Restaurant Review: Quince, San Francisco

Pasta will never be the same in this town.

It would be very easy to call Quince the best Italian restaurant in San Francisco, but saying that it’s better than the likes of Delfina, Pazzia, Incanto, Frascati, A16, or Acquerello, all of which might be able to make that claim, is to fundamentally mis-classify it and even more tragically, underestimate the work of chef and owner Michael Tusk. Quince has chosen an unexpected, quietly residential location in lower Pacific Heights, and just as quietly it has redefined San Francisco’s notion of what Italian cuisine can be, among other things.

For a restaurant that so quietly slipped onto the scene, it has certainly garnered a lot of attention. I tried making reservations probably half a dozen times, only to be offered time slots like 10:30 PM on Tuesday night before I finally got one that I and a couple of friends could make. They are consistently booking out over a month in advance, which is easy to understand when you arrive to see that the restaurant is merely a single street-level room in a converted Victorian storefront that seats maybe sixty at a stretch. Have a meal there, and it’s even easier to understand why San Francisco gourmands are snapping up every sitting.

Every dining experience at Quince begins with a journey away from the surrounding nightlife centers and into the sleepy neighborhoods streets of Pacific Heights. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to miss the glass front of this former apothecary shop, which fits so nicely into the surrounding block of residences, only distinguishing itself on foggy nights by the warm golden glow that seeps out to illuminate your way in the darkness. Step inside that glow and you find yourself in the arms of comfort and elegance, and in the capable hands of co-owner Lindsay Tusk who can be credited with orchestrating a dining experience that is easygoing and calm while maintaining the finer points of top-notch restaurant service. Tusk honed her talents managing the front of the house at Boulevard among other places, and has created an atmosphere here that is diametrically opposed to the frantic “bistrosity” that Boulevard embodies.

From the ornate but not over-the-top period furnishings and intact architectural features of the restaurant’s previous pharmacological life, to the soft-but-not-too-dark lighting and international jazz music selections, the single dining room manages to elevate itself beyond the simple square space that it actually is without getting in your face. Tusk has ensured that the service is just as refined ” warm with a formality befitting a fine dining experience that never crosses the line into snobbery.

While his wife is working to ensure that the small dining room never descends into chaos Michael is busy working to ensure that his food never descends to the ordinary. In his review of Quince, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer described Michael Tusk as a man who fundamentally had a respect for his ingredients, no doubt in part due to his years spent at Chez Panisse, and I couldn’t agree more. Tusk has an extraordinary control of the flavor and texture of his food, and seems to maximize their impact on your palate whenever possible. Mind you, this isn’t garish ostentation, but something much more poetic and appreciable.

The menu at Quince changes nearly daily, much to the delight or disappointment of regular diners, depending on what type of eater you are. As a result my descriptions of dishes cannot serve as recommendations for your visit to the restaurant, only guideposts for the sensibility and talent of the chef.

My meal began with one of the best salads I have had in years: a duck and quince salad (how could one not try it?), delicately mixed with greens and a light dressing that defied analysis of its ingredients. The duck was somewhere between roasted and confit ” soft with a little crispness ” and richly flavored to match the subtle sweetness of the quince, which presumably had been baked to softness. My dining partners all agreed this was the star appetizer, however we also devoured with glee the other dishes we had ordered: a small bowl of delicately spiced lamb meatballs, a salad of roasted beets and ricotta dura (a sort of dried ricotta) with small pomegranate pips, and a

Quince’s menu is set up like a traditional Italian Ristorante, with first, second, and third courses, with diners expected to choose one of each. If, like me, your eyes widen in fear anticipating the Italian size portions that nearly did me in the last time I traveled to Tuscany and had all three courses, I can assure you that you want to order all three. My party of four ordered only three second plates and found ourselves fighting each other for the scraps. The portions are set to be enjoyed by one, and the pastas that make up these second courses are heavenly. I’m not a big mushroom fan, but if Tusk wanted to come to my house and make me his gnocchi with black chanterelles, I’d eat them every night. First of all, what the heck ARE black chanterelles anyway, and who knew that with a little cream, chicken stock, and fresh herbs they could dissolve into one part earth, two parts caramel-buttery goodness, and one hundred percent ambrosia. For my money, black truffles ain’t got nothin’ on black chantrelles, at least in Tusk’s hands.

Our other pastas included the fascinating Pici pasta with Mavalwalla goose, a sort of rich poultry Bolognese-style sauce with handmade noodles (actually ALL the noodles are hand made here to my knowledge); ravioli filled with fonduta di raschera, which I had never heard of before, but I am pleased to report seems to be made with crack cocaine, as Ruth seems to be going through withdrawal symptoms. I need to take a moment here and try to impress upon you the degree to which these pastas represented a level of mastery of semolina flour and attendant delectables not yet witnessed by yours truly, who has eaten a lot of excellent pasta in his day. This stuff was frightfully good, and the only reason you might ever need to drop that Atkins crap once and for all. These dishes are clearly Tusk’s strength and alone are worth the trip.

Time for the main courses, and who knows where I had taken leave of my senses, but I ordered yet another dish with mushrooms and found myself dreading the point at which I would have to share with my table mates. My Summerfield veal loin was cooked beautifully and minimally spiced, letting the richness of the meat along with the veal sweetbreads and golden chantrelles to concoct a gorgeous musky, melt-like-butter experience. Restraining myself, however, allowed me to sample some gorgeously seared sea scallops over fennel puree with capers, quail with a rich, dark pomegranate reduction sauce, and what might be some of the better tasting turkey I have had in a long while ” done saltimbocca style with sautéed Tuscan black cabbage (cavolo nero) and carrots.

These main dishes shared the delicate touch of the pastas, but somehow lose luster in comparison. They were excellent, and in the case of my dish, outstanding, but somehow did not measure up to the standards set by the middle course. In total the meal was a masterful, if a little unbalanced, experience but one that was thoroughly enjoyable in every element. The food is plated elegantly but without an artful touch that one might expect given the atmosphere and level of service. The kitchen is clearly much more focused on the flavor, and one can hardly complain.

The restaurant’s wine list deserves special mention as it was a delight to behold, both expansive and eclectic with a wide range of prices starting at around $30 and some obscure European selections that show the mark of a dedicated and intelligent buyer. Not knowing much about the meal we were going to experience, I brought a Viognier for our first courses, which paired beautifully with several of our starters, and a Sforzato del Valtellina which was too rich a wine for our meal. I was headed down the Burgundy path, when our waitress intelligently recommended an excellent Vaycqueras that matched perfectly with our meal. Corkage was $20.

The desserts, courtesy of pastry chef Sarah Egri, were a worthy match to the food and thoroughly enjoyed by my entire party. We opted for the buttermilk panna cotta with quince and biscotti (which was one of the best panna cottas I have ever tasted) along with the apple and huckleberry crisp with vanilla ice cream. Both were exquisitely prepared with fresh ingredients. I regret not trying any of their other desserts at the time, especially the Valencia orange sorbet with pomegranate granita or the bittersweet chocolate-caramel tart with Earl Grey cream.

Overall Quince presents a package that I have to restrain myself from being too enthusiastic about, lest I declare it my new favorite restaurant in the city. While I should not let myself give into that level of effusiveness too easily, it is not difficult to loudly sing the praises of this softspoken restaurant that every serious diner in San Francisco should include on their list of must-have meals.

Quince Restaurant
1701 Octavia Street (at Bush)
San Francisco, CA 94109

Open 7 days a week, 5:30 to 10:00 PM, open until 10:30 on Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations an absolute must, several weeks in advance.

Street parking in the neighborhood is plentiful.