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Bar Agricole — San Francisco: The Restaurant Review

Some years back, my preference was for private, exclusive and somewhat elite restaurant atmospheres. As the years go by, I find that these days, I much prefer a more casual, lively and vibrant restaurant–even for dates. Sure, an occasional romantic date night restaurant is great–but for the most part, even for dates, I prefer a “happening” scene. Then again, I also can’t seem to tolerate loud, and nothing exhausts me quicker than having to yell over my natural volume to be heard. I’m basically over-boiled spinach by the time we’re seated when that happens.

Old Fashioned at Bar Agricole
Nice shot of a classic Old Fashioned — via Dan Gentile / Thrillist

Between private and casual is Bar Agricole. This restaurant is special in that it morphs into whatever you want it to be. I’ve been to many dinners here with one friend, chatting all night over a great drink menu, or in large gatherings with groups of 6-8 people, where the aura becomes very lively and very entertaining. If on a date, especially if you request a lower level table for you and your date, I think it’d be an extraordinary evening, especially if your date can down a crisp martini or some whiskey-based cocktails.

For me, personally, this is one of the two bars in San Francisco where I will inevitably order an Old Fashioned. At Bar Agricole, the House Old Fashioned is made with single cask cognac–with distinct orange flavors and some honey notes. It’s slightly sweet and slightly bitter–just a wild mesh of excellent flavors. The only other place that makes Old Fashioned cocktails this good is Swank–the bar attached to a Joie de Vivre hotel in the Pacific Heights area of the city; some nights when I go to Swank, my old neighborhood bar, I feel like all they do is squeeze fresh oranges because so many of us now order this.

Despite my many visits over the last few years, it had never been the right opportunity to take my camera with me to dinner. I hate being a spectacle while eating and my camera is enormous, so the moment I pull it out, I am usually a spectacle. But on this evening, the eve of one of my friend’s getting married, a bunch of us got together as some friends had flown in for the wedding the next day. Because of this, nobody would drink too much, I did end up having three drinks over the course of the evening anyway since our “dinner” lasted from 8pm to midnight–our own doing, not because dinner is slow at Bar Agricole.

Anyway, back to the food. As mentioned, on this evening, I finally got some shots though they’re really no good since I was too busy chatting and not really paying attention.

There are five unlabeled but grouped sections to the menu, which I assume would be as follows: starters or small plates, appetizers, entrees, cheeses and desserts.

For our dinner, the appetizers came out first.

THE APPETIZERS at Bar Agricole

Bar Agricole Restaurant Review
Roasted beet salad with grilled summer squash, peaches and endives ($19)

Much of what Bar Agricole serves up would qualify as “small plates” in that there is a big selection of appetizer-like dishes that are great for two, and at best, three people to share. This being my umpteenth visit, I know two things for a fact:

  1. Most of Bar Agricole’s starter dishes are good. Like, really good.
  2. And secondly, but perhaps equally important, everything on the “appetizer” section (not “starter section at the top) is expensive. Like, really expensive for the amount they give you

For our party of nine, we needed to order three of each starter and there was none left within a minute of each being brought to the table and with each person getting a really small serving. To some, that might mean it was the perfect amount but to me, it means there wasn’t enough. They are delicious and I’m loathe to say it’s “overpriced” but it really is quite expensive for what it is and the portion size.

But when you look at the beet salad above, you can see that each item is perfectly roasted or grilled. The seasoning is excellent and the combinations are delicious. This is the kind of dish that awakens the tastebuds instantly.

Bar Agricole Restaurant Review
Grilled flatbread with mashed chickpeas, fresh goat cheese and marjoram ($19)

 

Again, we ordered three of the flatbread starter. The goat cheese was incredibly creamy and delicious, and served with beautifully grilled flatbread, the combination worked nicely. I even enjoyed the inclusion of marjoram, which is rare for me since it’s one of the few herbs I actually don’t like.  With a drizzle of olive oil, it was a nice starter to share, but there was way too much flatbread for the amount of cheese that was offered with each serving.

THE STARTERS at Bar Agricole

Bar Agricole Restaurant Review
Salmon tartare with green coriander ($11)

Of all the starters on this evening, this one was my favorite. Normally, it would be the Pig’s Head Fritters shown below, but not on this evening. 

The chopped salmon was still quite chunky and the coriander seasoning brightened up the overall taste of the tartare. Piled atop a cute and clean little endive leaf, it offers a great texture with each bite and leave you wanting more. This starter, compared to the others, was unusually lower-priced than I would be willing to pay for it. But this was part of the actual starter (small plates) menu vs. the others which were more from the “appetizer” section–though it’s interesting to note that the portioning was about equal. With sashimi-grade salmon, I’d expect it to cost more.

Bottarga Egg at Bar Agricole
Soft-boiled egg with bottarga ($10)

This dish is, as promised, a softly-boiled egg and while it’s hardly visible, the bottarga flavoring is present, albeit mild. Given that bottarga is usually dried and aged roe, I’d have expected it to be a little more “in your face” type of flavor punch, but I also suspect that many people wouldn’t like it if it were. Three of these dishes and we all got to plop one-half egg into our mouths.

