With world-class chef George Morrone at the helm, Sutro’s food finally worthy of world-class viewsThe Tablehopper
By Susan Dyer Reynolds
It was a dark and stormy night … I’ve always wanted to have a reason to write that, and it finally happened on a recent rainy, wild February evening as I left the majestic Cliff House. The air was thick; the breeze almost warm as I watched the black waves crash against the rocks, relishing the dinner I’d just eaten at what is one of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks. Just a few years ago, I walked into a similar dark and stormy night in a dark and stormy mood – all I could think about was how sad it was that a restaurant with views so grand was turning out food so mediocre.
In September 2004, what was essentially the fifth incarnation of San Francisco’s only oceanfront restaurant reopened to the public. Featuring an extensive (nearly $20 million) restoration of the neo-classical structure built by Adolph Sutro’s daughter, Emma, in 1909, and adding the new Sutro Wing, which houses a dramatic two-story focal room, the intent of the appropriately named Sutro’s was to create more sophisticated cuisine; the polar opposite from the basics at the bistro upstairs. With dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows stretching from the lower level dining room to the bar above, Sutro’s showed off, for the first time in the Cliff House’s existence, the stunning northern views of the Marin coastline, the Sutro Bath ruins, and the entry to the City’s most emblematic vision, the Golden Gate Bridge.
Opening chef de cuisine Patrick Clark, a Bay Area native who cut his culinary teeth as a member of the opening team of the San Francisco Ritz Carlton in the early 1990s, implemented an upscale if lackluster menu, perhaps pushing too hard for sophistication and being a bit too literal, with creations like the Dungeness crab Sutro Roll, a concoction of crab, fresh water eel, avocado, and tempura “crispies” that tasted as if it had been premade and been sitting in the refrigerator for hours.
Over the next few years, the restaurant languished, rarely spoken of by locals except as a place to get a drink and check out those phenomenal views. But late last year, all of that quietly began to change when the Cliff House’s longtime public relations consultant, Susie Biehler, approached owners Dan and Mary Hountalas about hiring renowned chef George Morrone to consult in the kitchen.
The only Bay Area chef ever to be awarded two four-star reviews (for his work at Aqua and The Fifth Floor), Morrone’s reputation preceded him – tough, talented and easily bored. But the role of mentor to chef de cuisine Brian O’Connor was a job undoubtedly made for him – after all, his friend and partner at Aqua, Michael Mina, a world-class chef in his own right, got his start working for Morrone at the Hotel Bel-Air many moons ago.
When something prophetic happened – Sutro’s sous chef gave notice – O’Connor saw an opportunity to learn from a master, and offered to step down, in position and salary, if Morrone would helm the kitchen full time. O’Connor is talented, but needs direction – something Morrone can surely provide. The arrangement has been in place just over two months, and already Morrone’s influence has changed Sutro’s for the better.
The first thing on the dinner menu is classic Morrone – cream of broccoli soup with cheddar cheese profiterole ($10). Besides his tartares, soup is what Morrone is best known for. He manages to make them at once homey and special; the cream of broccoli is pureed and full of flavor, a floret in the middle of the big white bowl topped with prosciutto that has been dehydrated in the oven until crisp; shaves of mild white cheddar that melt to add body; and a béchamel cheese pastry to soak up every drop. Dungeness crab bisque ($12) arrives with a sourdough crostini that stretches the length of the bowl; it’s coated in saffron aioli and resting atop a Meyer lemon risotto cake. Again, both accompaniments serve the soup well, soaking up the fine, intensely crab-flavored bisque and making it more robust.
Anchor beer-steamed Penn Cove mussels ($12), standing on end and fanned out around the bowl, are scented with house-made harissa (a Tunisian hot sauce made with chilies, garlic, coriander, cumin, and olive oil); grilled herb bread follows the theme set by the soups – it’s perfect for dunking in the spicy broth beneath.
Crunchy potato crisps and toasted hazelnuts add texture to rosy venison carpaccio ($14) aromatic with masala, another exotic spice blend (this time from India), and dotted with sweet and sour huckleberries (a berry that closely resembles a tiny blueberry but is less sweet).
Whole-roasted local petrale sole ($28) with Meyer lemon and Ardoina Fructus (an estate-bottled extra virgin olive oil from Italy) was a highlight. Petrale, which is not actually a sole but rather a flounder, has a fine, sweet flesh that flakes easily off the bone. (In case you’re not comfortable dealing with the bones, the server offers to debone the fish as it comes to the table.) The skin is sprinkled with Espelette fleur de sel – sometimes called the “caviar of sea salts,” it is fused with Piment d’ Espelette, mild chilies from France’s Basque region; the coarse grain adds texture to the delicate fish. A bowl of chilled haricots verts (baby green beans) is a simple and satisfying accompaniment.
When I was a child, I can remember my mother chastising the owners of a well-known restaurant for serving veal. She never served it at home and, until I became a food critic, I never ate it. The first time I did, I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about – it was, to me, bland and mushy. But the prime rib of veal ($35) at Sutro’s is not my mother’s veal. It comes from Strauss Brands where it is group raised, an alternative to stall-raised calves and considered more humane by animal advocates. The method was mandated in Europe over a decade ago and is slated to be imposed in the United States in 2017. Strauss Brands implemented a 100-percent group-raised program at the end of 2008, a full nine years ahead of the mandated implementation of the rest of the industry, and I hope more farmers will follow their example. The animals’ ability to move and socialize, and the addition of roughage to their liquid diets allows their meat to develop more naturally, so Strauss veal is rich and pink rather than bland and pasty. While it is better than the veal of old, I personally still prefer a full-flavorful hunk of traditional prime rib of beef.
