals demonstrates a lack of attentiveness and professionalism one would expect from a Michelin star, even if it’s just one star. At this point in the evening, I was so fatigued from doing battle with a polite smile on my face that we both chose to just ignore the wines and let them sit their undisturbed.

Finally, the check arrived. With a 20% tip, the dinner for two totaled $350. I left feeling like I paid about $200 more than it deserved, or perhaps $205 more as we didn't even get a thank you from our server ... or was I supposed to pay extra for that?

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