Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Gourmet Pork Shoulder in San Francisco - Perbacco

I mentioned in my recent post about a Memphis Thickburger sighting that I wasn't interested in eating pork shoulder during my trip to the San Francisco Bay Area last week. The area's abundance of great restaurants was one of the major factors that drew my wife and I to the West Coast for a vacation and I wasn't interesting in eating something I have nearly every day at home.

But that was a fast food rendition that was easy to dismiss. On a Saturday night in the Financial District the persistent recommendations of helpful server led me an outstanding gourmet take on pork shoulder that I will be discussing later in this post.

It was one of two meals we had in and around the Financial District that day. We'd had lunch at Yank Sing on Stevenson, where all the food was excellent but the prices were hard to justify. Back home in Memphis we have been spoiled by regular visits to Asian Palace on Summer Avenue where a group of people can easily order more food than they can finish for about $15 a person. At Yank Sing it was frighteningly easy to for two people to rack up a $100 tab. A few of the dishes we had Yank Sing were better than anything I've had at Asian Palace, but most were pretty average and the price tag made the overall experience seem underwhelming.

If you do go to Yank Sing definitely request the scallop balls on a stick. They weren't on any of the carts during our visit but I asked for some after seeing another table get an order. They ended up being the best thing we had at the restaurant, even eclipsing the outstanding soup dumplings.

Despite the big lunch an afternoon of constant walking on the city's hilly streets insured we were still plenty hungry when we arrived at Perbacco on California Street where my wife had made reservations based on a friend's recommendation. I was wearing the same clothes I'd been walking around in all afternoon and felt a little awkward when I first entered the fine dining establishment and realized how out-of-place I looked in jeans, a t-shirt and a zip-up hoodie. My appearance didn't seem to bother our waiter who gave us absolutely exceptional service.

Few things are more disappointing than perusing a menu full of difficult decisions,  asking a server for help and realizing that they have little knowledge of or passion for their restaurant's food. That certainly wasn't the case at Perbacco where our server did an outstanding job of guiding us to choices that culminated in my wife declaring her meal, "easily one of the top three I've ever eaten and possibly number one."

We started out with his recommendation of an appetizer of Burrata cheese with marinated eggplant, fresh basil and a cherry tomato, raisin and pine nut topping. For a pasta course he recommended the walnut tortelli, which was filled with scimudin cheese and served with a brown butter and pear agrodolce.
Both dishes ended up coming to the table around the same time. The Burrata looked and tasted great. The tortelli looked deceptively basic. One bite of it and I was amazed by the perfect balance of flavors. My wife and I shared it back and forth taking tiny little bites to savor every bit of it.
For our entrees she ordered beef short ribs served over roasted corn polenta with morel mushrooms and baby turnips. I ended up giving in and ordering the
capicollo arrosto -- a slow-roasted portion of pork shoulder served with a sancrau* and apple puree, culatello (if you only click one link in this post make it that one) and pork jus. Our server had adamantly assured us that the pork shoulder was one of the absolute best things on the menu. At first I think he assumed my reluctance to order it came from some sort of squeamishness on my part about eating pork shoulder. I assured him that I was fully aware of the cut's delicious potential as it is one of my favorite foods that I consume on a near daily basis. Then I decided that it was foolish of me not to order a cut I love so dearly when it was being so heartily recommended.

The pork was spectacular while my wife searched through her mind trying to determine if her combination of short ribs and polenta was truly the absolute best dish she'd ever eaten. She also said it paired perfectly with the red wine she'd asked our server to pick for her.

I appreciated the care and attention we received in the restaurant despite not looking like normal denizens of the Financial District. Then I had a moment of revelation when I walked past the restaurant's open kitchen on my way to the restroom towards the end of our meal, which had also included several rounds of Italian beers for me. The kitchen staff looked like a kitchen staff; like all my restaurant-industry friends I am accustomed to hanging out with during routine late nights in the Madison Avenue dive bars I frequent in Memphis. Putting a restaurant in the Financial District doesn't change the fact that it is going to be staffed with restaurant workers. I'm sure they enjoyed seeing a young couple enjoying an expensive meal out of a genuine love for food.

One of the most surprising things about walking around San Francisco is realizing just how small it is. Being roughly seven miles by seven miles mostly surrounded by the ocean and the bay has made land too valuable for the city to have room for the kind of steadily creeping blight I've photographed from Hickory Hill to Southaven in the Memphis area. Instead the ultra-dense layout means gentrification naturally flows into any area where land gets "cheap" in the relative terms of the Bay Area.

The dense layout also makes it interesting to see how you can suddenly walk out of one neighborhood into another with almost no transition. This pic in Chinatown was a few blocks before we stepped into the Financial District. As ugly as some of the seas of asphalt in the Memphis suburbs are, San Francisco made me appreciate how good of a compromise the Midtown area of Memphis is. We can walk and bike around while enjoying good food, art, music and buildings with character. But we also get to have grass and greenery. The next day a Bay-Area friend took us to Zeitgeist in the Mission, where shoulder-to-shoulder crowds packed the entire outside area of gravel and cramped picnic tables. "Why is it so crowded today?" I naively asked. "Because the sun is out, people want to sit outside and have a drink and this is one of the few places you can." The beloved Midtown pastime of porch mingling, where you wander from front porch to front porch in the neighborhood enjoying drinks with friends, isn't possible in an area where front porches and front yards are completely unobtainable.

Since this post deals with San Francisco Financial District restaurants it will probably end up drawing some readers who have never seen this blog before. Those people probably wonder why there has been a sudden shift from food to urban design at the end of the post.

Yank Sing on Urbanspoon

Perbacco on Urbanspoon

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