A little while back, I skimmed over an e-mail about some restaurant somewhere wanting me to come by for a try. There are always new restaurants opening and new chefs emerging, new products launching, etc. that I’ve become a little dulled to it all.
Then she emailed again, asking if I had seen her previous email–and I admit, that’s when I actually read it. I reply at the speed of light when it comes to work e-mails, but I can also admit that with San Francisco Food email, the second time is usually when I respond–when they call me out and ask if I saw their previous e-mail, and shame the remnant Asian in me. In this day and age, there’s really no excuse to not reply to an email with a quick “No, but thanks!” but shamefully, I usually don’t even do that.
As it turned out, it was an invitation to Farallon. Given how long it’s been a staple in Union Square, of course I’d heard of it occasionally and I’d considered doing my company party there some years back, but in the last 19 years of living in the Bay Area, I had not even entered through the doors mostly because I just don’t go to Union Square. Once in a blue moon when I’m already in the city and desperately need something, I may drop by Nordstrom or if I hit up Rickhouse late at night for a great selection of scotch, but that’s about it. Most of us who live in the city don’t seem to select Union Square for our gatherings.
But the email stated that a new executive chef was on board, Chef Jason Ryczek, and had launched a brand new menu–and the pictures looked beautiful, this time, I decided to accept the invitation to see what Farallon was about.
En route, I visited their website (for the first time–more shame) and freaked out in the car. I imagined a nice restaurant but looking at the photos, I realized that my dress and knee-high boots were most likely going to be disgustingly inadequate for this ambiance. The restaurant is beautiful and incredibly fancy! Mr. K, my partner-in-crime, was in jeans and a blazer, but even that seemed too casual.
I called the restaurant and inquired about the dress code, because worst case, I’d delay my reservation and take a run to the aforementioned Nordstrom and buy new clothes and new shoes for this dinner, and get some slacks for Mr. K. I told the lady who answered the phone what I was wearing and she assured me it was not a problem.
But ladies–be forewarned–the decor and surroundings is really nice at Farallon and this would be a nice occasion at which to bring out the good stuff. I would have, had I bothered to check it out before I was actually just miles away from the restaurant.
That said, given its location being where tourists abound, I’ll add that I was ecstatic to see that I was not the least under-dressed but I also wasn’t particularly well-dressed either.
Farallon, the Restaurant
The location is large, with “enormous,” at least by San Francisco standards, also being an apt description.
Farallon offers a very unique atmosphere. It’s a little old-school, and a little modern; it’s a little fancy but then it also keeps things real. In some ways, it made me feel like I was eating inside the Sistine Chapel, but in other ways, it just felt very…lovely. From the host to our server, all were fit for any upscale establishment but at the same time, I didn’t notice any pretentiousness, something that turns off many patrons from visiting high-end restaurants.
The location is large, with “enormous,” at least by San Francisco standards, also being an apt description.
As you enter, you see what they call “Jellyfish Lounge,” with jellyfish-shaped lighting adorning the ceilings all the way through that section. Now this section is nothing like the Sistine Chapel. The area is the front of house and has a reasonable number of seating options for what I’d guess is 20 seated guests and about 20 standing room only guests. This area also houses the raw bar and full bar–both big attractions for me. Really, there’s not much in the world that makes me happier than a huge seafood tower and one good glass of scotch and one good class of champagne–but now I’m sounding like a lush.
I was walked to the far back of the restaurant against the back wall donned with many large and roomy booths which would look across the dining room into the kitchen–a grand view in a booth suitable for at least four diners, though the setup is such that the booth provided a very intimate and romantic setting for two.
The arched ceilings, somewhat like being inside a grand dome, provides for great eavesdropping for the conversation happening clear across the room in the booths opposite from you. This might be a good time to say that national secrets should not be discussed while seated in one of the booths because the conversation they were holding was near crystal clear–often being louder and clearer than Mr. K’s words when he was sitting right next to me. Unfortunately, it was just business talk and no top secret conversations were happening during my dinner.
The only problem with my seating was that there was not a single window to be seen. Without daylight and with only overhead indoor lighting, it was clear that I’d basically be taking photos in the dark.
