SPQR — Where the Chef Has His Hands in Just About Everything

Veal tongue that tastes like your favorite pastrami -- at SPQR.

At San Francisco’s SPQR, Executive Chef Matthew Accarrino is known for his extraordinary, house-made pastas.

But what about the lovely desserts there? Yeah, he makes those, too.

And the whimsical torched marshmallows and molded chocolates with runny caramel centers accented by a plethora of different sea salts that arrive at the end of the meal? Yup, those also are his handiwork.

Not to mention, he and owner Shelly Lindgren just came out with their new “SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine” cookbook (Ten Speed Press).

It makes you wonder not only if this Matt-of-all-trades ever sleeps, but how he manages to do all of this in a kitchen that is smaller than a starlet’s walk-in-closet.

Three years ago, when he first took over the helm at this San Francisco restaurant, whose name is an acronym for Senatus Populesque Romanus or “The Senate and People of Rome,” his food was quite good. Now, it’s a revelation, as evidenced by a recent dinner my husband and I splurged on there.

It’s rustic-refined. It’s all bold flavors and great ingredients fashioned with real finesse by this chef who has cooked with the likes of Chefs Charlie Palmer, Todd English, Rick Moonen, Tom Colicchio and Thomas Keller.

At this always-crowded, long, narrow restaurant, menu prices are moderate, with appetizers running $12-$19, pastas $18-$20, and mains about $28. Accarrino volunteered to just cook for my husband and I, fashioning a personalized tasting menu of a multitude of dishes off the regular menu but in smaller portions.

Strawberry-tomato gazpacho with fried bread and dehydrated strawberries.

It began with an amuse of creamy tomato-strawberry gazpacho garnished with dehydrated strawberries that added a crisp-chewy texture.

I can never resist Hawaiian Kona Kampachi, an oil-rich, silky fish served crudo-style — its raw slices accented with creamy avocado, crunchy sea beans and clever “caviar” fashioned from summery cantaloupe juice.

Kona Kampachi crudo with cantaloupe "caviar.''

Seared albacore with the brightness of capers and citrus.

Albacore was served barely cooked, its meaty texture playing off the softness of eggplant. Golden raisins and capers added big bursts of Italian flavor.

Next, the supremely clever and absolutely fabulous veal tongue pastrami with onion jam and caraway. The tongue, sliced thinly, had all the peppery taste of pastrami, but a silkier texture from the veal.

Suckling pork confiture was spoon tender with crackling skin. With the sweet citrus flavor of orange and tang of pickled peppers, it would make for the world’s most upscale pork sandwich.

Suckling pork confiture -- its meat spoon tender and its skin crisp as a cracker.

Salmon and trout tempura.

That was followed by a special that night, a snack of salmon and trout — cooked tempura-style. The flavor of the fish shined through the light, airy batter. A swoosh of Calabrian chile aioli made for the perfect, creamy, spicy dipping sauce.

Accarrino has begun working directly with a farmer in Yountville to grow produce specifically for SPQR, including the perfect figs, padron peppers and wild fennel that made up the “insalata di estate.” Fennel foam, siphoned onto the plate tableside, as well as my favorite burrata, made this dish so much greater than the sum of its parts.

Fresh figs with burrata and fennel foam.

Bone marrow sformato. Swoon.

OK, I guess it is worth it to go to the trouble of peeling cherry tomatoes.

You may have enjoyed bone marrow before. But you’ve never had it like this. Forget the dinosaur-like bones on the plate. Accarrino roasts the bones, scoops out the luscious marrow and uses it in sformato, a molded custard. The texture is fluffy soft, yet there’s fatty bone marrow incorporated into it. Talk about your wicked dichotomy. If that weren’t enough, there are also tiny cubes of short ribs, marinated for 48 hours and braised for 24 in Slovenian red wine, plus shaved Australian black truffles. Oh my.

After I balked at having to peel cherry tomatoes for one of his recipes in his new cookbook, Accarrino gave me a veritable poke in the rib with an amuse of two teeny black cherry tomatoes — not only peeled but with their skins crisped and served alongside. OK, point made, I must admit.

