842 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Date of Visit: Saturday, March 7, 2009
Time: Dinner - 8:00 PM
Server: Jonathon S.
Number of Diners: 2
Food Quality: 9
*To be fair, the ambiance is not quite comfortable and not at all quiet, but the place is very cool - in a good way.
And now for something completely different. San Francisco is not New York City, and despite the chip on the shoulder of some, that's a good thing. It's a microcosm of much that is good (and a little that isn't) about NYC. Sure, you can't get a decent bagel at 3AM within walking distance of most places in San Francisco, but who really gives a damn about that? If your answer is, "Anybody that IS anybody," please delete this blog from your list of things to read in order to save time for early morning bagel munching! But I digress... This blog entry is about great food in a fun city.
Our long weekend's itinerary had space in it for only two restaurants in "the City." We chose Range in the Mission District for our first evening. This area used to be unsafe after dark, but prices in blighted areas have attracted entrepreneurs, and the neighborhood has improved dramatically. While we hoped to arrive for an early dinner (which should have been easy even without reservations) our Saturday had not progressed as expected, having delayed us in Carmel past noon. A late lunch at In-N-Out and an afternoon visit with a friend in Morgan Hill, an aborted attempt at wine tasting at Guglielmo (doing quite well despite the economy), and a pre-dinner workout in the hotel fitness center had delayed our arrival into San Francisco until the prime time dinner hour. We were on a casual schedule, so entertaining ourselves for a couple of hours while awaiting a slot for a 10PM dinner was an acceptable workaround. One of the reasons I'd selected the place was that they were open late - until 11PM or later. We decided to park near Range to find nearby random sources of self-amusement. Luck of the Irish was in full force, and we found free street parking half a block from the place without hassle or incident. We walked past the front door at two minutes before 8PM, peak of dinner rush hour. The place was crowded as expected, but no line out the door or anything. I started to continue on, but my companion suggested checking inside just to see what was up.
We ventured in. The restaurant is very stylish - granite bar, stainless steel tables and chairs, black lacquered woods, glass shelves with chrome brackets, and retro fixtures and appliances. The cool color scheme added to the hip-cool ambiance. The place was noisy inside, fully of happy patrons, and a cheerful hostess greeted me. I led with my best foot forward, "I know you're jammed and we don't have reservations. Since you're open pretty late, can you tell me a good time to come back for a shot at a late dinner?" She smiled and told me that the dining room was pretty full for the evening, and that she had a waiting list for bar table seating. She added, "If you're hungry, you can try to grab a bar seat as they open up, but I don't feel that for you." I laughed and asked, "You're not FEELING it for me? How do you feel about the table wait list?" She quickly explained, "No, no - I don't FIELD that for you. But since you ask, I'm not FEELING it either, at least not any time soon." I assured her that we were not in a hurry, and asked to be added to the wait list. She apologized that it might be as much as 45 minutes as I gave her my cell phone number. I asked, "Dinner's worth the wait, isn't it?" and she assured me it was indeed. I thanked her, and we continued our stroll. I commented that 45 minutes was nothing - to which my partner fully agreed. We found an Irish pub across the street and used their restroom, after which we examined the appetizer menu and beers on tap. We had just decided to walk around a couple of blocks and return here for a beer when the cell phone rang. It was my friendly hostess, Amanda at Range, and she said there was a table open RIGHT NOW if we were interested. I assured her that we were, and by 8:10 PM we were seated at a high-top for two (pictured here) with a liter of San Pellegrino ($6) being poured for us. Whether it was Irish charm, Irish luck, or both, it was awesome - take THAT, New-Age Guy!
