Carew is a prime example of how a stellar pedigree doesn’t necessarily guarantee success: he’s cooked at New York’s Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park and Craft; worked as a menu consultant for Fog City Diner and as executive chef at Florio, both here in San Francisco; and he received good reviews as chef and co-owner of the now-closed Cottage Eatery in Tiburon. But at the bustling Café Des Amis, where several hundred covers per night are not uncommon, Carew seemed uncomfortable with chef-partner Gordon Drysdale’s weighty French menu, and it showed in a disappointing array of dishes.
On my first visit, a late Friday night, the biggest problem was inconsistent seasoning; however, not all of the problems were attributable to Carew’s cooking or kitchen management – some of the dishes were as poorly conceived as they were executed, a double whammy for any eatery. This was most evident in the bouillabaisse I ordered for my entrée ($28). Instead of the flavorful soupy seafood stew I was expecting, I got a small, shallow bowl that contained a few mussels, a couple fingerling potatoes, one rubbery shrimp, and a couple pieces of unidentifiable white fish with barely enough liquid to cover any of it. The rouille, an intense sauce of garlic, saffron and chili peppers that gives bouillabaisse its distinctive flavor profile, was spread on a piece of toast, making it impossible to integrate with the rest of the dish (though the lack of liquid would have made this difficult even had the rouille been free to mingle). One untraditional treat I was excited about in the bouillabaisse, the addition of sea urchin, was also a bust – there was so little of it that the delicate sweetness was completely lost. The table next to ours ordered a gargantuan cauldron of mussels for $25 – expensive for mussels, but a deal compared to the skimpy amount of shellfish I received in my $28 bouillabaisse. My dinner date ordered hardwood grilled steak frites ($27/$37), opting for the hanger over the more expensive prime New York; the meat was medium rare as he ordered it though a bit chewy (not uncommon with this cut), but the fries smacked of old oil, leaving a burnt aftertaste that not even a stiff drink could wash away.
Lunch later that week was an improvement, perhaps because of what we selected. The steak tartare ($15/$23) is one of the best in the City, and the oxtail-beef-shank broth in the French onion soup ($9) added a depth beyond other versions I’ve had. It wasn’t at all greasy, and the thin layer of gooey Gruyère cheese was a marked improvement over the usual thick, gummy sheet. The “crouton” at the bottom was the brown, delightfully sour country bread delivered fresh from Mayfield Bakery (under the same ownership as Café Des Amis). The artisan bread is terrific (and I’m that rare Italian girl who doesn’t care much for bread); however, it shows up with almost every dish, from charcuterie to sandwiches. (Since they own a bakery, a little variety would be nice.)
On subsequent visits during Carew’s tenure, the same combination of uneven seasoning, poor conception and bad execution continued. French classics like cassoulet and coq au vin (both in the $30 range) did not benefit from the California twists or modern takes I think they were going for. On one particularly grim lunch visit, the coq au vin (“rooster with wine”), made with guinea hen (a pheasant-related fowl native to Africa that tastes like gamier chicken) managed to have both dry white meat and undercooked dark meat; the dark meat gave my dining companion the willies when he saw red juices run out as he cut into it. That same visit, the cassoulet – a casserole of duck confit, bacon, sausage, and white beans covered in breadcrumbs – was greasy, bland, and heavy even by cassoulet standards. The mushroom ravioli appetizer ($12), three dense, chewy dumplings, arrived cold and crying for salt.
I checked out brunch with another friend on a rainy Sunday morning and had a more favorable experience with the decadent eggs en cocotte (baked eggs, potatoes, lentils, and spinach), and a decent rendition of Dungeness crab Benedict, though it was pricy at $21, and I make a better version at home. The sea urchin in the sauce, like with the bouillabaisse, was lost. I use the crab butter (sort of like the liver) in mine, which stands up better to the rich hollandaise.