Bar Agricole Restaurant Review
Pig’s head fritters with sauerkraut ($10)

I’ve had this several times on my Bar Agricole visits–it’s most certainly one of my favorites. I do have to add, though, that this time was the only time I did not like it. It was overcooked on the outside and the serious crunch on the outside threw off the balance of creaminess in the middle. The other times I’ve had it, it was a lighter brown and past the initial crispiness, it was all good creaminess on the inside. Despite this fluke, it’s a dish I would fervently recommend. The heavy flavors in the deep-fried “ball of pig head meat” pairs wonderfully with the sour and livelier flavors of the sauerkraut (cabbage) and the lemon is essential to breaking apart these flavors. We ordered two of this dish and split it amongst all of us, but ideally, it’s split between two people because normally, it does leave you wanting for just one more bite.

Bar Agricole Restaurant Review
Pig’s head fritters — delicious

Pig’s head meat, generally speaking, is chopped into a million little pieces before it’s used. In Korean cooking, we have a few different dishes where the meat from the head, feet, knees and other parts are chopped up, basically mashed, and then put back together to create fatty, delicious sliced meat that you dip in a vinegar soy sauce to consume with rice. The inside of this is reminiscent of that dish, before it’s put back together.

Everything you see in there is basically gelatinous pork bits.

Bar Agricole Restaurant Review
Gulf shrimp with aioli ($3.75)

There’s not much to write about this; what you see if what you get here. The shrimp was cooked nicely, as you’d expect from Bar Agricole, and the aioli was good. But neither the shrimp nor aioli left much to write about in my mind, so if you like shrimp — get it. If you don’t, skip it.

THE ENTREES at Bar Agricole

Spaghetti at Bar Agricole
Spaghetti with Monterey Bay squid, tomato, basil and espelette chiles ($29/$40)
Bar Agricole Restaurant Review
Fantastic spaghetti at Bar Agricole

My God, this was fantastic. This pasta dish is loaded with multiple strong flavors—the vibrancy of the tomatoes, the squid imparting flavors of the sea, and emboldened by herbs and chili peppers–everyone was wowed by this dish, whereas the previous dishes were often split in opinion. Each piece of squid was so perfectly cooked, tender and bordering on being sweet the more you chewed it. Bar Agricole offers two portion sizes for the pastas–again, encouraging sharing between guests–and on this evening, we ordered two of the $40 platter, which is what is shown. It’s not enormous, but it’s perfect for two people to split one entrée, or in our case, 4.5 servings per plate. We all just got a little two-bite portion…and it was well worth the price.

Roasted Chicken at Bar Agricole
Roasted Chicken with new potatoes, taggiasca olives and watercress ($32/$60)
Bar Agricole Restaurant Review
Closeup of the moist chicken

Most at the table would say their favorite entrée was the spaghetti.

I’d say it was the roasted chicken.

Bar Agricole Chicken
The chicken with the spaghetti. Look at that moistness!

Now I, myself, have roasted countless chickens and I cook it well. But there’s also something wonderful about going out and having restaurant-roasted chicken, like at Zuni Café where they made their mark with roasted chicken. Dare I say it — the chicken at Bar Agricole rivals that of Zuni Café, though this one is served with potatoes whereas Zuni does offer that wonderful bread salad–pick your carbs. I’m not big on olive tapenade of sorts, but this one was a wonderful complement to the chicken and the watercress lended a fresh texture to the dish. The chicken pieces were thoroughly cooked and most certainly still moist–and we all know that is not easy to do so evenly with all the pieces. Usually, the thighs and drumsticks are easy enough but the breast is so easily dried out, but Bar Agricole made it perfectly.

This, too, was offered in two sizes: $32 for a half size and $60 for the full size. I know very well how much a whole chicken costs since I always roast chicken, so I’m a little torn on the pricing here; it’s a bit much, but given how well it was cooked, I find that I’m okay with the price. Zuni Café’s “chicken for two,” which is also basically the whole chicken, not to mention practically world-famous, is under $50, so I can’t help but wonder if this dish was worth it. (See below for why this might be the case.)

This was the second to last entrée of the evening, so it wasn’t surprising to see that the only dish where we had any leftovers was the chicken. That said, a couple of my friends said they weren’t impressed. But like I said, I was–and that’s all I’ve got to say about that. I think I munched on three breast portions myself–and I am never one to pick white over dark meat, ever.

Bar Agricole Restaurant Review
Local King Salmon with yellow wax beans, farro, cucumbers and yogurt ($35)

The actual last entrée to be served as the salmon entrée.

I love salmon–and Bar Agricole serves up a flavorful salmon paired with farro (which I love). This is the kind of dish you’d expect at Kokkari–one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco–with Greek nuances. Everything on the plate was juicy–the beans were warm but crunchy and juicy; the farro also had wonderful seasoning that popped as you chewed and the salmon was beautifully cooked, albeit sort of on the small side. There was plenty of fattiness in the fish–and excellent taste.

