Northside SF  

October '09

Hungry Palate
New menu at Presidio Social Club keeps it simple and tasty
By Susan Dyer Reynolds

Chicken liver pate
After taking a break from the restaurant he founded, chef Ray Tang is back at the Presidio Social Club (PSC). He’s brought in talented Derek McCarthy (formerly of the beloved Blue Plate) to help him launch a new menu that is updated but still keeps the focus on comfort.

Tang, known by colleagues as “The King of Pork” after winning a national pork-cooking contest, is a critically acclaimed chef with some serious chops (and I’m not just talking the swine kind). After stints on the East Coast including Daniel Boulud’s four-star Daniel, Tang moved west to work with Wolfgang Puck at Postrio and to help Nancy Oakes open Boulevard. His own restaurant, Mariposa, became a wine country destination in Windsor (people still talk about the pork belly).

This summer at PSC, Tang is bringing back his popular Sunday night pig roast. He recently added a Monday night clambake that reminded me of my summers in Rhode Island (no small feat) with the best-cooked lobster I’ve had in ages – not watery and not rubbery, poached in butter with a little smokiness from the grill  – with mussels, clams (not steamers, unfortunately, but tender little West Coast clams), corn, and potatoes all nestled beside a bed of smoky seaweed in parchment paper.
Our first lunch visit had a bumpy start with the hostess. When I told her the parking machine ate my credit card she became argumentative, telling me that was the Presidio’s problem even though I tried to explain it was the restaurant’s problem if customers couldn’t get past the parking lot. But the visit improved once we were seated next to a sunny window in the lovingly restored military barracks overlooking the beautiful grounds near the Presidio’s Lombard Gate. When the antipasti ($4 each or three for $10) and other starters hit the table, it got even better.

Fish of the day: rock cod
(served with succotash)
Tang likes to make his comfort food using high-quality ingredients, and the San Francisco cliché – seasonal, local, organic, or as I call it, SLO – is evident in every bite from the pesto-roasted carrots to the fresh-off-the-cob corn spiked with chile. Gruyère cheese toast with tomato dip ($7) is a smaller version of the tomato soup and grilled cheese combo ($10). Gruyère is my favorite of the nutty white cheeses because it melts so beautifully, so it’s great for grilled cheese sandwiches. The bread, made by nearby Chestnut Bakery, is so evenly toasted, golden brown and crunchy that it puts any I’ve had before it to shame. When you dip the sandwich into the soup, redolent with sweet yet tangy tomato flavor, the Gruyère becomes delightfully gooey.

The menu moves effortlessly from a childhood favorite to more sophisticated fare like the delicate grilled sardines with shaved fennel ($9). Chicken liver pate ($6) is done right, with the schmaltz (rendered fat) poured over the top, forming a waxy seal. Dipping the spoon is like digging for treasure, which you find in the mousse-like pate beneath. I could have lived without the meatballs with pine nuts and currants ($8), but that’s because I prefer my meatballs savory rather than sweet. Crab cake sliders ($12) were packed with Dungeness crab and topped with a spicy slaw and aioli that didn’t upstage the crustacean. The house-made ricotta with roasted garlic spread ($6) was a winner, but possibly the best starter on the menu, despite its misleading name is the pan-sautéed calamari doré ($10).

Calamari doré, a pounded squid steak dipped in egg batter and pan fried, is a venerable classic (the version at Old Fisherman’s Grotto on the wharf is the best in the City), but PSC’s take is more of a frittata with tender squid tentacles and tubes poking out of warm, soft-cooked eggs. Salinity from Kalamata olive slices adds a nice kick.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good BLT, so I was excited about the “PLT” sandwich – pancetta, lettuce and tomato jam ($10) – which turned out to be one of my least favorite items in all four of my visits. The pancetta was so salty it was almost inedible, the big pieces of butter lettuce were unruly, and the tomato jam was lost. With tomatoes in season, I don’t understand why they wouldn’t use the fresh fruit. Worst of all, unlike the crisp perfection with the grilled cheese, the bread was limp and barely toasted.

The meatloaf ($17), however, rivaled my mom’s (and she made a mean meatloaf) – it was juicy and moist with a caramelized crust and set atop velvety mashed potatoes made just the way I like them: butter, salt and cream, no lumps, no skins.

