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Thoughts on Cortez

Melanie Wong | Dec 20, 200403:14 AM

Last month the winning team for the chow trivia contest cashed in our prize at Cortez in San Francisco, subsidizing our meal there. None of us took notes or committed to posting about the evening, but I thought I’d at least share the few pictures I snapped and some random impressions of our meal.

We had the round table for six next to the bar. Looking back at the long, narrow cramped room, I think it might be the best table in the house. The space is rather awkward with rows of two-tops lined up cafeteria style. Some interesting lighting and multi-colored geometric design elements take some of the edge off the room.

Our server was well-versed in the menu and suggested that we order a couple dishes per person and at least two of each to share among the six of us. The assembled chowhounds had a different idea. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I noticed that more than one of us around the table was silently counting the number of small plates on the menu. In typical form, we decided to run the menu, or most of it, and save some budget to reorder any favorites. Each of us nominated one of the 19 for elimination to whittle down our order. Thankfully Felice had done her homework, researching past recs from the board to help guide us as well.

Since nearly seven weeks have passed since this meal, I can’t recall everything we tried. But perhaps that speaks more to the character of the food, in that not every dish was that memorable. My favorites and the ones that do stand out in my mind’s eye were the fries with spicy aiolis, the daily crudo, and the baked salmon. The short, stubby fries were very greasy but also extra crisp and flavorful on their own. My initial reaction to the crudo was that it was underseasoned and needing more salt and acid. But as it unfolded in the mouth, the utter freshness of the sea bass struck me and everything came into harmony. The kitchen was wise to leave this as simplicity itself and not detract from the purity of flavor. The salmon was the polar opposite in style, probably the most gussied-up dish we had. Dressed-up with gewgaws of tiny sweet Manila clams, fine wisps of minute roasted mushrooms infused with clam flavor, and garlicky clam foam, this sent wave after wave of briny flavors in ascending octaves over the palate.

The photo below shows the squash ravioli with sorrel sauce and cardamon froth, pumpkin seed-encrusted halibut, hanger steak, and peanut butter-filled chocolate truffle cake. The utensils in the shots give some sense of scale. While the servings weren’t as tiny as I had imagined from reports here, they’re not large. Some of our funniest moments were trying to figure out how to split some of these plates six ways. With the ravioli, I remember Nick probing its frothy blanket tentatively with his fork tines and finally announcing, "I think there might be five pieces under there". Or Zach being deferential, saying, "oh no, you should have that remaining bit of sauce 'cuz I had the extra large slice of lamb last time." Did I mention that we ate all our bread?

After finishing our first tranche, the only dish we felt like reordering was the crudo. However, our server had given such a build-up to the hanger steak, saying it would be the most delicious thing on the table, we decided to spring for that instead. While it was medium-rare as ordered and accompanied by a delicious creamed chard and terrific onion rings, the piece of meat itself lacked the robust beefiness that should be in this cut. The crudo, salmon and halibut dishes had been so expertly handled, we thought seafood was a no-brainer here and we ordered the trout. Big mistake, as it was less than fresh and overdone.

The beignets with Valrhona chocolate fondue were decent, but a little tough and couldn’t satisfy my beignet cravings. The peanut butter-centered chocolate cake was as good as promised, even though the cake seemed a little drier than it should be, and the accompanying caramel ice cream was ever so luscious.

We brought our own wines to share. As an aperitif, we had a sparkling Paarl wine from South Africa. Very toasty, this was a little oxidized, yet had full-bodied ripe fruit with some steely, earthy notes, finishing a little short. I liked it best with the crab cake, although I wasn’t wild about the dish itself, and nearly as much with the foie gras terrine. I had expected the 1990 Chateau La Conseillante Pomerol to be the wine of the night, but this final bottle was a bit dusty around the edges and thin and disjointed in the middle. While it had plenty of aromatic interest, complexity, depth and a mellow core of sweet red fruits that would lure us into thinking it was coming around, it never fully exhibited the breed and elegance that this house is known for. Its best match was the hanger steak. The 1993 Rene Engel “Les Brulees” Premier Cru Vosne-Romanee seduced with the richness of its sensual Bourgogne bouquet. Smoky autumnal scents, dark fruits, spice box, truffles, and the damp forest floor quality that Erika prizes in Pinot Noir wafted from the glass. Somewhat leaner on the palate, the receding fruit no longer fully cloaked the bright acidity and firm tannins that mark this year. Nevertheless, still an excellent example of a mature Premier Cru. Appropriate Bordeaux and Burgundy stemware were provided for the wines.

That’s as much as I can remember. I hope my dining companions will fill in the rest.


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