Dining in the Bay Area, Part Two: Quince
We had the pleasure of dining at Quince during “white truffle week”. After an excellent cocktail suitable before dinner (relatively low in alcohol) in the lovely bar (it is really worth vising on its own), we started our meal at this Cal-Italian restaurant with inflections from Piemonte. The type of dishes I really love together with white truffles are pasta, risotto, egg, potato and pastry – the first two also happens to be the majority of the Italian dishes that gives me the greatest pleasure to eat, even outside of the truffle season. Except from these “yellow dishes”, in Italian restaurants, I really enjoy raw seafood and charcuterie as primi piatti, the cheeses and secondi piatti based on really good proteins (Italians present these in a delightfully minimalist manner). Often I also find good compositions with white truffle together with certain (cooked) seafood and even some “white meat” (ris de veau, chicken), but white truffle does not have a taste that pairs well with all types of dishes, and in my opinion certainly not with sweets. Not only is this a waste of an excellent ingredient to pair it with such dishes, but it simply does not taste good and harmonious in my opinion. Even though the season of the white truffles is too short, during a meal of 5-10 dishes, not more than half of them should include truffles. It is better to focus on truffle quality and to use them generously on the dishes where they truly shine.
Quince’s menu nondiscriminatory had white truffle in all dishes, even the dessert, which is not a good start. Except from the dessert though, the dishes had freshly shaved truffles in generous portions, which is the only way to serve them in my opinion. We had the possibility to shorten the menu with a few dishes, but these appeared to be the best ones, and my girlfriend had to have the same dishes as me who has a much larger appetite. Except from this, the menu was near ideal – at least up to the secondo piatto.
They offered an interesting wine pairing that I was tempted into since I was the only wine drinker during this particular trip. I almost never order beverage pairings or wines by the glass (I am very happy though, when restaurants have a large assortment of good half-bottles or top wines by the glass utilising a Coravin, but this is rare), even when dining alone and having multiple courses that need different wines. The reason for this being that the wine pairing quality seldom is good enough for the level of cooking - but this pairing was an exception. Further on, I find that I am more happy to choose bottles together with truly excellent sommeliers in accordance with my preferences - it is more interesting and can result in more harmonious subjective combinations (I often prefer the traditional combinations, but one still has to pick the right producer, vineyard and vintage/level of maturity for the dishes). Essential is the in depth knowledge of the dishes' compositions among the best restaurant teams, that assures that they can guide you to avoid mistakes in the pairings - how exactly the sauce is made and so on. For different reasons beverage pairings became more of the rule than the exception on this trip. Quince had chosen three French wines, one Austrian and four Italian for the menu. In general though, I was a little disappointed that no elegant wines from California had made the list.
Parmentier, Fresh Run Farm La Ratte Potato, Bay Scallops, Porchini Mushroom. The staff was very generous with the truffles throughout the evening, which I really enjoy; the quality was good, but not among the very best I have had. This course was truly excellent. It was perfectly balanced and all items on the dish had very high quality. 19/20. It paired well with the full bodied standard non-vintage Krug.
Uova in Camicia, Salsa de Foie Gras e Tartufo. The eggs were excellent, but personally I found the combination with foie gras a little demanding, and this is before the question of wine pairing arises. Eggs are very difficult by itself with wine, and the richness of the foie gras demands totally different qualities. The foie gras element of the sauce was subtle though, and I still found the dish appealing. 17/20. The pairing with Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Clos Jebsal 1997 was very successful, and I cannot think of neither a Californian or Italian wine that would have worked this well. Impressive sommelier work!
Celeriac Lasagne, Parsley, Sunchoke, Baagna Cauda. The produce had high quality, excellent texture (very finely cut) and tasted very good, but it failed in creating an interesting entirety being more than the sum of its parts. 17/20. Gut Oggau Weiss 2016 is a “natural wine”, interesting enough, but personally I found it too raw and crude for both the dish and the refinement of the menu in general. Instead, I would have chosen a mature, dry, top quality silvaner from Franconia or a light, but traditional 100% Grüner Veltliner without influence of botrytis or oak.
