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New Chef Lights Up Parallel 37 in San Francisco

A steamed bun like no other.


When you’re the former executive chef of renowned Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, you don’t make a steamed bun with pork belly like everyone else.

No, the fluffy clam-shell bun that Chef Michael Rotondo now does at Parallel 37 in San Francisco’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel comes stuffed with a crispy chicken foot instead.

One that is impossibly, improbably but absolutely devoid of all bone and cartilage.

If you’ve ever gnawed on a chicken foot at a dim sum restaurant, you know just how many bones that small appendage contains. So, it’s quite an astonishing, er, feat to remove them all, while still retaining the shape of the feet.

The dining room.

But at Parallel 37, Rotondo does just that, assigning a team of two chefs to create this playful dish that requires steaming the chicken feet, then carefully taking tweezers to them.

All for one dish that can be eaten in two bites.

The Fort Orange cocktail.

Since taking over as chef de cuisine from Ron Siegel who departed to head the kitchen at Michael Mina in San Francisco, Rotondo has put his own spin on the menu, creating dishes that seem familiar in name or taste, but are actually reborn anew.

Not surprising from a chef who received the “Most Promising Chef” award from icons Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller after Rotondo competed in the U.S. Bocuse d’Or competition in 2008.

Written in the style that’s all the rage now, the menu ($14 to $32) at Parallel 37 is divided into “Vegetable,” “Fish” and “Meat,” with a few ingredients listed for each dish, but no clues as to how it’s prepared. For instance, there’s a dish of “octopus — smoked sunchoke, breakfast radish ($21).”

There’s also a chef’s tasting menu option of eight market-inspired courses for $135 per person.

This style of dining invites you to sit back, be adventurous and put your trust in Rotondo’s hands. Which is exactly what I did earlier this month, when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant.

To start the night off, do order a cocktail. They’re a specialty here, as they’re crafted by bar star, Camber Lay. The “Fort Orange” ($14) is a refreshing mix of New Amsterdam Gin, lemon, orange blossom water, soda and just a touch of creme de menthe. It’s like a sunnier gin and tonic.

The amuse bouche that evening was a tiny radish with citrus gelee and  a few grains of couscous — just enough to tickle the palate.

The butter that accompanies the crusty bread looks like it was extruded by a Play-Doh Pumper machine. Fine ”noodles” of butter are drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, resulting in a spread that is airy and fairly melts into the bread.

An amuse of radish and couscous.

A trio followed: hamachi sashimi, its smooth flesh contrasted with crisp fried shallots and its buttery nature complimented by sprite yuzu; charred eggplant in a smoky, briny dashi broth; and crisp artichoke with Little Gem lettuce and a creamy, spicy saffron aioli.

A trio of starters.

The chicken foot-bun made its unforgettable appearance next. Take a bite to find no bones, but the crisp, creamy texture almost of a fried sweetbread. Alongside is a grapefruit salad. The salad gets the bun a little wet, so you may end up eating it with a knife and fork, rather than picking it up with your fingers. Even if you are squeamish about feet, do order it. It’s that memorable.

A tangle of Thai basil linguini was crowned with a sweet piece of Dungeness lump crab meat. A green tomato sauce with a little hit of spice is poured tableside. Dig in to discover a small buttered crouton surprise in the middle of it all.

Dungeness crab Thai basil linguini.

Asparagus with black truffles.

A celebration of Yukon Gold potatoes in all forms and textures.

Rotondo comes out to each table to finish the next dish with one final flourish. It’s the first of spring’s asparagus, which he shaves the last of the black winter truffles over. There’s also a coddled egg with a yolk that’s spoonable like thick pudding rather than oozy. Puddles of asparagus puree dot the plate, adding a vivid green and intense asparagus flavor. The dish tastes loamy and wild, and makes you imagine a forest covered in tule fog.

Then comes “potato salad” like you’ve never had. It’s a study in potato forms with a Yukon Gold potato crisp, a potato gelee, and a smooth potato puree enfolded in a paper-thin slice of potato much like a cannelloni. A creamy goat’s milk dressing and candied fennel tie it all together creating a dish that has varied textures in every bite.

I can’t say that I would have ever have thought of “barbecue sauce” on striped bass. But it works. The moist, tender fish reminded me of unagi in texture and flavor with its slightly sweet glaze.

Striped bass with barbecue sauce. Really.

Green onion risotto with lobster and sweetbreads.

Spring onion risotto arrives with a deep green hue. Butter-poached lobster adds luxuriousness. Hidden underneath are sweetbreads, which are a real revelation here. Cut into tiny cubes and fried, the sweetbread nuggets reminded me on first bite of that Chinese restaurant staple, General Tso’s chicken. And I mean that in the best of ways. Even my husband, couldn’t help but smile in familiarity when he tried it.

Next, slices of duck cooked perfectly — still a little pink inside, but not too rare as to be too slick in texture — in green coconut milk curry. Burdock root tendrils added crunch, and slivers of young coconut sweetness. A tomatillo chutney with a pickly flavor brightened up everything.

Duck in a slick of green curry.

Ribeye in all its splendor.

You can tell the quality of the aged ribeye, as it’s so juicy, rich and intensely beefy tasting. A wild mushroom chutney adds even more savoriness, while chimichurri made with tangy sorrel cuts through the heaviness of the meat.

A quenelle of cucumber sorbet with mint is offered to cleanse the palate before dessert arrives.

Cucumber-mint sorbet.

Vanilla-scented, warm semolina cake.

Warm semolina cake that looks a little like a square of cornbread is served with creamy ricotta, lavender-white chocolate ganache, grapefruit gelee and creme fraiche sorbet.It’s none too sweet, and light in texture.

It prepares you for the rich dessert to come. Yes, a second dessert of a fluffy, flourless chocolate cake with salted caramel ice cream and bourbon caramel sauce. You really notice the mash or hoppy flavor which pairs so well with the deep, dark, earthy chocolate cake.

You’re probably wondering why there is no photo of this dessert. That’s because I inhaled it before I remembered to take a photo. Seriously. And that never happens. But it’s proof of just how difficult it is to resist diving into the food here.

More: My First Visit to Parallel 37