Click photo to enlarge
Venison with chesnuts, brussels sprouts, pumpkin spaetzle and black trumpet mushrooms, at Quince restaurant December 1, 2009 in San Francisco. (Maria J. Avila/Mercury News)

IT'S HARD to measure up to hype, so Quince had its work cut out for it.

My expectations were quite high when I booked our reservation just days after it was announced Quince (pronounced "kwints," like the fruit) had earned a coveted honor: its first Michelin star. On top of that, San Francisco foodies have been buzzing for months about the restaurant's move from the Pacific Heights neighborhood to a larger space in the Financial District once occupied by the popular Myth.

In anticipation of the move, Chef Michael Tusk, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Lindsay, hired young superstar pastry chef William Werner and lured David Lynch, best known for his work at Mario Batali's Babbo, from New York, as Quince's wine director.

With this all-star cast and fancy new digs, I was prepared to be wowed. The show began before I even walked in: From a picture window along the sidewalk, you can watch at least a dozen cooks perform with ballet-like precision in the kitchen. It's great entertainment if you must wait for your table (which we didn't). Indeed, I was almost looking forward to waiting in the restaurant's sleek bar so I could justify sampling a couple of the sophisticated cocktails created to work in tandem with Quince's Italian-inspired menu and wine list.


Advertisement

The restaurant's design is elegant without being stuffy. The black, white and gray décor is accented with splashes of colorful yet subdued artwork, fresh floral arrangements and even a bowl of pomegranates. A shimmering, see-through curtain reveals the private dining room that's tucked into a quiet corner. Behind the window-lined exposed brick wall at the back of the restaurant lies the expansive wine room.

Lynch, who authored the book "Vino Italiano," has assembled a wine list of more than 700 bottles. It makes for fascinating reading — and drinking. He's included many excellent California and French selections, but the heart of his menu lies in Italy's Piedmont region, which also influences much of Tusk's cuisine. If money is no object, you could taste several vintages from a single producer. If you order by the glass, Lynch's staff will happily help you pick the right wine for your meal.

The pleasures of the food at Quince start with its arrival. Dishes are artfully presented down to the finest detail: On one dish, a single cooked-yet-crisp Brussels sprout leaf cups a precisely cut square of kabocha squash; on another round, paper-thin slices of Japanese octopus and carrot are arranged precisely on a platform of farro, ringed by pomegranate seeds, giving the dish an exquisite pop of color.

Chef Tusk continually tweaks his menu to reflect what's in season. In the short span of days between two visits, the sformato (cooked in a mold) of wild mushroom appetizer ($14) was moved to the top of the list to herald the arrival of porcinis, and was changed to include slices of fresh and roasted porcini along with the sformato, a light and savory mushroom custard. On our second visit, the previously unremarkable sounding monkfish cooked on the bone ($28) became much more desirable when paired with new season scallops.

When you go to Quince, it's best to think like a chef and order what's in season. These fresh ingredients get chefs like Tusk excited and inspired, and you're likely to experience their best work in dishes showcasing these ingredients.

Take, for instance, the French pumpkin and chestnut soup with chanterelles ($10). This is a dish I will think about for years. Like velvet on the tongue and an ideal balance of flavors, it was the taste equivalent of the joy you might feel shuffling through the first fallen leaves of autumn.

Quince's pasta course is certainly its strong suit. Never pass up an opportunity to order gnocchetti ($18). These pillows of potato dumplings (served this particular evening in a light clam and porcini sauce) are impossibly light and have probably ruined my chances of ever enjoying gnocchi as much elsewhere. Ricotta and a vibrant orange egg yolk were encased in a raviolo ($18) surrounded in a sauce of brown butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano — a dish that was rich and unctuous.

The Tortelloni di Castelmagno ($18) was worth ordering just to hear our server's delightful story about the cows of Italy's Piedmont region that make the prized Castelmagno cheese possible. The dish itself — served with honey and sugarcoated walnuts, ideal foils to the salty cheese — was equally delightful, although the sweetness seemed slightly out of place with the main course still to come.

Main courses are executed diligently, although they lack some of the creativity evident in the appetizer and pasta courses — a notable exception being the previously mentioned monkfish and scallops, which clearly got the chef's creative juices flowing. Both this and the striped bass ($32) were perfectly cooked — flaky yet moist so that it came off in glistening chunks. The venison ($31) was so tender it nearly melted in my mouth and the duck ($28) was flavorful without being oily.

Among the desserts, a fig "carpaccio" was positively glamorous plated next to a vanilla layer cake with balsamic gelato ($11). Werner's other desserts — the panna cotta with pear gelato ($11) and the bourbon-soaked pan de mie with caramel gelato ($11) — were equally eye-pleasing.

There were a few flaws. On our first visit, the octopus appetizer ($14) and the sauce and spätzle served with the venison were slightly too salty. A nougat served with the petit fours at the end of the meal was a sticky mess in its wrapper. It took two requests to get more butter for bread. These are all minor quibbles.

Quince Restaurant
HHH
  • FOOD: Sophisticated and elegant, artfully presented in a setting to match. The wine list would wow any connoisseur.
  • WHERE: 470 Pacific Ave., San Francisco.
  • CONTACT: 415-775-8500, www.quince
    restaurant.com.
  • HOURS: 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday (closing hours reflect last seating). Bar and lounge open at 5 p.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations highly recommended.
  • PRICES: A la carte menu appetizers $10-$16; pasta course $18-$19; main course $28-$32; desserts $11-plus. Five-course tasting menu $85 per person; eight-course tasting menu $115. Wines by glass $9-$16; bottles $32 and up.
  • PLUSES: Exceptional food on a menu constantly tweaked in order to showcase the newest seasonal ingredients; excellent and knowledgeable service. More seating than old location reduces wait time for reservations and make waits for tables comfortable if not enjoyable.
  • MINUSES: A couple of dishes were slightly off the mark with elements that were a bit too salty. Be prepared to spend upward of $65 per person for three courses and a glass of wine before tax and tip; Quince is expensive, and penny-pinchers could leave disappointed.
    POLICY
    We don't let restaurants know that we are coming in to do a review, and we strive to remain anonymous. If we feel we have been recognized or are given special treatment, we will tell you. We pay for our meal, just as you would.
    Star key
    H Fair
    HH Good
    HHH Great
    HHHH Extraordinary