Friday, January 30, 2009

Cliff House Gets Real with New Chef

Remember the Velveteen Rabbit? The plush toy that only became real after it had become shabby from years of being loved?

Well, the Cliff House is kindof like the Velveteen Rabbit.

After years of being loved as a beautiful, historic tourist trap with a shabby rep among foodies, now that local celeb chef George Morrone is in the kitchen, it's finally a "real restaurant"  -- to quote a fellow food nerd who dined there recently.





 

I agree! Last night my friend Mary and I had a pretty fabu time cabbing it out to the dark western shore of San Francisco for a glammy-casual spate of fine dining and cocktails by the sea.

A 2004 renovation added the enormous, 1980s-meets-neoclassical space housing Sutro's, the main dining venue of the facility.

24-foot floor-to-ceiling windows make it a no-brainer spot for brunch or a sunset extravagance, but will diners flock there after dark?









After a delish cocktail of Bombay Sapphire and elderflower liqueur at Sutro Bar -- which occupies one wall of the giant, open space -- we settled in for a rather refined meal that, from the first bite of the silky foie gras amuse bouche, showed that a chef of great experience and skill was running the show. No heavy-handed, clunky tourist fare here.

From forking into "George's Original Ahi Tuna Tartare" (the standout: spicy, delicate, voluptuous!), mixed tableside, through delicately textured Dungeness crab cakes with charred jalepeno, into succulent, paper-thin ravioli stuffed with Maine lobster and mascarpone, we were truly delighted by the food.


Sure, there are a couple of problems. The wine list, though friendly and California-focused, really lacks in the Old World department. Meaning, zero. I'm a big fan of the rustic values rolling out of European and South American wineries, I guess, and it's hard to find such lean, mean wines -- especially whites -- on a Cali-centric wine list like this one. It's kindof a plodder, this list. But to be fair, I haven't spent two hours poring over it, and I don't know everything. Still, I can tell you that wine geeks aren't going to flip their lids over the selection. That said, I was happy to settle into an organic, biodynamic 2006 Patianna sauvignon blanc from Mendocino: fresh, light, and lovely.

We had a funny moment with a rather thick-cut (but so, so, so melt-in-your-mouth) venison carpaccio. Its huckleberry garnish left pools of red liquid on the plate, leading us to mistakenly balk at the "blood" on our plate. (Oh, silly rabbits, us.) It was delicious and lovely to eat, but truly alarming to look at. I worry that more middle-of-the-road diners might be genuinely turned off by the unintentional(?) trompe l'oeil.

We also balked at an overage of fines herbes encrusting our otherwise DELICIOUS Painted Hills tournedos of beef, but when Chef Morrone popped by our table last night, I got up the courage to ask him about it. He was frank and positively unruffled, noting something to the effect of, "I've got some new guys back there, you know? It's a process."

Did I mention the service yet? It was excellent. After recently experiencing some fairly inept high-end service at a union-run hotel restaurant, I steeled myself for subpar service. Good news: these folks know what they're doing, and they obviously give a care. Props to maitre d' John Kirk, who's been with the property for eight years and runs the ship with grace and ease. Loved that guy!

Perhaps it's like Chef Morrone noted last night when I asked him how he's liking the move from past city center kitchens (Fish & Farm, Redwood Park, and Fifth Floor): "I can't stay stressed out at work, really, when I get to look at the ocean all day. It's pretty fantastic."


Give it a whirl, foodies! It's expensive, but to be able to dine on food that is ultra-refined (if not groundbreaking) on such a historic, gorgeous piece of real estate is a true pleasure unique to San Francisco. What a beautiful town we live in.

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