Monday, December 30, 2013

San Francisco: TBD

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All week I've raved about the amazing food scene in San Francisco.  In a place where all of the restaurants are exceptional, it's hard to imagine the competition isn't stiff.  Understandably, chefs and restauranteurs seem to be looking for ways to make their food and dining experience stand out. Sometimes this works beautifully, and other times it goes horribly wrong.  Apologies in advance for the bad photography, the lighting and my iphone camera didn't work out that well here!

At the recommendation of a chef we met, we made a last minute reservation at a new restaurant, TBD.  The concept, according to the menu, is food inspired by the "primal" means of cooking over an open fire...   Sure...let's go with it.  
The menu is separated by type of preparation: raw, smoked, grilled, etc.  Since the dishes are meant to be shared, we ordered a couple from the various categories.  Each proved lackluster in its own way. 

The scallops, for example, were categorized under the smoked portion of the menu, but were served completely raw.  The waitress explained it was a cold smoke.  Interesting, but not particularly tasty.  They were topped with a frozen fennel granita that only made the cold scallop colder.  
Another strange and unappealing dish was grilled bread topped with butter and seaweed.  The seaweed seemed unneccessy, but added a little saltiness to an otherwise plain dish.  If seaweed wasn't strange enough, the bread was also topped with little sprigs of gel-like capsules. The waitress explained that the "sea beans" were "just a part of the local seaweed."  I know they are trying to be different, but beans filled with salty seawater served on grilled bread?  Someone really should have considered whether this enhanced the flavor of the dish before adding it. 
One of the dishes we did like was a grilled arepa topped with cheese and chanterelle mushrooms.  This was the simplest of the dishes and truest to the original, which is probably the reason I liked it.
We also ordered glazed carrots served over sprouted lentils that were decent.  Although we received about 5-6 small carrots and about a teaspoon of sauce, they were served in a massive serving bowl and only along one wall of the bowl.  I understand the attempt to change the typical aesthetic, but again this seemed to be a silly effort to be different without any improvement in taste or presentation. 
The last savory dish was a somewhat forgettable grilled gulf shrimp.  Served in the shells and with the heads on, these were a lot of work and not really worth  the effort.
The pinnacle of ridiculousness was dessert.  Longing for some sense of normalcy, we ordered the s'mores.  I assumed they would be deliciously cooked over the open flame.  Silly me.  Once again we lost flavor to an unrewarding effort to be unique.  As I should have expected, the s'mores were "deconstructed" and only vaguely recalled the s'mores of my childhood.  Sometimes this type of riff on the original is great , but here the flavors totally missed the mark.  The chocolate on the bottom of the bowl was gooey like caramel but chalky in flavor.  The marshmallow foam-like substance was weak in flavor, and the graham crackers were mere crumbs scattered on top.  There was nothing decadent or particularly sweet in this dessert. 
Perhaps because she sensed my overall dissatisfaction, the waitress was nice enough to bring out a large scoop of their spiced soft serve ice cream.  Again, the scoop was stuck to the inside of one wall of the bowl. Creative or just trying too hard again?  That said, the flavor was one of the better things we ate.

My takeaway is that there is a reason man has evolved beyond the "primal" means of cooking used here. While I admire and generally encourage creativity in the kitchen, taste should always come first.  TBD seems to have lost sight of that.

All this aside, it's a testament to the San Francisco food scene that chefs are working so hard to stand out and make their mark.  There is really no city in the world that has the same vibe as SF, and it was a pleasure to explore the food and culture from so many different angles all week.


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