The Hungry Palate
Over the years I’ve interviewed a lot of celebrity chefs: Food Network luminaries like Guy Fieri, culinary giants like Thomas Keller and Gary Danko, and a few like Eric Ripert who walk the fine line between respected culinary giant and TV cooking show star. Tyler Florence falls somewhere in between – unlike Ripert, he doesn’t have a Michelin-starred restaurant, but he’s more accomplished and respected as a chef and a cookbook author than some of the other popular Food Network fixtures. The fact he’s Adonis in chef’s whites, of course, hasn’t hurt his career; however, his good looks would have grown boring years ago if he couldn’t wok the wok – or at least teach millions of viewers how to break down a recipe for beef Wellington.
It was, in fact, exactly two years ago that we featured Florence on the cover of Northside San Francisco. He had just moved his family to his wife Tolan’s hometown of Mill Valley, and as I sat with him on a cushy sofa upstairs at Macy’s before a cooking demo and book signing, it was obvious he was in love – both with his wife and with her hometown. It was also apparent that Florence was exceedingly grateful for everything in his life – and proud of the fact he had worked very hard to be where he was. Of all the “celebrity” chefs I’ve interviewed, Florence was one of the warmest; perhaps it’s that South Carolina charm (an ex of mine came from Charleston, so I know of what I speak), but he gazed directly into my eyes during the interview and occasionally laid a gentle hand on my knee when he was making a point. One of the things he was most passionate about was his plan to open a restaurant in San Francisco, and two years after we sat on that sofa at Macy’s, he’s done exactly that with the Financial District’s newest hot spot, Wayfare Tavern.
If you expect to see Florence in the kitchen every night you’ll be disappointed, but he has been spied sweating on the line, and he definitely knows his way around a stove, whether there are TV cameras in front of him or not.
Described as Florence’s “flagship restaurant” (indicating his plan to open more eateries in the Bay Area), Wayfare Tavern specializes in dishes inspired by San Francisco cuisine at the turn of the 20th century, and it lives up to that mission statement. In fact, the best items on the menu are the updated classics; the kitchen is less successful when veering into modern territory.
On our first visit, my dining companion and I were stunned to find the place packed at 4:30 in the afternoon – granted it was a Friday, but it wasn’t just the sleek, well-stocked bar that was buzzing; every table, both upstairs and downstairs, was full. We were seated at the end of the bar – a section that, though it is attached to the bar, dips down to table height for a perfect view of the open kitchen with seats for just two people.
The interior, full of dark wood, an ornate marble fireplace, and animal heads on the walls, has a decidedly masculine feel appropriate for the time it is meant to evoke. There are fun touches like heavy pewter chargers and cream and sugar sets that beg to be stolen by someone with a large enough purse, and a room with a red-felt-covered pool table that reminded me more of my favorite fish ’n’ chips joint than it did of the Barbary Coast (with yet more taxidermy, this time game birds). The downstairs dining room can feel claustrophobic with the long bar, bustling exhibition kitchen, and high-backed banquettes; between the crush of bodies and being seated in front of the kitchen, it got so hot I thought I was going into early menopause. The restaurant is deceptively large, with a second-floor dining room and a third floor devoted to private dining that seats up to 80 people.
Florence is a fan of popovers – on an episode of the Food Network series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” he chose the ones at New York City’s BLT Steak as his favorite appetizer. I, too, am a fan, ranking the eggy puffs served with a demitasse of chicken consommé before each meal at the Neiman Marcus Rotunda on Union Square as one of my “Fab 5 starters.” While Wayfare’s are not quite up to par with the Rotunda’s, they’re pretty darn good – crunchy brown outside, hollow and eggy inside. The bus staff is generous with them, too, bringing the basket of airy hollow rolls around several times – I brought one home, which made a lovely vessel for my strawberry preserves the next morning.
