Um, Waiter, There's A Fly In My Zuppa
I don't know how it is in other parts of the city, but it seems like the food and restaurant atmosphere was better in the South of Market during the dot com boom.
At least that's how I remember it.
I don't know. Maybe it's because it's been a while since I've been to a trendy and pricey restaurant. Maybe it's because I've found it hard lately to be satisfied with any dining out experience, excluding New Woey Loy Goey in Chinatown.
Perhaps it's just that I miss some of the restaurants that were around during that period. One of those restaurants was in what I call the "restaurant graveyard" on the corner of 3rd and Folsom (320 Third Street). Bruce and I have lived in the city for over 6 years now (though we have worked in it much longer), and it seems like almost every year there's a new restaurant there. So far we've seen the following different cuisines represented in the same space: Spanish (Catalan), Argentine (Latin fusion), Asian fusion, Sushi, and now Indian. The Asian fusion place was called the SOMA Café and is the one I miss because it was just so damn good, reasonably priced, the entrée's were professionally presented, and the chef even came around to ask folks what they thought and how they liked the food. Nevermind all of the soju we drank there!
The other place was Infusion (555 Second Street), which for a while was not only a cool bar (and a cool bar concept), but also a cool bar with good food. The gimmick was all of the infused vodkas, made from scratch, which sat in gallon-sized jars above the bar. It was always interesting to see what they were infusing, but my favorite was a cucumber vodka that made a killer Bloody Mary. Mind you, this was not the same as the new flavored vodkas Smirnoff has been pushing lately, most of which just sound gross. Unfortunately, I think that when 21st Amendment opened it just sucked away all of their business. Either that or the regular clientele resented being situated so close to what is the typical MoMo's crowd (please don't ask for explanation).
And last, but not least, there was Café Monk (564 Fourth Street), who despite having a hideously neon green 7 foot painting that overshadowed their main dining room, served some of the best American/California cuisine around. I’m not kidding; the chicken potpie was to die for.
And while it was consistently busy, it never felt crowded, even if you were sitting at the large communal table on the bottom floor. Of course, sitting upstairs by the large warehouse windows was always a favorite experience of mine. I remember us being there during the cold rainy season (probably December). It was slow and, besides a few other diners, we were the only ones seated upstairs. Around us were empty tables covered in white, with small candles flickering light off of the crystal clear wine glasses and polished silverware. The light in the room was subdued, used mostly to illuminate the portraits of various jazz musicians hanging from the brick walls. The light shining against the windows was that streetlight peach. It was raining and small streams of water were running down the windows. Cars and buses below splashing through large pools of water played along with the "ch-ch, ch-ch, ch-ch" of the jazz drummer hitting his high-hat cymbal. Wintertime in San Francisco has a whole other meaning. And while it was apparent at the time that we were living through the winter of the famed new Gold Rush, we had no idea that this was also the beginning of winter for Café Monk.
All of these memories about Café Monk and of the food from a few years back came up last night when Bruce and I decided to venture into Zuppa, a new Southern Italian restaurant that has opened in the same spot Café Monk use to occupy. The restaurant basically has the same set up as Café Monk (minus the horrible painting, though it's replacement was also another "abstract" piece), only there seemed to be more tables squeezed in. It isn't as bad as Fringale but, nevertheless, when you've got a lot of junk in your trunk like I do, it can be slightly uncomfortable. Also changed is the entrance to the restaurant which, instead of being right off of 4th, is further down the side street. In my opinion, this is a bad layout. First, there's no lobby (as small as it was) anymore to wait in or, as I like to do, decompress in. Second, it must be disruptive to the people who live right across the street (it's a very small street) to constantly have people hanging out, coming and going.
Your eyesight is perfect - the picture is fuzzy. Sorry.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Beforehand, I brushed up on reading what little reviews there are of Zuppa since it opened in June. Probably like you, I'm always curious as to what other people are saying, even though I try to take any review with a grain of salt. The reviews I've read all (for the most part) said that while the food was great and plentiful, the service was off.
Let's first tackle the aspect of the service being "off". Actually, the service was the best I've had in any restaurant in a long, long time. I know it's silly, but one of the standards I use to measure a restaurant is how often my water glass is filled. So, taking that into consideration, can I just say that for the whole meal I never once saw the bottom of my glass?