Duet of organic chicken ($26) is a roasted, truffled breast and truffled leg confit potpie – not a miniature version like I had expected, but a full portion of potpie with the meat and vegetables in rich gravy beneath a light, puffed crust speckled with sea salt. The chive potato puree alongside was ethereal and just the way I like it – unfussy; whipped with heavy cream, salt and pepper and sprinkled sparingly with chives.
The lunch menu includes many of the items from the dinner menu along with more casual offerings like a fried oyster sandwich ($16) – warm, plump, briny oysters in a light, crunchy coating slathered with tangy rémoulade and shredded coleslaw on toasted focaccia.
“George’s Original” ahi tuna tartare ($14) – cherry-hued tuna, toasted pine nuts, crisp Asian pear, red and green habaneros, ribbons of mint, habanero-infused sesame oil, and a raw quail egg – appears on both menus and is mixed tableside. The crunch of the pine nuts and the richness of the egg work well with the mild ahi while the peppers add just a touch of heat.
Spoonleaf spinach and mushroom salad ($11) has a warm bacon and sherry vinaigrette with the mushrooms worked into the dressing and house-pickled pearl onions. Crunchy cylindrical crab cakes ($16) burst with crabmeat, but unfortunately not crab flavor, dominated by overly bold spicing.
Our waiter, Dick, has worked at the Cliff House for ages, and it shows in his professional, courteous service. My dining companion and I were shocked to find no unsweetened, fresh-brewed iced tea served, but Dick stepped up to the plate, ordering an “Arnold Palmer, hold the lemonade,” from the bar. He also informed us of the bacon cheeseburger ($16) available from the bar menu, explaining that when he doesn’t mention it, guests inevitably ask why not as they watch it go by. Good call on Dick’s part: it’s one of the best cheeseburgers in town – a hefty, beautifully charred, medium-rare Painted Hills patty on a soft onion bun topped with thick slices of Zoe’s dry-cured, applewood-smoked artisan bacon and gooey white cheddar. The burger is ample enough to feed two and comes with a generous pile of thin-cut, crispy French fries tossed with parsley and Parmesan. As I tried to fit my mouth around my half, I couldn’t help but compare it to the disappointing Epic Roasthouse burger I paid $20 for several months ago – a supposed half-pound patty that arrived shriveled and dwarfed by the bun (and that twenty bucks doesn’t include fries).
Of everything I tried on my three visits, my very favorite surprised me – the lunch menu’s vegetable potpie ($18). I love chicken potpie, but on a cold, rainy day I can’t imagine anything more comforting than Morrone’s wintry medley of root vegetables (rutabaga, parsnip, turnip, and carrot), mushrooms, and Brussels sprouts, baked in a creamy cheese béchamel sauce that is much lighter than it sounds. It’s topped with the same flaky-but-moist puffed pastry as the chicken potpie, which I pushed down into the steaming concoction, allowing the crystals of sea salt to melt into the béchamel. It was heavenly.
Desserts are a tad uneven, from a luscious white chocolate-banana walnut bread pudding with bourbon-caramel sauce and addictive chocolate-covered frozen bananas ($9) to a less-than-thrilling bittersweet chocolate mousse ($9) with English toffee and Chantilly cream. The opera cake ($9), a Parisian classic made with layers of dark chocolate, coffee butter cream, and almond sponge cake, was quite good, as was the refreshing frozen lemon soufflé ($9), but during this time of the year, I’d rather have a warm lemon soufflé (I’d make a chilly exception for some of those frozen chocolate-covered bananas rolled in that English toffee). I know Morrone has it in him – I still remember the delightful toasted pistachio soufflé at his now-closed Tartare.
Service is as uneven as the desserts – on two occasions it was attentive, but on my first dinner visit, the hostess seated me at a terrible tucked-away table by a window (a great seat during the day, I’m sure, when you can actually see the view). As I awaited my dining companion’s arrival, not a single server stopped to ask if I wanted a drink. Even if they were busy (which they weren’t), a quick, “I’ll be right with you” would have been nice.
I am sure that Morrone, a perfectionist about even the smallest of details, will refine the desserts and work out the service kinks. He’s already begun tweaking the wine list (which is a good thing because it currently doesn’t contain a single light white by the glass).
Morrone’s arrival at Sutro’s bodes well for the restaurant’s future. After only a couple of months, the food is at long last worthy of the spectacularly breathtaking views. If he stays long enough, it could become a true destination.
Not to miss dishes: Vegetable potpie, cream of broccoli soup, Dungeness crab bisque, bacon cheeseburger, “George’s Original” ahi tuna tartare, whole roasted petrale sole.
Sutro’s at the Cliff House: 1090 Point Lobos, lunch daily Mon.–Thu. 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Fri.–Sat. 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. & dinner nightly from 5 to 9:30 p.m. 415-386-3330, www.cliffhouse.com.
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