So, this was the best I could do without a tripod.
The Food at Farallon
The manager explained the Farallon menu and was kind enough to welcome us to whatever we’d like, even offering some oysters. This might be the only occasion in the last two decades where I’ve not ordered oysters when they’re on the menu, but overlooking the menu, I really wished I could just stand by the kitchen and take a bite of each plate leaving the kitchen.
In addition to an outstanding representation of oysters from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Farallon offers an impressive caviar service with a whopping five different types of caviar offered at one-ounce each. Since I didn’t order it, I’m not sure if it’s served w/ blini and the works, but boy, if I could have a meal of just caviar (one day this will happen…mark my words), this would be the place. The one-ounce servings run from $80-280 each, where the lower end is lower than the caviar service at Gary Danko, and the high end is more than double what Gary Danko offers. I mention Gary Danko specifically because it’s usually there that I will always opt for caviar.
Upon being seated, our server came by to introduce himself (shown above) and to explain the menu in great detail. There was never a question I asked on this evening that he couldn’t answer immediately and from that moment to the end of our meal, he showed nothing short of exemplary service, rivaling that of any topnotch restaurant in the world. But since the restaurant invited me, it’s not like they didn’t know I was going to write about this, so I made it a point to watch all the other servers–and truly, each one at least appeared to enjoy their jobs and offer genuinely friendly, caring and warm service to their guests for the evening.
We decided to opt for the tasting menu. Had I ordered a la carte, I’d have just read through the menu asking for each item so I figured if this is what the chef had paired into the tasting menu, this would give us the best journey into his creations.
However, every item on the tasting menu was also available to guests as a la carte options if they would have liked to try–which is a great plus. Many restaurants don’t offer this and to try that one dish, you’d have to order the tasting menu, like it or not (though most, if not all, could be talked into letting you pay for that one dish separately). That said, if one person at the table is getting the tasting menu–everyone will have to get the tasting menu.
The bread was brought over soon thereafter, and anyone who knows me knows that I will salt any butter. I was ecstatic to see that the butter was already salted–and a fine salt that was. Reminiscent of fleur de sel, it was salty but not overwhelmingly so, and if I haven’t lost my mind, there’s a tinge of sweetness in that salt.
I’ll talk about the bread at the bottom of this review.
First Course at Farallon
While the tasting menu is officially a five-course option ($90) paired with five wines for an additional cost of $70, the tasting menu essentially offers seven total courses with a small amuse bouche of sorts in the beginning and an additional palate cleanser I’ll rave towards the end of this post.
The Carccioli Brut Cuveé was first up in the wine pairing, meant to pair with the amuse bouche and the first official course.
As someone who loves, adores and dreams of Kumamoto oysters, this was a welcomed treat. The raw oyster is garnished with a little bit of red onions for texture and the liquid is a play off of a dirty martini–slightly briny, but with a smooth flavor and just a hint of olive juice. Paired with the champagne, it was extraordinary in that the two very different flavors played off of each other in your mouth.
But the oyster pairing wouldn’t a hold a candle to what the next dish did.
The raw slices of halibut are lightly torched before coming out, just enough to enliven the more subtle flavors of halibut. It goes without saying that these thickly sliced, generous servings of raw fish were delicious, but what really made this dish incredible was what Chef Ryczek did with the spring garlic.
With spring garlic served three ways, you can see the shredded garlic slivers that were then fried, cooled and put on this dish, The oil was infused with spring garlic and finally, pickled garlic. The flavors of spring garlic being much milder, it made for a great garnish to the halibut and I just couldn’t get enough of the oil and crunchy garlic slivers. This dish, by the time our server removed it, basically looked brand spankin’ new because that last piece of fish cleaned off every bit that was on the plate.
And when you take a sip of the champagne after this, you hear angels sing. I don’t know how else to describe it.
I turned to Mr. K and said, “THAT is what wine is supposed to do for food.”
Second Course at Farallon
When you understand the next dish is abalone, it looks scrumptious but on its own, it was an impossible dish to photograph, at least for me. You could throw abalone on concrete and serve it to me and I’d think “beautiful” but the plating on this dish compared to others was just off.
