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1701 Octavia Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415 ) 775-8500
Cuisine: traditional Italian food, much of it from Piemonte
Minuses: desserts and the fancier, more complicated dishes get tripped up
Don't Miss: tajarin, agnolotti dal plin, guinea hen ballotine
Overview: Dinner Only
My heart leaps with anticipation and yearns for a time gone by every time I read Quince’s daily changing menu. One look at that days appetizers or pastas and I am transported to Alba in the Piemonte region of Italy close to the French border where I had spent a few days vacation and enjoyed some incredible food. It came as no surprise to hear that Chef Michael Tusk, who spent years working at both Chez Panisse and Oliveto, had also spent a significant amount of time cooking in Piemonte and learning the secrets behind this French inflected Italian school of cooking.
The two best dishes I’ve had at the restaurant both hail from this spectacular region of Italy, and both dishes appear frequently on the menu. The first, and my favorite, is the tajarin with butter and sage. Tajarin is an indigenous tagliatelle made extra-tender by a preponderance of egg yolks. The hand-cut noodles are dressed with sage infused butter and a generous dose of Parmesan cheese. Runner up, and still a dish worthy of swooning over, is the agnolotti dal plin; delicate ravioli made plump by three different types of meat, in this case veal, rabbit, and pork. Such a complex filling and a perfect pasta calls for a transparent sauce; here too a little butter and Parmesan cheese brings these humble ingredients to heavenly levels.
Yet another Piemontese import is the sformato, a stalwart of the menu. The flavor of this softly molded custard changes often reflecting whatever is seasonal. Given Tusk’s Chez Panisse pedigree it is not surprising that he insists on the best ingredients and focuses especially on those that are local. It is in his simpler presentations that these ingredients really shine. A grilled squab served with balsamic vinegar dressed greens was superb, the balsamic providing a sweet-tart counterpoint to the richly flavored grilled meat. Roasted quail, however, was marred by an overly reduced sauce so strong it could have been served as a meal in and of itself. A pasta dish garnished with sweetbreads and lobster mushrooms did not deliver the luxury that comes with these prestigious ingredients. Glazed duck breast with quince was bested by the ballotine of guinea hen, stuffed and wrapped in its own skin and served with its own enriched juices. The ballotine exhibited a rich, juicy, meatiness not usually seen in white meat.
Desserts, alas, are a weak point. While the pastry department turns out addictive miniature focaccia rolls that are flavored with anise seeds, intensely aromatic olive oil, a sprinkling of coarse salt, and enlivened by a spicy kick from chili, none of the desserts live up to the expectations raised by the previous courses. True to Italian fashion, at Quince you begin with an appetizer, follow with pasta, and then progress to your entrée, that is if your appetite allows.
Plenty of interesting wine options abound and it is tempting to relax into the banquet seat, sipping your wine and enjoy the atmosphere. Dark wood paneling, black and white photographs, and a few Italian cookbooks resting on a ledge make for a classic and comfortable room, understated and elegant. A little bit Chez Panisse, a little bit Oliveto, and a little bit Pacific Heights; they all come together at Quince in a glorious representation of Italian dining, a touch rustic and very refined.