Friday night (September 2004) I surprised my friend Lola by taking her to Acquerello for her birthday. She had wanted to go to the restaurant years ago, and I knew it would both surprise her and please her. It was my second visit to Acquerello (see older review; I had gone three years before when I was pregnant with Michaela, so I found it fitting to go now that I'm once again pregnant. Of course, this meant that once again I couldn't take advantage of Acquerello's famous wine list.
Making reservations was once again a pleasure. I left a message which was promptly returned by a very polite man with a great Italian accent. It's amazing but the restaurant makes you feel welcome even while making a reservation. That feeling continues at the restaurant. It's a lovely room, with inclined beamed ceilings and multi-colored glass windows that give it sort of a church look, but it is also very inviting. This time we were seated by the front door, so I had a good view of the restaurant, which can actually get pretty loud when it's full. But it wasn't the room as much as the waiter who made us feel like we were regulars. He complemented me on my shirt, telling me about how he'd seen an exact one in Italy last summer, and made other small talk that didn't seem intrusive as much as convivial. He was on top during the whole evening and even walked us to the door when we left. The bus boy was so good, that other restaurants should kill to have him. He was able to fill our water glasses and clear our dishes without us even noticing. In all, I don't think I have ever felt so much at home at a restaurant, specially one I'd only been to once before. I only wish I could afford to go there more often.
But the food, of course, is what really needs to shine to make a place like this work, and so it did. The dishes are simple yet hearty, comfort food made from expensive and particularly delectable ingredients. This is how you dream you'd eat if your Italian grandmother was also a gourmet. Of course, Chef Suzette Gresham's heritage is actually French (both her parents were chefs) and perhaps it is that combination that has allowed her to take Italian food to such superlative heights.
Acquerello offers a five-course tasting menu with wine pairing for $100. Lola is not a big wine drinker so she decided to skip it, I was tempted by it (though I knew I couldn't have the wine) but I was dying to have the foie gras pasta again, so I had to skip it as well. Instead I started with the seared squab breast and warm salad of frisee' pancetta and natural juices ($16) and Lola had the salad of baby lettuce tossed in a muscat vinaigrette with caramelized pears, candied walnuts and Gorgonzola ($10). The squab was quite good, perfectly cooked, yet it didn't awe me. After having had many a squab in many a fancy restaurant I think I'm finally going to conclude that this bird is just not as tasty as I wish it to be. In other words, squab is not duck - but as squab went this one was great. The salad was good, though it was too heavily dressed; it tasted too much of vinegar and it was best eaten by alternating with the squab. Lola said she loved her salad.
As my second course I had the ridged pasta with foie gras, scented with black truffles ($17), the dish for which I had come. The sauce was just as delicious as I remember from my earlier visit. I'd almost venture to say it was a tad sweeter and denser, but after three years I can't be sure. It was bursting with flavor and so delicious that I don't know if there is anything better in the whole world. Unfortunately it was once again served with the al dente ridged pasta. This continues to be a mistake; the pasta is not soft enough to let the sauce cling to it and its own flavor doesn't react well with the sauce. The sauce was much better with the bread, even though the flavors of the herbed bread and spiced bread could not compete with the sauce. If I go again, I'll ask if I can have the sauce without the pasta, but I cannot imagined going there and not having it. Apparently, many other people feel the same way as the restaurant has had to keep this item on its menu for ten years.
Lola had the Lobster panzerotti in a spicy lobster brodo with "Diavolicchio" ($18). Panzerotti, by the way, are similar to ravioli. Lola really liked the dish, I tried it and even though I don't like lobster, I can imagine I would go wild for it if I was a lobster lover. The sauce was bursting with lobster flavor; it was like lobster at its bare essence.
We were both pretty full by then (I, who had made the mistake of having too much bread, more than Lola) but we still had our main dishes coming. I ordered the seared lamb chop resting on lettuce wrapped "timpano" of braised lamb shank in red wine reduction ($31). The lamb was again perfectly cooked and also represented the essence of lamb flavor. It was perfectly seasoned so that the lamb taste was intense. The timpano was also quite good, but I think I liked the chop better.
Lola went for the filet of branzino, crisply seared, over warm medley of artichokes, Gaeta olive arugula and potatoes with red wine pancetta vinaigrette ($30). She really liked the fish, especially its flavorful seared skin.
We were really full by then but we both wanted to try dessert. We couldn't decide among the choices so we decided to split them. The chilled mascarpone cheesecake with cascade of Amarena and fresh Bing cherries ($9) was quite good but other than in texture not that different from other cheesecakes I've had in my life. Lola really liked it, though. I was much happier with the Bourbon caramel semifreddo with Amaretti crumbles, and drizzled with chocolate sauce ($10). The semifredo, a dessert somewhere between a pudding and ice cream, was delicious, especially when combined with the rich chocolate sauce. The sauce was so good that next time I'd make sure to ask for extra.
All in all we had a great meal, made all the better by the great company and the wonderful service. I can't wait to go again.
1722 Sacramento Street
San Francisco, CA
Tu-Sa 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.