We sat at the last table toward the back of the bar area, at the opening of the hallway to the main dining rooms with its rack of coat hooks on the wall - all full. The hostess who seated us pointed out the coat hooks on the wall under the table, a welcome addition for our jackets. There was a tiny sideboard on the opposite wall of the hallway, and people congregated there while waiting to pounce on bar seating. My seat put me next to them and in the path of every server and bus-person dashing between the bar and the dining areas. I took it all in stride (as did the staff), and we became familiar with each other through the next 90 minutes of bumping and dodging each other. I was happy for the lightning quick seating and opportunity to sample the cuisine, as well as the new options of late night dessert that were now open to us, so I had no complaints. Range was opened in 2005 by Phil and Cameron West, a husband-and-wife team. Phil brings back-of-house experience from Bacar's kitchen and Cameron has front-of-house covered from her days at Delfina. It is worthwhile to note that Range already has a Michelin Star, putting it in company with some of the area's greatest eateries, such as Berkeley's Chez Panisse, The Dining Room at Ritz Carlton San Francisco, and Bouchon in Napa Valley.
Seated with a great view of the bar we were able to take in all the activity there. The center of the back-bar was dominated by an authentic, 60s-vintage, lighted, multi-tiered, glass-front refrigerator with rotating shelves - half with bottled beer and half with tall glasses. It turns out that this was a blood bank fridge in its former life - very cool and well suited to its new duties. The bartenders were quite busy making elaborate concoctions of which juice squeezed out of an enormous bowl of fresh fruits was the prime ingredient. A peek at the cocktail menu plus the labor input we were observing proved that these drinks might actually be worth the $9.50 price tag. I told Jonathon, our waiter, that we were starting with some "frou-frou" drinks. I was drawn to the Third Rail, but ultimately chose the Blood Bank. My companion picked a Vin de Pamplemousse, which turned out to be deliciously tart with a hint of mild spice. The Blood Bank was at once spicy, fruity, sweet, and tart - absolutely worthwhile. Someone has taken great pains to develop interesting concoctions with fresh and exotic fruits and liquors. There being no specials to contemplate, we consulted with Jonathan about the merits of menu choices and wine pairings. He advised us efficiently and impartially, asking good questions, and making specific recommendations. Since I settled on lamb and my companion wanted fish, he recommended the 2006 Jean-Paul Thevenet "Vielles Vignes" Morgon Beaujolais for $49, heading off my cocked eyebrow with assurances that it was in no way a Noveau Beaujolais. He was spot on - the wine had a light ruby color with mild raisin an cranberry aromas. It's mouth feel was smooth balanced with flavors of tart cranberry and the dark cassis. No tannin at all, but rich and mildly fruity - complementary to the lamb and not overpowering to the fish. It even added a little pop to the excellent appetizers.
What we had with menu descriptions...
(the menu is also very cool, including the deliberate failure to capitalize words)
Vin de Pamplemousse - square one vodka, arneis, grapefruit, vanilla, lemon 9.50
Blood Bank - gosling’s black rum, walnut orgeat, blood orange, lime 9.50
purée of asparagus soup with sour cream and breadcrumbs 8.00
parsnip purée with a poached farm egg and black truffle butter 14.00
petrale sole with shaved fennel, fingerling potatoes and a grain mustard sauce 24.00
pan roasted lamb sirloin with butter beans, radicchio di verona and lucques olive tapenade 24.00
cheese plate: crottin de champcol- pasteurized french goat’s milk cheese with housemade panforte 8.50
While the food was amazing, I must lead off with a word about the service. Amanda, the reservation hostess, the seating hostess, Jonathan our waiter, the bartenders, the bar waitress, and numerous bus-persons attended to our every need before it even became a thought or question. Glasses were filled and refilled, bottles and dishes brought and removed, crumbs swept, napkins folded, every nuance attended seamlessly by the entire team. There was no assignment of duties or egos - any passing employee who saw something that might need doing simply did it in passing, and would have done so invisibly had I not needed to bump and dodge most of them frequently due to my seating spot - a fact that frankly added to the sport of the evening. The front of house team was seamless and perfect. This was a special treat for denizens of Utah, where service with a scowl is an upgrade in many places, even high-end ones. Let's discuss each plate in turn:
Asparagus soup - Fresh pureed and warmed rather than cooked - it was like an explosion of green and cream in the mouth. The dairy added to the mouth feel and creaminess while the bread crumbs provided some delicate crunch. I felt my vitamin counts go up as my palate was teased with the freshness of it all.