The Ramos gin fizz ($9) was a refreshing eye opener, and I’m happy to see this egg-white-based drink making a comeback. My friend chose a Pinot Blanc (there are over 25 wines by the glass or pichet starting at $8 as well as a good selection of bottles and half bottles), but if you’re not in a wine mood, there is a great selection of Belgian and German beers in bottles and on tap, aperitifs, cocktails, and pastis (a spirit with water and ice cubes on the side).
Good for the neighborhood
Café Des Amis is the latest project from Bacchus Management, the team that receives raves from critics and customers for the Village Pub in Woodside, Laurel Heights hotspot Spruce, and, to a lesser degree, Pizza Antica, which is quickly becoming a Pasta Pomodoro-style chain (I recently spotted one in Southern California at the elegantly refurbished Santa Monica Place shopping mall).
Diners were so eager to try the latest Bacchus offering that they waited behind a velvet rope to get into the long-awaited opening – and when I say long, I mean long. For Tim Stannard, partners Drysdale and Perry Butler, and designer Stephen Brady, turning the old 7,000-square-foot Prego space into a fashionable brasserie took four years of blood, sweat and tears marred by construction issues and a crashing economy. There’s no doubt the beautiful renovation is wonderful for the Marina and Cow Hollow neighborhoods, and in particular for Union Street, which has had its share of struggles. From the Ateliers Nectoux zinc bar imported from Paris to the burgundy-colored mohair curtains and walls to the liberal use of Carrara marble on floors and tabletops, no expense was spared, and it shows. You’ll also find San Francisco’s only working gas lamps flickering on the walls, adding a charming, vintage feel, as well as red leather banquettes, glistening black lacquered woodwork, and heated sidewalk seating. A few steps up from the boisterous bar and main dining room is a chic and more intimate room replete with a blazing French limestone fireplace and a glittering crystal chandelier originally designed for the Ralph Lauren store in Moscow. Even with seating for 200, on most nights it’s tough to find a table.
After the chef shuffle, my first outing started off with a bang – an eye-popping two-tiered tower of raw and steamed seafood called “Le Plateau.” We ordered the “petit” version ($65) and, with two of us, found it difficult to finish (“Le Grand” costs $135, so I can only imagine it reaches the ceiling). Briny oysters were so fresh you could taste the sea, and the cherrystone clams, which I would take over oysters any day, were some of the best I’ve had outside of New England. A generous amount of plump, tender shrimp, cracked Dungeness crab, mussels, and Maine lobster rounded out the two ice-covered stainless platters. With everyone staring at our feast, I felt a bit like the birthday girl at Farrell’s diving into “The Zoo” – that gluttonous ice cream and plastic animal fest that feeds 12 kids – after the servers finish running it around the restaurant to the blare of fire engine sirens and clanging bells.
The next visit, a Sunday supper, brought more issues with seasoning. It’s not uncommon for the top chef to take Sunday off, so I presumed there was a cook in the kitchen that night with a heavy hand. Dishes ranged from good (crunchy salt cod fritters, $13; warm lamb’s tongue salad with baby potatoes, frisée and herbs in a Banyuls vinaigrette, $15) to forgettable (a bland winter vegetable pistou with root vegetables, spinach and herb purée, and vegetable broth, $9) to unbalanced (a market vegetable salad with tart goat cheese that was soured by too much vinegar, $13).
But the biggest disappointment was the whole roast chicken pour deux with caramelized Belgian endive and natural jus ($44). I have a problem paying that kind of money for something I make better at home – even with a free-range organic chicken and a pot full of roasted vegetables, it costs less than $20 (I don’t buy factory-farmed meat, but if I did, I could make a roast chicken with veggies for under $10). When you wait 50 minutes for something (the menu verbiage prepares you), you expect it to be great.