THE DESSERTS at Bar Agricole

Bar Agricole Restaurant Review
Sweet corn cake with ice cream and blackberry compote ($10)

We decided to skip the cheese course and just order two kinds of desserts–one plate of each–to share between the whole group. While I’ve said that the portioning is rather small for the price, it becomes plenty of food when you order as much as we did–or I did, as my friends would point out, because I think they were wiggin’ out a little as I listed off what I want when ordering.

I barely took a bite of each dessert because my tastebuds were exhausted, my back was hurting from sitting there too long and it was getting hot in the restaurant for reasons I don’t understand.

The sweet corn cake was a really nice combination; the cake itself had some sweetness that was intensified by the vanilla ice cream–and the only thing you missed was something tart, which the blackberry compote provided. Really nice.

Bar Agricole Restaurant Review
Peanut butter mousse with strawberry jam and chocolate crumble

This was the other dessert we ordered. The taste was “alright” but it’s not a great dessert for sharing purposes, especially when you have to dig in and mix it up to get a little bit of everything. I think, overall, the corn cake was better in terms of taste, too, but by this point, I’m so full that I doubt I’d appreciate anything other than maybe caviar. I want to get up and out of this seat and I’m wanting coffee.

The server came by and asked if we’d want coffee and we said no, as we planned to change locations.


 

Bar Agricole being in the Mission area of the city meant that when we set  foot outside after paying the bill, the streets were jam-packed with people in costume or casual wear (this was in July, not Halloween, but whatever), standing in line to get into bars or just loitering…and littering. Ten years ago, this would have been the moment we picked one bar and headed over, but all of us, after a 2+ hour dinner, were tired. We did stand out there, discussing this or that option, but between getting the cars and finding parking again elsewhere–we finally ended up going BACK INSIDE to get coffee there.

This restaurant has an amazing outdoor, covered patio area, folks. I love that spot–but I so wish they’d turn down the heat. There is almost no feeling of being outside because on almost any evening in the city (which admittedly is a cold city for the most part), the heat lamps are BLASTING. We grabbed a big seat there and while the plan was to get coffee, we immediately switched back  to alcohol–some of us getting new drinks, and of course I went back to my Old Fashioned.

Bar Agricole is one of the first restaurants in the city (or maybe the very first?) to include service into the price of the food, and good for them.

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CUE THE MINI-RANT:

This should have been done by all restaurants eons ago, frankly. I’m not sure why restaurants in general started off feeling like it’s okay to make customers pay for part of their employees’ wages in the first place; they’re YOUR employees–you pay them something fit to live on in your city. What if they had a crappy customer? Why should your employee live on less because your establishment couldn’t get a decent and mannered customer? It’s always been the oddest thing to me…making us pay an additional 15-20% on top of the bill to support their employee because they don’t pay them enough. If you like the people you hired, pay them. If you don’t like the people you hired, then I shouldn’t be expected to pay them either when even you can’t stand them.

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So kudos to Bar Agricole for putting this into action.

Now, having said that, we had a slightly strange server this evening. Everything was slow as molasses, and getting additional drinks would take forever. If this were my first visit, I’d guess that’s how it always is but previously, service was always on-point. Furthermore, he forgot to bring a couple of things–and based on his reaction, you’d think it’s our fault for ordering it in the first place. We had ordered one additional set of appetizers that never came…and in hindsight, fine–we had enough food–but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I ordered, and he didn’t track our order properly.

But even before this, Bar Agricole was always a little bit expensive–it’s just more so now because gratuities are factored into the menu prices. I think there’s room to add to their starter menu (like $3.50 for the shrimp is too cheap, as is the salmon tartare) but some of the appetizers and a couple entrees need to chill out on the pricing. Granted, the previous example of Zuni Café’s ‘Chicken for Two’ comes in under $50, and by the time you factor in 15% tip, it could be $57.50, which is approximately the $60 that Bar Agricole charges. Whether you think this chicken is worth as much, if not a little more, than Zuni’s–I leave for you to decide.

In the end, however, it’s located in a great food area in the Mission and is catering to a hip and affluent San Francisco crowd that pays around $4,000 to live in shoeboxes. It’s a different game in this city these days which really makes it unappealing to eat out as much (as you might be able to tell from my lack of reviews in the last year) but just across the Bay in the East Bay, prices remain reasonable for what they serve. But from the restaurant side, with the skyrocketing rent prices in this city, I’m sure every restaurant has to charge more to break even after paying these costs of living.

I don’t think I’ll recognize the dining scene in SF once our minimum wage officially goes up to $15/hour in the city over the next few years. Something’s gotta give.

 

 

Grace Keh

Managing Editor

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.

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San Francisco Food® has been providing trusted restaurant reviews and recipes since 2009, led by food author Grace Keh & read by food lovers worldwide.

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