Just when I was certain that the halibut crudo would be my favorite dish, here comes the abalone–friend and just cooked through, offering its unique flavors and almost meaty texture. There’s a buttery and slightly smoky element to the dish and the cucumbers serve to cut the heaviness with each bite. But you see those grey-ish looking pieces behind it? Those are the abalone skirts, deep-friend tempura-style, and they make your eyes roll to the back of your head with one bite.
Most interesting is that this dish is served with the seaweed that the abalone eats. It’s an unusual concept, serving up on dish and what it consumes to live on one plate, separately. For this serving, the seaweed tossed in a nice vinaigrette also provides the element required to balance the heavier flavors of abalone and combining them into one bite makes for an amazing flavor.
The abalone was served with a Riesling–a very bizarre Riesling in that at first taste sans food, it’s lacking the little bit of sweetness one would expect from a common Riesling and truly tastes more like I’d expect from a Gewurztraminer–almost being bland and a little void of anything special, though quite pleasant at the cool temperature.
The fried abalone just brought the wine to life–something you’d never expect this wine to do at first sip. The floral aromas emerged and together, your sense of smell is overwhelmed.
I don’t know how I love anything more than the crudo, but I did; I was sure this abalone would be my favorite offering this evening.
At this point, I turned to Mr. K after one bite of the abalone with a sip of the wine and said, “THAT is what food is supposed to do for wine.”
Third Course at Farallon
I’m not a fan of foam in my food–but for one dish, I’m willing to tolerate it. It’s one of the reasons I’m not a fan of Saison, where everything is just topped with or laid on foam. But if all foam tasted like this, I’d be down with foam.
This is one of those dishes where the moment it’s brought out and laid on the table for you, it makes you happy. A nicely sized chunk of king salmon sits on top of the dish with only a little bit of mint and a tiny spoonful of salmon roe (smoked), wonderfully cooked fava beans with fiddlehead ferns (!), thin slices of radishes and…wait for it….blueberries.
If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking that sounds really messed up.
And you’d be wrong like I was, because this combination was superb and living proof that being a good cook and being a great chef are two different worlds. I could be a hundred years old and I’d never put fiddeleaf ferns or blueberries in this dish, and I’d have to be desperately lacking in ingredients to put radish in it. But this combination was a medley of sweet and salty, with a surprising pop of blueberry just when you think you’re eating a savory dish. The texture of the fiddleaf fern heads and the fava beans contrasted nicely with the salmon.
Just a true flavor explosion.
Paired with this 2015 Paradigm Rosé, it was a delightful pairing. Again, much like the Riesling, the Rosé didn’t offer too much on its own, but because of the flavor explosion in the food, the more subdued rosé was actually quite delightful.
(Note that between my shaking hands and the sommelier’s shaking hands, this is the only clear shot of wine I have, given that the wine is balanced on the table and I only had to battle my own hands.)
At this point, despite this being a nicely sized portion, I looked over at Mr. K’s dish.
All gone. (Insert sad face.)
And yes, this was now my favorite dish of the evening.
Fourth Course at Farallon
Next up was the 2013 Gianfranco Bonvio Nebbiolo Langhe. Not being a wine I have tried before and knowing the meat entree was coming out soon, I was excited to take a sip and was not disappointed. The best way I can describe this wine is that it’s a “Baby Barolo,” with less body and less aromas, but all the taste one expects from a Barolo. One sip and it was clear that with the majority of meat dishes, excepting the strongest of meats like ribeye which might overrule it, this wine would be a keeper. (I’m currently trying to find it in the U.S., if anyone can help a girl out.)
The course itself was a free range veal served with mushrooms, wild ramps, and a cheese melted below it all. (Thank you, Chef, for not covering my food with cheese!)
While not necessarily the prettiest plating I’ve witnessed, it was rustic and the sliced veal was cooked AND SEASONED perfectly. It needed nothing else, and as expected, it was just glorious with the wine.
