After a long series of meetings entertaining out of town colleagues, a co-worker and I went to Cortez Thursday evening for early dinner and drinks to celebrate the end of our busiest week of the year. This was my first visit.
Reports on this board, including those responding to the poster asking for locations for his daughters 21rst birthday, had given me the impression it was trendy, but I didnt find it to be particularly so. Perhaps it was the early hour, but most of the other diners seemed to be Midwestern (and some European) tourists, and most as middle aged as me. Décor was pleasant, but again, it didnt fit my definition of trendy, unless you count the fact that tables are small and close together perhaps I am just getting too old to appreciate the look. (sigh).
Service was prompt and on the edge of rushed. When we were seated we were asked if we had a theater curtain to make (we didnt), but the speed at which dishes came out was still quite fast. Even faster (and much more annoying) was the speed at which the servers removed dishes. At least two different servers and three different bus persons visited the table at various times, and at least two of them tried to take plates that still had food on them. At one point, one server actually started to remove my wine glass which still had a good ounce of wine left in it! In all cases, this was done without asking first. I said something about slowing down a bit, but it still happened again with dessert, partly because, again, it was a different server. I definitely got the impression that staff were trying to turn tables quickly.
Most of what we tried was good, but not great. The best dish was the Dungeness crab cake surrounded by cellophane noodles. Delicious. The crudo special of the day was a Japanese white fish served (raw of course) with pineapple and cilantro. I thought the fish was too mild for that treatment and that the sweetness of the pineapple overpowered even the cilantro. The lamb was also overpowered by a sweet taste from either the garlic chive puree at its base or (more likely) the date and mint crust. Ravioli were very good, though a bit oily. I wanted some green so we also had brocollini, which was just average. I know we got one more small plate, but cant remember what it was. From the dessert menu we shared a panna cotta with basil sorbet, which might have been the second best part of the dinner (after the crab). Cost before tip with two glasses of wine (but including the 2% service charge, see below): $87.00.
A note on tipping policy: Cortez is the first resto I have been at since Incanto which adds a partial service charge to the check in response to the SF living wage ordinance. The menu states at the bottom and on the website, that A partial service charge of 2% will be added to each check, enabling us to pay a living wage increase without increasing prices or reducing employee benefits. I asked my dining companion (who was not familiar with the issue) what he thought of that, and he said he found it confusing, since he would consider that the charge does in fact raise the price.
As some of you will recall, ultimately Incanto posted a reply to the thread that I had started on its service charge policy suggesting that folks could and perhaps should reduce the tip by the amount of the service charge (basically shifting some of the tips from servers to lower paid kitchen staff, if I understand the logic and math). So, that is what we did in this case (though we might not have done so if the service hadnt felt rushed).
Interestingly, when the bill came, the 2% service charge is labeled a Prop L Charge on the receipt. If I were a tourist or anyone unfamiliar with SF politics, I might assume based upon that type of label that this was some type of mandatory fee, charge or even tax imposed by the City or the State (because of the reference to a Proposition), and probably wouldnt reduce my tip accordingly. Moreover, I consider it, by its very nature (since it referred specifically to a particular political referendum), to be a political statement.
Overall assessment: politics and service issues aside, I am not sure I would rush back to Cortez. In a similar price range, I liked the wine list, small plates and atmosphere at Piperade much better (not to mention the fact that I easily found free street parking at Piperade even though it isnt too far from downtown!). For those that really do want trendy, Id suggest also checking out some of the small plates places in the Mission ....