San Francisco’s Parallel 37 has done a 360.
Two years ago, the once prim, proper and heavily brocaded Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco was jettisoned. So were the tasting menus.
In its place came a sleeker, more modern space, renamed Parallel 37 (after the geographic latitude running near the Bay Area). The tasting menus were eliminated in favor of la carte dining.
But something funny happened along the way. Chef Ron Siegel departed for Michael Mina Restaurant in San Francisco. His successor was Michael Rotondo, who brought back the tasting menus, slowly but surely, and something even more important. Rotondo, former executive chef of Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, convinced his former Windy City colleagues to jump into the fog with him. Besides Rotondo, Parallel 37 now boasts Trotter alums: Sous Chef Mitchell Nordby, Pastry Chef Andrea Correa, and the most recent hire, Restaurant Manager and Sommelier Ryan Stetins. Parallel 37 now boasts more Trotter veterans than any other restaurant in the country.
Rotondo added a tasting menu option early on, but left the a la carte menu, too. But starting in June, the restaurant went to a tasting menu-only format: three courses for $65, five courses for $95, and eight courses for $135. Wine pairings are an additional $40, $55 and $85, respectively.
In an homage to Trotter’s famed “kitchen table” dining experience, Rotondo also has added something similar. Guests start the evening inside the kitchen with cocktails and canapes to watch the cooks in action. Then, they are seated at a table next to the kitchen for an eight-course tasting menu with wine pairings. The “Kitchen Table” experience is $250 per person. A minimum of four people is required.
A couple weeks ago, I was invited in to dine as a guest in the main dining room. Parallel 37 is one of the 54 restaurants featured in my debut cookbook, “San Francisco Chef’s Table” (Lyons Press) and it was a kick to see a stack of the books for sale behind the hostess stand.
Of course, I had to start the evening off with a “Pig ‘N’ Boots” ($14), a cocktail created by mixologist Camber Lay and featured in my cookbook. Normally — and particularly when I have a wine pairing yet to come — I take a few sips of a cocktail, but leave the rest. Not this one. It’s amazing that a scotch-based cocktail can be this light and refreshing. Lillet Rose, lavender, yuzu and a fresh grating of cinnamon over the top give it balance, so that it’s not overly boozy tasting but rather floral and tangy instead.
The eight-course tasting menu started off with an amuse of three: a Kumamoto oyster on the half shell with horseradish and lemon cucumber; quickly cured ocean trout that tasted smoky and as rich as King salmon, that sat on a sliver of compressed Ambrosia melon; and striped jack with heirloom tomato, pickled parsley and yuzu gelee that just popped with brightness.
Next saba or cured Boston mackerel with a chicharron of an umbrella over it. Underneath was sweet corn pudding, which was a nice contrast to the sharpness of the pickled fish. Smoked surf clam added yet another texture and another level of flavor.
The fabulous fish continued with the Matsugawa or stone flounder with engawa or halibut fin, plus Monterey Bay squid in what may have been my favorite dish of the night. The tender seafood lay atop pearl couscous — all in a dazzling charred pineapple dashi. The broth was deceptively light looking but carried an intense smoky umami hit lifted to even more heights by the fruity, acidity of the pineapple. Lemon verbena added to the citrus notes but added a lovely perfume, too. The capper was the fried squash blossom garnish that was deeply golden, super crisp and so good you wish you could dig into a whole bowl of them alone.
That was followed by a whimsy-filled poultry dish. Tiny pieces of Broken Arrow Ranch quail, including a leg, were grilled, giving a smoky note to their naturally sweet and barely gamey flesh. A deviled egg came alongside. Not just any deviled egg, but one in which the yolk was fortified with chicken liver mousse. Yes, now we’re talking. Rich and unctuous, it will spoil you for all other deviled eggs from now on. A piquillo pepper-goat cheese terrine added a nice layer of creaminess to the whole dish.
Oakland’s Artisan Breads of Oakland provided the spelt bread, offered as a slice alongside Straus Family Creamery butter whipped with honey. Maybe not as dolled-up as an epi, but the spelt bread had a naturalness to it that seemed to fit in well with the clean flavors of the dishes.
One large tortellini, stuffed with a vivid carrot filling, shared space with a button-sized round of pork head cheese that was breaded and fried until crisp. Who doesn’t like pork with pasta? Especially when Australian black truffles are shaved over the top.
A sweet-sour jus added perkiness to guinea hen terrine with a poached Fairy Tale eggplant, but what really made the dish was the black garlic puree on the plate, which was pungent, earthy and sweet almost like molasses.
Thirty-two-day-aged rib eye is intensely beefy. If that weren’t enough, there is also an oxtail fritter made with meat braised for 72 hours in fragrant five-spice. The smoked onion puree on the plate was so delicious, I was dipping that spelt bread into it to get every ounce of it. Thick and rich, it tasted intensely of buttery onions.
To cleanse the palate, an intermezzo of peppermint granita the color of a Christmas tree. An equally nice touch were the tiny cups of jasmine pearl tea poured with it. It was a contrast of hot and cold, and going back and forth between the two definitely cleared the taste buds for the desserts to come.
First was a study of nectarines: nectarine chutney, and nectarine syrup plus little croutons of crisp-chewy almond cake, and lemon verbena ice cream.
Next, a soft, dense pistachio cremeux spooned up with lush basil oil and sweet strawberries.
The last bite? A tiny adult Rice Krispie treat of white chocolate studded with feuilletine (crisp, golden cookie shards). A nice bit of salt made it not too sweet.
This may have been an hours-long tasting menu, but you don’t leave feeling as if you need to lie down to take a nap afterward.
At Parallel 37, don’t fear the tasting menu concept. Embrace it.