That being said, I’ve never understood why everyone raves about Zuni Café’s over-priced, whole-roasted chicken either ($48). At Café Des Amis, the plating is clean and attractive, with the crisp, golden-skinned pieces arranged in a neat pile (as opposed to Zuni, where the drumsticks stick up out of the brown-hued bread salad and red mustard greens, which always reminds me of a chicken graveyard). The chicken at Café Des Amis is moister than Zuni’s (at least the two or three times I’ve had the Zuni chicken), but the wonderfully crisp skin was extremely salty, as were the juices. The accompanying potato purée was so good I wanted to dive into the bowl, but then I’m a sucker for potato purée.
The evening ended on a high note – the crepe cake and a warm caramel pudding cake with bourbon caramel sauce served in a small cast iron ramekin with a side of heavenly whipped cream ($8). Service also stood out on this visit: our waitress, Katy, was extremely knowledgeable about the menu, attentive despite being slammed on a very busy night, and had an easy-going charm that was the perfect antidote for a raucous, over-stimulating environment. In the past, the wait staff was always friendly but not terribly knowledgeable about the food and sometimes slow, even during off-peak hours. (I also found it annoying that on several of those off-peak lunches, the hostess seated us at small two-top tables when there were ample four-tops.)
The Café Des Amis burger ($14) arrived on a toasted bun, soft inside with a crusty exterior, which provided just the right ratio of bun to burger. The thick patty is ground chuck mixed with chopped brisket, giving it a hearty texture and extra meaty flavor. We added a sunny-side up egg and Roquefort cheese ($2), sheep’s milk because my friend is allergic to cow’s milk, but you can also add caramelized onions, Gruyère and bacon ($1). Though it’s a cholesterol catastrophe, I love the way a runny egg oozes into a burger’s juices. The omelet ($14) was as traditionally French as they come – it had a light, soft exterior (no crunchy brown bits), a hint of fresh herbs, and a custard-like interior; it was elegantly rolled, served over a plate of braised greens, and topped with a smear of triple cream cheese. But the grilled prime beef tartine ($16) was lackluster – the rib-eye was tender with a nice char, but it was more medium than the medium rare I requested.
Just when I was hopeful that the kitchen finally found its groove, a disappointing winter vegetable tartine ($12) came to the table – open faced on the usual sour brown bread with the same bland spinach pistou and root vegetables I’d had in the vegetable pistou, and the veggies were so hard it was impossible to cut them on the soft bread. But I was given hope yet again when the croque madame ($15) arrived – Gruyere and thin slices of ham on toasted brioche (instead of the sour brown bread) with a runny egg on top of the creamy béchamel; it was almost as good as the one I had a while back at Bouchon.
On my first lunch at Café Des Amis, a friend ordered the duck leg confit ($19), which was too salty, woefully dry and served unexplainably with a fried duck egg. My friend joked that he needed the egg yolk to add moisture to the duck. When one of my business associates ordered the duck confit, over a month and one executive chef later, it was exactly the same – salty, dry and disappointing.
This last lunch summed up my entire experience with Café Des Amis: over nine visits, some with Carew in the kitchen and some after he and the restaurant parted ways, the food, like this review, was all over the place.
Café Des Amis: 2000 Union Street (at Buchanan), 415-563-7700, www.cafedesamissf.com; lunch daily 11:30 a.m.–5 p.m., dinner nightly 5 p.m.–11 p.m., brunch weekends 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
Upscale French brasserie meets friendly neighborhood hangout.
Depending on the server, it ranges from friendly but slow to friendly, efficient and knowledgeable.
During off-peak hours, you can hold a conversation without screaming – a good place for a date, a business meeting, or to hear yourself think. During peak hours, forget about hearing anything over the din of the crowd.
It’s bright and airy during the day, but bring your Mini Maglite to dinner. You may also want to bring a magnifying glass as the menu is printed in tiny type.
NOT TO MISS DISHES
24-layer crepe cake, “Le Plateu,” mushroom ravioli, croque madame, French onion soup, steak tartare, warm caramel pudding cake, Café Des Amis burger
WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN
Hungry Palate ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere and service, taking price range and style of the restaurant into consideration.
OUR REVIEW POLICY
We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab.