(Please excuse the photos that follow — it was dim lighting for non-flash photography, and I really didn’t want to interrupt other people’s dining experience by using my flash either, so I did what I could.)
About four years ago, I happened upon Acquerello. At that time, I had been to The French Laundry and hadn’t been to Gary Danko as of yet, but the proverbial bar had been set extremely high already by the universally known Thomas Keller establishment — and it’s a bar I expected no restaurant to be able to reach — never mind exceed.Then, I found Acquerello.
Since that evening, and at the time of this writing, I have been back to Acquerello three times, all for special occasions — and each time, I have been progressively more impressed.
Let me give you an example.
On my first visit, the service was simply impeccable. At that time, Acquerello was wholly underrated versus the better known Michael Mina and/or Gary Danko — and the restaurant was only half-full, at best, though they had been around since 1989.
A year plus later, I revisited the restaurant and fully expected great service, but I did not expect that the co-owner and maitre d, Giancarlo Paterlini, would (1) recognize me from my previous visit, including where I sat last time; and (2) remember that I had, on my last visit, ordered the very dish I had just told him I would be having that second evening. “Madame and the gentleman were sitting over at that table and ordered the same dish then, too.”
Now I don’t consider myself to be utterly forgettable, but believe me – I am also not THAT memorable either. He wouldn’t tell me how he remembered except to say that he absolutely remembered — and it remains, to this day, one of my life’s greatest mysteries: “How does Giancarlo remember all of his guests?” I’m convinced that there must be hidden cameras in there which Giancarlo studies each night and burns into his memory, or some massive spreadsheet he creates each night documenting who sat where and ordered what — except it still wouldn’t make sense because not once have *I* made the restaurant reservation at Acquerello. I just show up with my dinner date! This leads me to believe that he has a photographic memory with faces, but even then — this is a stretch.
Fast forward in time….and the question is, will he remember me on this third visit two years later?
For a second on this third visit, I thought he did recognize me when he looked straight at me as if he knew me and was about to tell me where I sat, what I wore, how I emotionally feeling that day and what I ate last time — but he made no verbal mention of it.
I figured, after a near two year absence, it was to be expected; perhaps the cutoff to the amazing “G-Memory” is 18 months?
Then, about halfway through the dinner, it dawns on me why, if he did indeed remember me, he wouldn’t have said anything anyway: my dinner date was someone different! I was here for an anniversary dinner tonight, and indeed, it wasn’t the same person I had come with on my previous two visits. How awkward it would have been if he had said, “Madame is back!” if I had told my date I had never been here; how embarrassing it would have been if he said, “Madame ordered that last time!” and that instigates a conversation with my present date of who I came with on my last visit and so forth. Worse, what if the other two times I had come with a boyfriend and on this night, it was with my husband? This, of course, is just speculation and perhaps he did forget my previous visits (it was a long time ago), but given the level of service that Mr. G and the Acquerello staff offers (and continued to offer that evening) — I would suspect that even if he did remember, he’d not mention it due to discretion.
Anyway – that’s just one example of the excellent service that Acquerello offers.
The sommelier on this evening was one I had not met before — an Asian man — who was exactly on par with the level of service Giancarlo offers. Our server for the evening (who had an uncanny resemblance to Clive Owen), was more of an amazing host to the dinner than just a server. He was phenomenal and made the dinner absolutely pleasant and throughout the dinner, despite his catering to several different tables, I kept on thinking we were the only people dining at Acquerello that evening as I wanted for nothing.
The level of service offered at Acquerello is, dare I say it, better than that of The French Laundry (TFL). Sure, at TFL, if you even whisper, “Hmm, wish I had a bit of salt” and within seconds, five different types of salt from all over the planet are on the table — but there’s almost no privacy because the servers meet your every need before you are even sure you’re going to request it. It’s impressive, but can often make you feel self-conscious. I know I can’t even talk about the food out loud unless I’m about to rave about it, in fear of having them snatch it away from me and give me something else!
At Acquerello, it’s not quite like that — but the personal attention they put into everything is absolutely perfect.For instance, after they asked what kind of water we wanted, we had requested extra ice in the water. Not only did they put in extra ice — they brought a bowl full of ice to the table, and restocked it continuously throughout the evening. Or later on, as you will see, they included an extra course for me, who had ordered the four course dinner — to match the chef’s tasting menu which had included six courses.
Those little but incredibly attentive and considerate touches are what makes Acquerello one of the best, if not the best restaurant in San Francisco.
But I digress. Let’s get to the meat of this review.
(Since Acquerello is open for dinner, I always go for dinner. Since there’s not a single window in the dining room, it’s always indoor lighting only. Add to that the fact that it’s dim, romantic lighting–and I don’t have a single photo taken during dinner that is even half decent. But hopefully, you can gauge that Acquerello does, indeed, servce beautiful food and at the bottom of this post, I took a photographer friend to dinner here and we ate during daylight hours out in the private room which has a window. He took photos I will never be able to get in the dining room (or with my photo-taking abilities), so they’re posted at the bottom of this post. )
We were presented with a variety of “surprises” from the kitchen even after the apertif for the evening, which was perhaps the only thing I wasn’t crazy about on this night — it tasted like bubble gum.
I didn’t quite catch what these were, though they were described to us upon delivery, but I can tell you that the first amuse bouche, placed upon a triangle cut-out of toast, was an explosion of flavors that paired amazingly with the Quarz wine we were drinking. The concoction you see atop the toast was potato-based, with what I believe to have been an parsley-based sauce.
The second amuse bouche tasted like deep-fried risotto — no joke. Again, rich in flavor and cooked perfectly, the little balls were heavenly and did its job of getting our appetites into revving mode.
First up on the tasting menu that Mr. K opted for, primarily so I could taste all of it, was the poached ranch egg nested in toasted farro with asparagus tips, roasted sunchokes and shitake mushrooms. The egg was, not surprisingly, poached to perfection, nicely coasting everything on the dish, especially the farro. Farro was an interesting choice (and it was my first time trying it as I find it’s rarely used) as though the texture is much like an undercooked risotto, it provided a nice contrast to the poached egg’s softness. Combined with the subtle taste of asparagus and the big flavors of shitake, the dish was a consortium of flavors — which is what I’ve come to expect of Chef Suzette Gresham.
Expecting a restaurant to present something that has good TASTE should be a given; having a restaurant present food where flavors dance together in your mouth is a talent bestowed by something bigger and better than just culinary school.
Since one of us had opted for the tasting menu, I decided to order the a la carte four course menu option. There’s really no other way to taste things you would have liked to try on the menu AND experience the Chef’s Tasting Menu. My first course was the “Dungeness Crab Salad with cured Meyer lemon, sultana raisins and Yuzu caviar”. I love crab but have never been a big fan of crab salads because all one can really taste is mayonnaise! I was more curious than excited to see what Acquerello would serve up — and wouldn’t you know it, their crab salad was divine. It was 100% crab meat and packed with crab flavor with nary a hint of mayo anywhere — and little pops of caviar and citrus notes peeked through the crab flavor making this dish simply outstanding. Quite small, and it’s so good that you end up wishing you had a couple more bites.
Up next on the Chef’s Tasting Menu at Acquerello was “Fennel Soup with Seafood” which included prawn, mussels, oyster and clam (singular and plural versions used deliberately), as there was only one of each except the mussel presented in this soup. This dish was presented “dry” (sans soup) and the heavy cream soup was poured atop the dish after presentation at the table. The fennel soup was delicious albeit a bit heavier than I’d have wanted ideally — and the seafood was topnotch in quality. Paired with the soup, I thought the oyster’s flavor backed down more than it should have, but the seafood was prepared perfectly.
And this is why a review about Acquerello has more to do with the exemplary service than just about the food!
Because one person had ordered the tasting menu (six courses), and the other had ordered only four courses, the kitchen sent out a course to make sure I wasn’t left out of eating while Mr. K enjoyed his seafood fennel soup. It was a warm cheese-filled puff pastry put atop a bed of chopped, sauteed mushrooms that was simple and comforting. Regardless of what they had sent out — it’s those little extras in service that make all the difference.
The third course of the tasting menu was simply divine: braised duck tortellini in a caramelized onion consomme. Each spoonful had a perfect balance of duck flavor paired wonderfully with a background of pasta, accented only be the onion scent in the broth. It’s creative, but simple — and more importantly, every ingredient in this dish stood on its own, which is what sets Chef Gresham apart from her peers.
(My photo on top…Kent Hwang’s photo on the bottom…obviously.)
I’d tell you to never skip over the duck tortellini as your second course if not for the fact that the “Ridged Pasta with Foie Gras, scented with truffles and Marsala” were not a second course dish. I had this on my first visit, out of curiosity; I had this on my second visit, out of a physical need and craving; and I had it on this night, with conviction.
Eating this dish makes you feel gluttonous as it’s packed with so much goodness, you sit there chewing and not knowing what to do next.
This, folks, is the Warren Buffet of pastas.
The richness in this dish almost prevents you from finishing it — but you dare not as you chew on the most perfectly cooked pasta wholly covered in Marsala sauce that is seasoned perfectly with “sweet and savory” redefined within this sauce. Truffles can do no wrong in my book — and this dish is taken over the top by the massive punch that truffles deliver in small chunks, generously sprinkled throughout.
On one of my last visits, Giancarlo had brought me a glass of Sauternes to go with this dish, and frankly, it was embarrassing as I almost pulled a “When Harry Met Sally” at the table. On this evening, I had the Quarz to try with it — and while the pairing wasn’t as heavenly as the Sauternes with its sweetness — it still worked nicely. Hard as it was to do, I gave Mr. K a few bites — and this was one of those rare dishes where even the non-foodie was in a frenzy absorbing the taste. (This is a dish I’d willingly share only with my children, and even then….begrudgingly. Haha.)
DO NOT MISS THIS ONE WHEN AT ACQUERELLO, FOLKS!
Veal Tenderloin wrapped in pancetta was the chef’s tasting menu fourth course for this evening. The veal was cooked to a nice medium rare, and the pancetta that wrapped the small piece of meat was surprisingly subtle and took a backseat to the veal. This was, however, the one dish where I thought it was unnecessary to wrap a perfectly good piece of veal in anything — not even something as good as pancetta. But take a look at that dark ball sitting beside the veal. That’s a little ball of 100% goodness — braised beef wrapped in rainbow chard. One bite of that and I almost cursed out loud in that fancy little restaurant; it was absolutely delicious and I could do a whole plate of this. It was much like the understudy in a play being so much better than the regular lead!
My next course for this evening was the American Kobe Beef. As was the case on my previous visits, I was loathe to order a “steak” type of dish at Acquerello; I go elsewhere for good steak, and even if it were excellent, I’d still not come here just for steak — I’d go to a steakhouse to get a startlingly huge American portion of beef! So on both past visits, I ordered something else (like their amazing duck entrees), but this time, I decided to give it a shot. As expected, the beef was great and the accompaniments were grand. And — as expected, I regretted ordering it the minute it arrived because I kept on thinking, “Ugh, I should have tried the seared monkfish or lamb!”
The cheese course immediately followed and Giancarlo explained all of the cheese to us in great detail. Cheese is perhaps the one food item that I am not impressively adventurous about because I have been brought to my knees, suffering, by a few types in my lifetime thus far. I can eat the intestines of anything that was once living; I can eat a live squid without blinking an eye — but so far, I have found that the three things that I am unable to stomach as of yet are as follows: chicken feet, stinky tofu, and a few varieties of cheeses that were pungent to the point that I was unable to push it down my throat.However, at Acquerello, I have yet to encounter cheese of that sort — or perhaps they have never let me pick that kind of a cheese off the cart. This was part of the chef’s tasting menu, and a course I had opted out of — but Giancarlo let us pick as many as we wanted to share. Paired with the toast that was served for this course, I found all four cheeses to be quite delightful — and with it, we finished off the whole bottle of wine. The candied nuts that came with the cheese were sinfully delicious and paired wonderfully with all the cheeses.