As soon as we arrived (we had reservations for 8:15, but arrived closer to 7:55), we were seated. Immediately, we were greeted by the waiter who took our drink orders. Very soon after, we were asked what we would like to start with. We started with the cured meat appetizer of thinly sliced Soppresata, which is a spicier-than-usual salame, and the house-made fennel sausage served hot in cast-iron skillet. Soon after taking our first order, both appetizers arrived. The Soppresata was spread out over a wooden cutting board that sat on a stand over the table. Along with that came 4 large chunks of focaccia and some tomatoes that had been marinated in balsamic vinegar and olive oil. The combination of the three typified exactly what I love and expect from Italian food. My one, and only, comment about the focaccia was that it was too spongy and a tad too salty. Of course, L'Osteria del Forno has ruined me since having their uh, dyn-o-mite! focaccia.
The house-made sausage was mild, but also very good. The fennel taste was mild, but it definitely tasted of fresh fennel and not fennel seed. It was a tad oily, which is fine, but could have used something to balance out the grease, like say, a non-focaccia style Italian bread to eat it with. We asked one of the servers about the sausage and they were very forthcoming in describing it, as well as joking about how the chef often eats three of them at a time. In general, the staff we encountered were extremely competent, intelligent, nice, and down-to-earth. And to tell you the truth, even the customers seemed pretty nice and down-to-earth and, I'm like, am I in the same city?
After finishing our first course, we were ready to order our entrée's. It's a good thing we didn't order a pasta course, like the table beside us, because we would've totally overeaten. Zuppa seems like a place to either make like a hungry, hungry hippo, or share courses between friends. A lot of friends. The pasta course the table had next to us looked rather nice, especially in the large, uniquely colorful serving bowls the pasta came served in.
Forsaking the pasta and all of the countless other things on the menu that looked great, Bruce ordered the "Costoletta di Maiale con Conserve di Arance", or mesquite grilled double cut pork chop with an orange conserve; I ordered the "Agnello Arrostitto", or lamb t-bone with "sugu di funghi", ie., mushroom sauce. To tell you the truth, we actually realized we had entered the realm of Meathenge just a little too late, so we ordered a side of roasted potatoes to at least soothe our veggie-needing consciences.
After placing our order, Bruce and I sat and tried to talk over the loud din. Yes, the restaurant is loud; very loud. It doesn't help the noise factor that the chef and his team are yelling out orders ala Hell's Kitchen; something which caused Bruce and I to snicker at more than once. And speaking of Hell's Kitchen, where we were sitting was hot – very hot. The kitchen is open and has two live fires raging closest to the left-hand side of the restaurant as you walk in, which is where we were seated. This side is also closest to the door, yet the opening and closing of the door did little to cool things down. We were glad we weren't the only ones who felt we, as well as the food, were cooking, as folks on both sides of us were seen wiping their brows. This morning, my clothes from last night smelled smokey, as if I had been standing next to the grill. Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate this whole "open kitchen" concept.
This photo has nothing to do with the subject at hand.
When our food arrived it looked great. Bruce's pork chop was at least 2-inches thick and came with a side of braised fennel (unfortunately the fennel was cold). My lamb t-bone steaks came paired, side by side, and smelled fragrantly of rosemary and mushrooms. Bruce's pork chop was cooked just the way I like it (slightly underdone), and while he liked it, it wasn't cooked enough for him. Although, Bruce likes all of his meat cooked well-done (sometimes he even asks the waitperson to ask the chef to burn it). To me, that's just ruining a good piece of meat, but then we argue about this all of the time. The compote, marmalade, or whatever you want to call it, that came with his pork chop was really delish, especially with the pork chop; only, although the menu said it was "arance", it tasted more like "limone".
Despite my preference for undercooking meat, my lamb was a tad bit too undercooked. I realize that lamb should be slightly undercooked, but bloody meat has no taste. It definitely needed more time to cook. As lamb goes, it didn't have a strong lamb flavor, which to some who hate the flavor of lamb would be a plus. However, I prefer to taste lamb which is why I often choose it over pork and beef, hello! Also, physically, it was slightly hard to eat and I had to resist with every ounce of humanity just going all neanderthal and chewing it off the bone. That said, it still was very filling, had a nice but light smokey flavor, and the mushroom sauce was definitely a good match. The roasted potatoes were simple, not overwhelming, and balanced with the meat nicely. As I said before, the meat portions at Zuppa are huge. So even though the lamb dish was $20, it was still a good value. After we were finished, I felt like someone had to roll me out the door. Is it too much to ask for valet service?
In the end, our total meal expenditure came to be $62, plus we left a $10 tip for the excellent service. By the way, perhaps it was due to the initial lukewarm reviews regarding the service that resulted in us having spectacular service (though I'd like to chalk it up to my good looks!), because Bruce and I noticed towards the end of our meal what appeared to be one of the owners pacing the floor, scrutinizing the service, and even delivering plates herself. That was nice to see.
While we still miss Café Monk, Zuppa seems like a nice, new kid on the block. Hopefully one that will get better over time and persevere.