My shovel for the evening (a term of endearment for the male dining companions who come along on my tastings to finish the food) was excited to try the shrimp cocktail ($16) because it was served with the fried heads a la amaebi (sweet shrimp sashimi) at a Japanese restaurant. I also love the amaebi heads with their light, crisp potato starch coating; unfortunately the Wayfare version disappointed – the batter was soft and the heads cold after lying over the iced shrimp. The shrimp were appropriately fresh and crunchy, served with traditional cocktail sauce for dipping (which is really all they need) and lemon aioli, which added an unpleasant pungent tang.
I ordered the deviled eggs ($9), which like many of the Wayfare starters could have been a meal on their own. I love deviled eggs (my all-time favorites remain Ryan Scott’s fluffy gems at the now-defunct Myth Cafe), but the mustard crème fraiche and anchovy flavor touted on the menu did not come through, and the texture was too dense for my liking. I wound up using a dollop of the lemon aioli from the shrimp cocktail on each egg, which gave them the bite I was looking for.
“The Bone” ($14) was a roasted organic marrowbone split lengthwise to reveal the unctuous goodness within. But the addition of breadcrumbs soaked up much of that unctuous goodness while the rutabaga jam and pickled shallot overtook the delicate flavor and, like the lemon aioli with the shrimp, added an unpleasant acidity. I know the kitchen is trying to think outside the box, but I prefer my marrowbones the way my mom used to make them – coated in olive oil, sprinkled with fresh herbs and a pinch of sea salt, and then roasted.
The seared Sonoma foie gras ($16) was a homerun, the caramelized lobe served atop French toast with a pudding-like consistency and soft-cooked, sweet onions reminiscent of my mom’s winter stews. The Oregon huckleberry and duck cracklings added tartness and texture, creating one of the best-balanced dishes of the evening.
Both of us were looking forward to the Santa Barbara sea urchin ($18), and though we were disappointed it wasn’t available, I appreciated that our server informed us of the reason: the morning’s delivery had not been “up to standards.”
Seared wild Alaskan salmon ($27) was pink and juicy with a sauce sweetened with smoked honey (a little too sweet and rich for me) and Brussels sprouts with ham hocks that melted on my tongue like a snowflake.
Without a doubt, Wayfare Tavern’s signature dish is the organic fried chicken ($22), something South Carolina native Florence made often with his grandmother. Buttermilk brined, the chicken has a thin crust rather than the thick batter some are used to. Thin crust happens to be my favorite – you get the crunch but not a mouth full of batter, and the meat within is steamy, tender and juicy. They smartly debone and cut the breast in half so it cooks evenly with the dark meat, something rarely found on a platter of fried chicken, and the method produces the moistest white meat I’ve had in recent memory. They also scatter crispy sage, rosemary and thyme over the huge pile of poultry (and what seemed to be a day’s worth of salt) and serve whole, roasted garlic cloves and lemon wedges as garnish. I get the garlic, but the lemon should have been served with the shrimp.
For sides ($8 each), it’s tough to beat heavenly pureed potatoes piped into elegant swirls and topped with a generous amount of shaved black truffles; it’s a deal considering truffles sell for as much as $130 a pound. If you’re a fan of locally foraged mushrooms you’ll love the version here, simply sautéed in olive oil and garlic.
Much to my delight, on our second visit, the Santa Barbara sea urchin was available, and it was well worth the wait. The firm, sweet urchin is set atop a cauliflower ricotta pudding that covers the bottom of the plate and can be spooned up like a thin gelato. One of my other favorite things in the world, fried whole-belly clams, provide texture and a warm contrast to the rest of the chilled plate. Poutine veers from the traditional version (made of French fries, fresh cheese curds, and gravy) and substitutes truffle jack cheese and veal jus ($12). As if it’s not already a heart attack on a plate, there’s also braised short rib, but it was a satisfying start for a cold November night.