Poached farm egg - The fact that many chefs are discovering anew some old world peasant foods with modern preparation techniques is a boon to society. The parsnip puree was something better than mashed potatoes could hope to be, providing a lovely cushion for the perfectly poached, fresh, organic egg. Truffle butter added a hint of earth to the dish, which was a blend of solid and liquid textures to delight the senses. Confessions of an egg lover - I could eat one of these every day for the rest of my life.
Petrale sole - As fresh as it cold Pacific nearby, it was delicate and flaky. I'm no fan of fennel, but the conservative application plus the grainy mustard contributed an earthy background that played into the fingers of the Beaujolais masterfully. A solid home run.
Lamb sirloin - The weakest of the players by the thinnest of margins, it was still excellent, fork tender, beautifully bold in flavor, complemented adequately with olive, arugula and beans. The latter were an experience all on their own, clearly fresh, local, and organic. I had no complaints at all, and the lamb did pop a little with the Beaujolais. I would order it again.
Cheese plate - The three cheeses were substantially different and all delicious. My companion had asked for regular coffee to accompany hers, while I had elected to stick with the wine. I was shocked when the coffee had not appeared within thirty seconds after the cheese, and quickly caught Jonathan's eye. Busy as he was, he was never more than 60 seconds out of range, nor too distracted to observe if he was being sought after by any patron. I simply asked, "Coffee?" and the man visibly winced. I know the look - it's the expression of someone who NEVER makes mistakes or forgets anything remembering that something was overlooked. I waved off his apology with a smile, and the coffee with cream and sugars appeared on the table within 30 seconds, and never appeared on the check at all.
This was as close to a perfect dining experience as I have had in two years.
We followed our excellent dinner and cheese course with something that would have been unthinkable ten years ago - a stroll around San Francisco's Mission District at 9:30 PM. The area is on the cusp of rediscovery, sporting an odd mix of bombed-out crack houses, boarded-up movie theaters, creepy discount and used-item stores, seedy liquor stores, and Popeye's Chicken equally peppered with cool clubs, upscale restaurants, many trendy retro decor and clothing stores, and a few Central American banks. With the rough economy, it's difficult to guess which direction the area will take - progression or regression. The street was populated with young, trendy club-hounds, couples of all types seeking food, drink, or other conventional entertainment, and a few (clearly well-fed) homeless types - all non-aggressive. On Mission Street itself we stumbled across a place called Foreign Cinema, at first glance an art film theater, but actually a restaurant that shows films. Being a fan of both, I had to check it out. Another very cool place, the entrance appeared to be a long hallway to the theater, but was actually an enclosed area between two buildings, the back rooms of which had been converted to the restaurant's use. At the farthest reaches is an open courtyard, partially roofed and canopied, with a movie playing against the whitewashed back of the building on the next block. Very cool, very secure, and completely fascinating. We did not have a chance to eat there, but it looked like a winner based on observation of the diners and the food on their tables. You can check out a good review of the space and brunch on Hass's excellent NSAaM blog on Foreign Cinema and an adequate review of the Foreign Cinema's food on Foodnut's ad-cluttered blog. I noted they were showing PI, an excellent black and white film by Darren Aronofsky that won a Director's Award at Sundance in 1998 (before they became completely full of themselves and useless). Since no sound could be heard, I asked the very friendly hostesses if it were even possible. They laughed and pointed out the obvious fact that the film was more for atmosphere than watching, and added that a few of the tables had drive-in type speakers for those who wanted to listen. An interesting concept, apparently well-executed and "cool." We may have to try it on our next visit to the area.
Though I rarely recommend other reviewers, Haas also likes Range and lists it as a favorite - a rare accolade from him. I did not read his review until after my experience, and it's very informative. Check it out: Haas on Range (unsubtle pun intended)
Range - UNCONDITIONALLY RECOMMENDED for a worthy, inventive meals, excellent service, and unusual cocktails - all at reasonable prices
Highs: Cool place, people, and patrons; ever-changing, inventive food; top quality ingredients; stellar service; creative and refreshing cocktails
Lows: None, but you may get the worst table in the house if you don't reserve (at 8PM on a Saturday)
Bon Appétit! - W. Ego