Thursday, October 09, 2008

Inventive food @ Orson

508 Fourth Street
San Francisco

An impulsive choice turned out to be a good way to celebrate my birthday. Orson was fun, and the desserts were genius.

Chef Elizabeth Falkner has been known for her pastries since she opened Citizen Cake Patisserie and Restaurant in 1997.

Reviews of Orson frequently use the words "edgy" and "modern" in describing both the food and the decor. The most eye-catching feature of the place is the 30-seat bar in the round, with a large striking pendant lamp above. (I believe it's a design called "Big Bang.") The interior has the vibe of a hip loft apartment, with bare white walls, dark wood floors, exposed steel beams and abstract art.

The cocktail menu had interesting takes on classic drinks. I was tempted by the celery gimlet -- gin, celery, lime and agave nectar. But I ordered "the modern," curious to see what the result would be with a mix of bourbon, lemon, apple and mint. The drink was refreshing, a little like a mojito, a little like a mint julep.

With our drinks came a small bowl of toasted brown and white rice, a pleasantly crunchy and salty nibble. We asked for the chef's tasting menu, which was described as the chef's choice of dishes of the menu in three courses, but it appeared as a continuous parade of small plates.

First were shotglass servings of different soups, a puree of roasted red pepper and another of pumpkin.

One plate contained hefty beef bones cracked open to serve the marrow. It was like meaty butter, spread on fat slices of grilled sourdough bread and accompanied by half a head of roasted garlic, which I thought nearly overwhelmed the rest.

The most visually spectacular dish was the smoked tempura egg. I had to quiz our server about this; he explained that the egg was soft-boiled, smoked, shelled, wrapped in nori for texture, and fried in tempura batter.

B said the result looked like a chicken, with tempura tentacles forming a neck and wings. From where I sat, it resembled a sea urchin, floating in a sea of scallion broth and a few cooked vegetables. It was smoky and crispy, by turns making me think of American breakfast and Japanese lunch.

We also tasted a summer bean salad topped with nutty-tasting sprouted beans; a dish of melt-in-your-mouth potato gnocchi, served with arugula and sweet corn sauce; and some grilled sardines served with padron peppers and maitake mushrooms.

One entree was perfectly roasted salmon on a bed of brioche-and-bacon dressing. A foam of white vinegar on top offered more texture than flavor.

Since we weren't ordering a la carte, we were pleased to find that the tasting menu included "wondrous pig." How could I pass up a dish with that billing? There was leg and loin, roast and belly, some bacon and a "trotter croquette,"

I was surprised to see a highchair come out at a trendy place like this, on a Saturday night. The party next to us included two young children, who appeared to enjoy their pizza from the wood-burning oven. I wanted to ask for a taste of their French fries, which were cooked in duck fat and served with a browned-butter bearnaise sauce. "I like this butter sauce better than ketchup. May I have some more, please?" one of the kids piped up.

The dessert in the foreground was labelled "the return:" logs of fudgy chocolate, a sprinkle of cocoa nibs, a swirl of deep caramel sauce, a few dates cooked in wine, and a wonderful Thai lemongrass sorbet that had B and I spoon-dueling for the last bites. The crispy paper-thin cracker perched on top was very salty, which contrasted nicely with the rich chocolate.

We also enjoyed the moist apple cake floating in an airy sabayon made from Anchor Steam beer instead of wine. It included a scoop of apple sorbet that was like a condensation of the most intense cider you've ever tasted. Chopped apple in the sabayon had been cooked in root beer; the result was rather like a candied apple.

I wanted to question the creator of this dessert, either chef Falkner or pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez. Did he think: Hmm, what if I made a sabayon with beer? What could I serve that with? Or did it begin with the combination of apples and Anchor Steam? Either way, it was a swell party.

Orson on Urbanspoon

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