On our first dinner visit, my dining companion ordered the PSC fried chicken chopped salad ($14). Usually when an eatery puts their name on a dish it’s a standout, but here, not so much. I am a fried chicken addict (it started as a kid with the Chicken Delight car with the plastic chicken on its roof pulling up to our house to deliver a bucket), but both times I tried the PSC fried chicken chopped salad I was disappointed – it was drenched in buttermilk dressing, the lettuce was more torn than chopped (like with the PLT, in big, unruly pieces), and the coating on the chicken was soggy by the time it reached the table. On our dinner visit the seasoning was good, but at lunch it was over-salted.

A colorful succotash added some pizzazz to the lean, mild local rock cod (fish of the day, M.P.), which was lightly floured to add a thin, golden crust; the market whole fish (M.P.), rosemary, garlic and lemon-stuffed branzino, had firm, white flaky flesh and a gorgeous char on the skin. All of the grilled meats and fish that came out of the kitchen had a wonderful smokiness and that same gorgeous char, including the highlight of our three dinners, the côte de boeuf for two (M.P.) – a 30-ounce bone-in rib eye steak finished with an oven roast. Rib eye, the same part used for prime rib, is the tastiest cut of beef – anything with a bone is more flavorful than without, and rib eye is highly marbled (and fat, of course, equals flavor). I’ve had cowboy steak from two other places (like Epic Roasthouse), but PSC’s is by far the best, in part because of that smoky char. With the Frenched bone, it also makes a beautiful presentation, which isn’t lost on Tang – the server brings the steak to the table for a showing, then whisks it back to the kitchen where it is sliced into tender strips.

The highly anticipated Sunday night whole-roasted pig was satisfying – melt-in-your mouth meat with a crunchy rind – but $20 seemed high for a platter of pork with two small pieces of corn-on-the-cob. My dining companion ordered the milk-braised pork shoulder from the regular dinner menu ($19), served with a refreshing fennel apricot salsa and creamy white beans, it outshined the pig roast, and is a dish I look forward to having all to myself next time.

I’m not a huge sweets fan (given the choice between a bowl of fresh English peas with butter and sea salt and a piece of chocolate cake, I’d take the peas every time), but I can’t skip them at PSC. The lemon meringue cake ($8) is the best dessert I’ve had this year. It reminds me of a cake I had years ago at an Italian restaurant: I never forgot it, and I never found it again – until now. The airy, pudding-like cake has two layers of lemon curd and a layer of lemon cream to add a tart freshness, and the flame-kissed peaks of meringue are reminiscent of marshmallows just out of the campfire. My second favorite is one I didn’t try until my third visit: the malted milk parfait ($6) with warm chocolate chip cookies. The parfait had an ethereal silkiness and that great malt flavor. Also good are the butterscotch pudding with hazelnuts ($7), the baked to order chocolate cupcakes ($8),
and the brioche beignets ($7).

Libations are a work of art at PSC – they specialize in making classic drinks (aka drinks my dad would have loved) from original recipes, using topnotch ingredients like fresh-squeezed fruit juice. The Mai Tai ($10) has gained a reputation as a sweet fuchsia-toned concoction served through straws in a scorpion bowl, but the original (created at Trader Vic’s in Oakland in 1940) is described at PSC as “just rum, no umbrella” and doesn’t resemble the frat-boy favorite at all. The throwback drinks are complemented by the elegant yet funky charm of the interior – slow-whirling ceiling fans evoke a 1940s Cuban cafe, while the view from the window-lined front provides a constant reminder of the Presidio’s place in American military history.

Other than the one hiccup at the hostess stand, service is stellar, with a knowledgeable staff that seems genuinely happy to be there.

Two of my favorite new trends are also present: a short, thoughtful menu and doors that stay open
from lunch through dinner.

PSC is the kind of place I can see myself gravitating to often – it takes me away from the hubbub of city life back to a time when relaxing with a well-made cocktail was an art. Throw in equally artful comfort food and a warm, inviting setting and you have a recipe for the good life.

Presidio Social Club: 563 Ruger Street (just inside the Lombard Gate in the Presidio), Monday–Friday 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m., Saturday–Sunday 10 a.m.–10 p.m., 415-885-1888,


A throwback to simpler times mixed with modern flair; 1940s Cuban cafe meets funky, renovated military barracks.

You can hold a conversation without screaming by day; at night it’s a little tougher.

Well lit during the day, but bring your Mini Maglite to dinner.

Meatloaf, côte de boeuf for two, soup and grilled cheese combo, clambake and pig roast (seasonal), chicken liver pate, house-made ricotta, calamari doré, market whole fish, all the desserts (especially the lemon meringue cake).

Ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere and service, taking price range and style of the restaurant into consideration.

We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab.


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