That was followed by the parade of pastas: First, pillowy agnolotti filled with smoked goat cheese with crisp sweet corn kernels and fruity chanterelles. Second, the sensational smoked fettuccini with sea urchin, smoked bacon and a tiny soft quail egg on top with its yolk still oozy. Each bite was a symphony of salty, briny, peppery, creamy,smoky, porky richness.

Smoked goat cheese agnolotti.

The dreamy uni pasta.

Chocolate pasta. But nope, don't even think dessert.

Buckwheat tagliatelle with suckling pig ragu.

Chocolate in pasta? Why not, when its earthy, bitter cocoa edge goes so well with duck ragu?

Beer-braised suckling pig with rapini were tossed with strands of buckwheat pasta for a dish that was smoky and nutty.

Lasagna has never looked so fanciful as in this rendition with rabbit, hen of the woods mushrooms and arugula pesto. We didn’t count, but our server told us there were 24 layers in all — baked in a terrine, then sliced and heated to order. The neatly cut, tall cube had the texture of bread pudding — dense yet soft, the layers all compressed into one to create a savory taste of the forest.

Yes, this is lasagna.

Ribeye with a tiny stack of onion rings.

Then it was on to beef ribeye in an olive sauce with red wine onions, okra, a smear of smooth potato puree and a toy-like stack of little crisp onion rings.

Wisconsin cheddar arrived on a tiny slice of caraway-currant bread smeared with elderberry jam. A teeny ice plant that had been candied and sugared made for an unusual garnish.

The fun cheese course.

Granita to cleanse the palate.

For a palate cleanser, there was a refreshing elderflower and fennel granita.

For dessert, a study in milk and dark chocolate with Earl Grey foam; and bruleed figs with an amazing custard steeped with fig leaves, which gave it an almost coconut-like flavor.

Dark and milk chocoate with Earl Grey foam.

Custard flavored with fig leaves.

The chef's hand-molded chocolate caramels.

The final bite -- a toasted, warm vanilla marshmallow.

Lastly, the aforementioned chocolate caramels and the toasted vanilla marshmallows.

By that point, we were truly waving the white flag — not only in satiation, but in salute to a chef who seemingly does it all, and so very, very well.

Tomorrow: A Recipe From the New SPQR Cookbook — “Smoked Linguini with Clams, Cherry Tomatoes and Basil Pesto”

And: My First Visit to SPQR

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Date: Tuesday, 25. September 2012 5:25
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11 comments

  1. 1

    Beautiful food! Very well presented.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  2. 2

    Oh this all looks so amazing and I don’t know when I have ever seen Lasagna look so pretty.

  3. 3

    Wow, what a treat to have Accarrino cook for you. I’ve enjoyed his pasta tastings before, but you look like you got a mega explosion of flavors and textures. And at SPQR, you can watch him at work from the counter since, like you said, the open kitchen is so small.

  4. 4

    This is on my hit list. Now that my hubby and I are both working in the city, I want to hit this one evening, I have heard so many good things about it, and those photos are amazing!

  5. 5

    He is just amazing. I always have a great time dining there. There’s always a new twist to everything. The bone marrow sformato was G’s fave dish.

  6. 6

    My husband and I had a wonderful dinner there last October. We sat at that little bar that looks onto the kitchen so we got to see the chefs in action. I used to live around the corner 10+ years ago when Chez Nous was in the space. :-)

  7. 7

    *sighs* Every dish is like a work of art. So many beautiful colours and flavours! Such a treat to look at all the lovely photos. :)

  8. 8

    Another terrific restaurant I need to add to my list next time I’m out your way. Great looking stuff – I’m drooling. And so well presented.

  9. 9

    Chocolate in pasta! The other day I had a Mexican dish (forgot the name) that has chocolate in it and that was fun. I love chocolate and it never occurred to me to use it for savory dishes. Such a beautiful presentation skill. I wish I know how to do that for all my dishes! My family will be even more excited about my dinner. :)

  10. 10

    Oh…goodness gracious! I think the next time I visit your blog, I better get a box of Kleenex ready for my keyboard’s sake! Major drooling over here. :P The Hawaiian Kona Kampachi has my name written all over it. It’s so beautiful too. Just like a beautiful art work!

  11. 11

    [...] Bird Provisions and Meadowood. This past week she wrote about another one I’d love to get to, SPQR, I dare you to look at the photos in her post and not want to go there, trust me, it’s [...]

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