The fried chicken on this visit was less salty and complete perfection, while Sonoma pork belly ($24), crispy outside, meltingly fatty inside, was another rustic, hearty winter plate, especially served over a bed of earthy beluga lentils (the tiny black legumes have a lovely shimmer and are so named because they resemble beluga caviar). One of my two shovels that evening decided to lighten it up with the Dungeness crab Louis ($23) – the salad was traditional enough to please purists, but the care taken with topnotch ingredients (organic soft-boiled eggs in place of the usual rubbery hard-boiled) took it to another level. For sides, I had to have the pureed potatoes again (I found myself craving them between visits), and we also ordered the baked macaroni and cheese with jack cheese and breadcrumbs, which was predictably, delightfully gooey and crunchy with a hint of smoked olive oil.
On my first visit, we were too stuffed to try dessert ($9 each). This time, though we were still pretty stuffed, we dove in. Both the spiced pumpkin pudding cake (with Inverness blue cheese, toasted walnuts and honeycomb from Tyler’s backyard) and the sticky toffee pudding (with roasted pears and black pepper ice cream) were delicious, but like much of the menu, overly rich. After an evening of fried chicken, pork belly and poutine, I was hoping for a lighter finish.
My dining companion on the third visit wanted the fried chicken (far be it from me to discourage him), and it hit the spot again. We also ordered the Santa Barbara sea urchin (I’m a sucker for uni), but this time the clam bellies were stone cold.
Smoked Alaskan carpaccio ($16) was the worst dish of all three visits – while the salmon was delicate and subtle, the pumpkin bread, crème fraîche and caraway honey were cloyingly sweet, overpowering and totally unnecessary; but the grilled Monterey Bay calamari ($9) with roasted garlic, smoked chili oil and squid ink vinaigrette was one of the best grilled squid preparations I’ve had – the heat from the chili oil wasn’t overwhelming, and it was supple without seeming like a mouthful of rubber bands.
The Hangtown fry ($23), described as “a dying man’s last meal,” was so decadent I thought we might have to make a stop at the cardiac ward after lunch. It’s hard to go wrong with fried oysters, bacon, and potatoes in an omelet, but the cheesy béchamel almost put me over the edge. The Petaluma eggs were plenty fluffy, and my only complaint is based on personal preference – I don’t like any brown crust on my omelet (usually caused by cooking it fast and high rather than low and slow).
While we didn’t try it, we saw the ubiquitous burger ($18), made with a grass-fed proprietary grind and served on brioche, and a diner near us described it as “juicy perfection.” I also love that you can top it with a sunny side up egg ($2).
Once again we were so stuffed we nearly skipped dessert, but we decided to split the fried apple pie with orange caramel and sage ice cream. What I had pictured (a gourmet version of the McDonald’s staple) was not what we got – the crust was thick and doughy and it was cold. I would have been perfectly satiated with just the refreshing sage ice cream, which I think should be offered on its own as an alternative to all the heavy sweets. Our server confirmed that the pie should have been warm and offered us another, but we opted to have it removed from the bill instead.
On every visit, the wait staff was professional and courteous – it is obvious Florence makes service an equal priority with food and ambiance. From explaining on our first visit that the sea urchin was unavailable because it didn’t meet the chef’s high standards to, on our final visit, the immediate offer to replace the cold apple pie or take it off the bill, service was consistently good.
The large and mostly California wine list is impressive, but so are the mark-ups. Of the 16 available by the glass, only four are under $10. There are some nice choices, like the 2006 Stony Hills Napa Valley Chardonnay, a young wine with considerable complexity (likely because it comes from mature vines), but Wayfare Tavern sells a bottle for $72 while it retails for about half that.
Despite some inconsistencies, Florence proves with Wayfare Tavern that he is more than just a pretty face – he knows how to build a restaurant rich in history, décor and flavor, and the place is packed round the clock with people clamoring to dig in. As Florence earnestly told me two years ago, he wakes up every day happy to be where he is in his life and grateful for his successes. Now he can count Wayfare Tavern among those successes, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
Wayfare Tavern: 558 Sacramento Street (at Leidesdorff Alley); open continuously Monday–Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; dinner only Saturday–Sunday 5 to 11 p.m. Parking in nearby lots and garages; valet after 5 p.m. 415-772-9060, www.wayfaretavern.com
NOT TO MISS DISHES
WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN
OUR REVIEW POLICY