Vol-Au-Vent, Sweetbread, Pumkin, Savoy Cabbage. The pastry was very crispy and rich, and the dish tasted excellent and harmonious and united very well with the truffles. Personally I am rarely impressed with sweetbreads, because I think they have to be crisp on the outside for this ingredient to shine, but I think that this would be impossible to accomplish within a pastry. If the sweetbreads are not crisp, I think that brain often would be a better choice. 17/20. Gaja Chardonnay “Gaia & Rey” 2015 is a very good Italian chardonnay and a reasonable match with the dish, although too young and a bit warm, but personally since this is really only a substitute for a good white from Central Burgundy, I would rather have preferred an excellent Californian one (in the Lottorai style). There are some really excellent white Italian wines, but they are based on Pinot Bianco in the Dolomites (in essence more Central-European though) or different rare, indigenous grapes further south - these wines are even more interesting. I must admit that top examples of the latter are hard to find without help from an excellent sommelier and a special cellar - they are rarely if ever exported. I have had the pleasure more than one time at La Pergola in Rome, which used to be one of my favorite restaurants in Rome, but it has become too molecular; the setting, service and wine list is still breathtaking though. In Northern Italy the best restaurants do not focus on whites based on these rare grapes.
Fagottini alla Fonduta, Fontina valle d’Aosta. This dish was nothing short of spectacular: Very good pasta cooked perfectly and with just the right amount of cheese for the truffles to really sparkle. 19/20. De Forville Barbaresco 1995 was in my option a very good choice with secondary aromas while still having some sting from the tannins, although not being a very complex wine.
Acquerello Carnaroli Risotto, Black Trumpet Mushroom, Lardo. Once again, a nearly perfect dish: Excellent consistency, deep, complex and harmonious tastes – and this is before the truffles came. 19.5/20. Renato Ratti Barolo 1971 was aged to perfection and melted together with the dish – it still had some freshness in the fruit, pleasant acidity, while the tannins were smooth as silk. Since not being a big Barolo, I was impressed with its youth – my compliments to the cellar. Nebbiolos - and in particular Barolos - are wines that I find really boring to drink before they have developed really mature aromas. Then they are transformed as a vintage champagne is rather than just being refined, like Bordeaux, Vintage Port and other wines high in tannins. At this stage of development I further find Barolos to be excellent partners for white truffles (young Barolos are hideous with this delicacy).
At this stage in the meal, I think it would have been almost impossible to keep the same level for a secondo and dolce. Personally, I would have chosen game like squab (without truffles) without a heavy sauce or a fish baked in salt crust, and finished off with a light citrus dessert. Since this would have been impossible to combine with truffles, something near the opposite had been selected.
Turkey Cardinale, Brussels Sprout, Chestnut, Parmigiano Reggiano. The dish was elegant, but a little boring, but it was certainly in the spirit of the Holiday season. A very rich dish could be considered too much after so many filling dishes, but a more interesting one would have been a better choice – even though the truffles would have had to go. 16/20. The Antinori Tignanello 1988 tasted well, but was a little overpowering for the light meat. Normally, I prefer 100% Sangiovese Tuscans, which have more character of the Tuscan terroir and therefore pairs better with the local, and even other Italian regional, meat dishes. This particular dish, although not being particular "Italian", would still have done better with a less tannic wine with elegant red fruit - a lighter, almost Burgundian style some modern Brunello producers actually make.
We did not have any room for cheese at this stage, so we headed for dessert.
A Dog in Search of Gold, Hazelnut, Quince, Dulce Chocolate. It was not a bad dessert, but the inclusion of truffles was a mistake - but if you absolutely must have them in a dessert, this was probably a honest try. 15/20. Chateau d’Yquem 1999 is an excellent wine, but from a weak vintage, and it paired well with the dessert.
Except from the secondi piatti and dessert I have few severe errors to mention besides the following. Even though the quality nearly was on par with the best you can find in Italy, the prices were astronomical. 600 USD (+500 USD for wine pairing) per person plus taxes, SF mandate and tips are multiple times that of its Italian role models. In fact, even in Paris this price level is seldom reached if not drinking very good bottles. It was probably the best Italian meal I have had outside of Italy, all the wines were good, some very good, but the markup again considerable. The service was exceptional, the ambiance tasteful and pleasant. Rating of the meal: 17.5/20 (my first visit to the restaurant). I will definitely return but not necessarily during truffle week.
Note: Photos are from http://www.quincerestaurant.com and does not reflect the dishes on the menu above.