Included in the Chef’s Tasting Menu was the “White Chocolate Semifreddo”. Our server came by and gave us the option to switch and pick anything else off the menu, if we’d like — to which my response was, “You ran out, huh?” He laughed and said absolutely not — but that he’s just offering it as a courtesy. Looking over the menu, this “bourbon caramel” stood out to me and when I asked him about it, his expression said it all — and I ordered that. Without going into too much detail, let me just say this: something this good should be illegal. If bourbon tasted anything like this, I’d live on bourbon alone — and this is coming from someone who doesn’t much like desserts, in general!This dish was the only thing that I actually did not like. The panna cotta in and of itself was delicious, but the blueberry and lemon sauce that surrounded it was entirely too tart and drowned out the mild flavors of ricotta cheese. I took one bite and decided not to eat it — but it should be noted that Mr. K didn’t have any problem with it and proceeded to finish it up while I happily gobbled down the semifreddo.The amazing experience draws to a beautiful end when the truffle cart comes around. (This might also be the only time I get a little sad when I see the chocolate coming to my table.) This cart is distracting throughout the meal as you see delicious truffles being passed out to guests throughout the night, ALMOST making me want to rush through the meal to get some. Beautifully laid out, there are four choices of truffles, including champagne truffle and white chocolate truffles, and all were delicious.
Once the bill is requested, Acquerello offers you a take-home goodie box of fresh almond biscotti. Unfortunately, right after dinner, I was heading to a party and once I arrived, friends devoured the biscotti box that was in my handbag, and I never got a taste, but I did get a wonderfully delicious whiff of almonds as they took their pieces. (On my visits since, I did devour them with my coffee and they might be the world’s best biscotti!)
On the San Francisco Food page, several fans commented to my post about dining at Acquerello with my exact sentiments, “Most underrated restaurant in San Francisco”; I concur. While I believe Acquerello is significantly more popular now than it was when I first visited, one can still get a reservation relatively easily via Opentable. While this is a blessing for people like me who want to go, it boggles my mind as to why given other restaurants’ lack of availability for months at a time.
The team at Acquerello is second to none, in my opinion — and it’s nice to see that after years between my visits, the level of service has only improved (from what was already quite amazing!) and the food continues to impress. It’s perhaps my ideal restaurant at which to have a date, with a formal yet comfortable ambiance, and lighting throughout that just makes you feel romantic.
Frankly, if you don’t feel romantic here, chances are minimal you will feel romantic anywhere.
During dinner, the patrons of Acquerello appeared to be quite mixed with some younger couples obviously on dates to celebrate special occasions, a couple of groups appearing to be having business dinners, some old-school customers who brought the term “old money” to my mind, and a couple of group dates with what appeared to be ground of friend and/or couples sharing a great meal. It’s a versatile dining venue despite its formality.
With the 5 course menu topping at $90 (three and four courses are priced at $64 and $78, respectively) and the chef’s tasting menu priced at $105 per person, go to Acquerello prepared to be wowed by the intense flavors and culinary mastery at this restaurant — and don’t skip out on the wine, as it’s some of the best I’ve had in San Francisco to date. Trust the sommelier, who will ask you for a desired price range prior to choosing, and expect the wine choice to be no less impressive than the very best dish that this restaurant offers.
Located at 1772 Sacramento Street (at Polk), Acquerello is open from Tuesday to Saturday only, from 5:30-9:30 PM. Parking availability really fluctuates in this area, but there is a paid parking structure right across the street, and also a few steps towards Van Ness from the restaurant. The website has more details.
Below are shots taken by a photographer I took to dinner here on another visit after this review. Note that Chef Suzette Gresham included one of her recipes into my book!
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food.
In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.