I think I arrived in the Bay Area jaded from living in Manhattan. Then, I got into the hospitality industry and have subsequently developed an aversion to eating out in restaurants as it's just too close to work for me now. However, in the past few days, I happily have "discovered" two restaurants that I found to be exciting.
First Chez Spencer. Had read about this opening in a number of publications and I believe Rochelle (shellfish) posted on it a few weeks ago. Curiousity piqued, I called for a reservation around 5:30 last night. THey said we could have a table for 2 at 8:30. I was glad it was still possible to call up and get a table though I don't think this will continue for long. They are still waiting for a liquour license so we brought two wines with us.
Chez Spencer is on 14th between Folsom and Harrison and is in what used to be Citizen Cake. It's behind Rainbow Grocery and around the corner from Office Max. We found on street parking easily and walked up to an industrial gate with what looked like the name spray painted on. As we entered, we came into a small patio area with 4-6 tables and heaters. We went into the restaurant and were seated at a 2top between 2 other tables immediately. Though the restaurant was full, it didn't seem that loud.
The menu isn't huge. There are 4-5 apps followed by 3-4 mid-size courses (ie salmon pizza, foie gras) followed by 6 or so full entrees. We ordered white asparagus with a black truffle butter and ahi tuna carpaccio as starters. We also had the roasted butterfish wrapped in fig leaves in an olive sauce and the Colorado rack of lamb served with potatoes and a roasted tomato. Our last courses were a cheese plate and my husband had the black and tan pot de creme.
The ahi tuna carpaccio was OK. I think it was just OK because the asparagus was a stunner. When our waiter was about 4 feet away from us bringing it, my husband smelled the truffled butter and started salivating. I had originally ordered the asparagus and had eaten two spears when I suggested that we switch. I hadn't suspected that I was not going to get my app. back. My husband polished off the other 6-8 spears and then we both broke off pieces of bread to mop up the truffle butter. It was a great starter. I'm craving it now. The ahi tuna was a fan of about 5 thin slices of lightly seared tuna. It was on a bed of thinly sliced endive (nice texture contrast) and was finished by an olive oil with minced green olives. It was good but paled in comparison to the asparagus.
Entrees: Husband liked the butterfish. The texture was just that-buttery, flaky, soft whitefish. In fact, the fig leaf that surrounded the butterfish boosted the texture of each bite of fish and also lent it an herbal, vegetal (though not unpleasant) taste. A little bit of green. This was also in an olive sauce and there were 2-4 small roasted figs as an additional accompaniment. I think that my entree was again the stunner. Three Frenched lamb chops with one roasted plum(?) tomato and a small multi-layered roasted potato gratin made up my plate. This was all in a deeply caramelized jus that was rich, dark, hearty, and savory. I initially ordered the lamb med-rare but had them take it up a temp to medium. When it came back to me, it was perfect for me. Still rare in the very center with some charred fat on the bone, dripping with those caramelized juices. MMMM! The primary reason I love rack of lamb is the bone. I love anything roasted on a bone and I like picking them up and gnawing off the rest of the meat. I'm not shy and thoroughly enjoyed these 3 lamb chops. The roasted tomato was excellent, providing a wonderful slightly acidic contrast to the richness of everything else. It too was caramelized which brought out the natural sugars in the tomato. Love that caramelization! The potato gratin was a nice starch to have, not too cheesy or heavy.
Dessert: Cheese plate was divine. Included was Petit Basque, a young chevre, camembert, and Tomme de Savoie. Along side the cheese was a cup of halved Bing cherries macerated in honey (out of this world) and quarters of mission and kadota(?) figs. They gave me another roll with my cheese plate as well. Speaking of the bread, they get it from an alum of Bay Bread. It had come hot out of the oven with a sweet cream butter. The crust was very crunchy and the interior light as air. Very different from some of the tired, leaden, cold breads served elsewhere.
Black and tan pot de creme with an espresso is what my husband had. It was served with 3 pistachio cookies, a la Chinese almond cookies. He didn't bother with any of those and practically licked his pot de creme bowl when he was done. It was a caramel layer of the custard on the bottom with a chocolate layer of custard on top. I didn't try it as I was so taken with my own cheese plate but next time I go, I can focus on other things. Nevertheless, I think it was good.
Service: Most of the staff seem to be very young. No women servers this night. Some had French accents and the staff was mixed racially. I like seeing diversity in a staff. Our waiter George was warm, personable, very competent, and knowledgeable. There weren't any significant service issues which considering they've only been open 4 weeks is great. Our wine was constantly poured as was water and everyone was quite attentive. Additionally, George had worked with the exec. chef before and had followed him. That's always a good sign to me.
When we left, we were one of 3 or 4 tables left so my husband made a beeline for the executive chef, Laurent. He's cooked at Alfy's in San Anselmo, Boulevard, Foreign Cinema. What struck us is that he'd also cooked at Lespinasse in New York under Gray Kunz, one of my all-time favorite chefs. This sealed the deal. Loved the food, had a thoroughly enjoyable experience, felt palpable energy in the air, and had smooth service. I hope they can keep it this way.
Next, Alcatraces in Noe Valley. It's on 24th one block east of Castro on the north side of the street. This is a self-billed creole restaurant. This has been on the list and I was happy to find they serve lunch, dinner, and brunch on Sundays. We walked in and took the 3-top table in the bright sunny window. There were a number of interesting items on the menu: crayfish gumbo, a daily jambalaya, (their name) "not yo mama's caesar salad" + others, and a number of po boys ( or rollie pollie boys as they called it). My sister in law ordered the soup of the day a creamy corn chowder and the daily jambalaya (sausage and chicken). I decided against the fried oyster po boy (though I'll go back for it) and went for the southwestern one. What I got was a massive sandwich with some mesclun on the side. You can order one to come in a French roll or in a wrap. I got the French roll and this sandwich was the size of a football. I ate half of it and took the rest home. On the sandwich was a roasted smoky chicken that had been shredded, 3 plum tomatoes, red and green roasted bell peppers, shredded lettuce (perhaps iceberg), and a slightly spicy, slightly sweet, smoky chipotle sauce that bound it all together. It was absolutely delicious! I haven't been to Le Krewe yet but would like to go to both of these restaurants at dinnertime and compare. Alcatraces had great funky decor with some shrines on the wall and this really big potentially voodoo-related figure on one wall (there's also one in the windowfront). Again, a lot of good energy.