The wild ramps and greens were just scorched (roasted?) and had some crunchy sections, and offered a nice herb-y add-on to this dish.
If there’s anything better than beef cheeks, it’s veal cheeks, and if there’s anything better than veal cheeks, it’d have to be deep-fried veal cheeks.
One bite of this and I was busy flagging down someone to ask what on earth this was because it was just about the most savory thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. While I heartily ate mine, Mr. K saved most of his while he ate the sliced veal--bummer for him because yea, I took half of that, too.
(Like I tell all kids–if you don’t want your food taken, eat it. Fastest eater wins.)
Fifth Course at Farallon
Before the dessert course comes out, there’s a little palate cleanser “course,” or more accurately, a drink.
Were it missing or were it a sorbet, I’d probably not even mention it and wouldn’t have missed it. But this was no ordinary drink.
Our server informed us that it was a soda made with house-made beer, and the flavor was strawberry rhubarb. It offered just the right amount of carbonation and fizz while hitting your nose and tongue with intense strawberry flavor.
The drink was ice cold to begin with but a semi-frozen kiwi ball keeps it cold en route to the table. It was such a happy little exclamation point to the meal that I wanted to make sure to mention it.
If they bottled it, I’d buy it. By the gallon.
Then came the dessert.
Now anyone who has been reading my reviews knows that for the most part, I’m not a dessert fan. I always say that if I have room for dessert, I’d rather eat another entreé.
But every once in awhile, I take that back because albeit few in numbers, some desserts take my breath away. This simple dessert called just “Honey Poached Peaches” is most certainly one of them. Disregarding the fact that I don’t like peaches (well, more that I’m seriously allergic to fresh peaches but can tolerate cooked peaches), this dessert was a combination that nobody in their right mind would dislike.
Tarragon based, the peaches and creaminess combined with the herb scents and flavors was divine. The little chunks of angel food cake–the little pillows of heaven–provided just the sponginess you needed to make sure the cream and fruit flavors blended together into a slightly sweet, slightly tart and perfectly seasoned bite. The white little blob, I was told, was a cream made of fruit seeds, providing a dose of ever-so-slightly bitter, and perhaps that was it–because this whole dish was so balanced in every single bite.
After we ate it all, I looked at the remnants on the sauce and told Mr. K, “I want to lick the plate.”
Him: “Me, too.”
It’s just a shame there’s so little of it as if the entire plate had been filled 3 inches high with just this, I’d have gobbled that up even after the first four courses.
As if dinner wasn’t lovely enough, these fluffy blackberry marshmallows came out. I expected a blackberry note but was taken aback by what a juicy punch of blackberry flavor came through the marshmallow. It was such a cute ending to a fantastic meal.
Farallon Executive Chef Jason Ryczek
Right after the fourth course, Chef Ryczek came by to say hello. Due to fewer staff than expected on this evening, he himself was on the line and busy as can be, but it was so nice of him to come by and chat.
Having grown up locally, he’s worked through various restaurants in California before Farallon got lucky and nabbed him for the Executive Chef spot when it became available. While I’ve never tried his cooking elsewhere, it appears that giving him free rein to do with the menu as he sees fit makes for one amazing meal. Chef Ryczek is heavily focused on local, sustainable and organic ingredients, perusing farmer’s markets himself or utilizing purveyors to bring in the best ingredients into the Farallon kitchen.
With a few exceptions (like the veal, which was from Michigan–“The best in the world,” he says), almost everything that is presented at Farallon is sourced within 100 miles of San Francisco. Now I’m not a “local and sustainable” freak like some in San Francisco and will always put flavor before all else, but what Chef Ryczek does is make both possible.
In all of the dishes I tried at Farallon on this evening, it was clear what his focus was, and that also happened to align with the flavors I love: highlighting the main ingredient. Nothing was masked, or drowned in sauce; not a single other ingredient in any dish was a star on its own but all sidekicks to the main star of the dish–whatever that was, be it peaches or salmon. In one way or another, what he puts together says, “HERE, this is what _____ is at its best,” which is my preference when it comes to food–both cooking and in just plain eating.
Even more commendable (and quite similar to Chef Cosentino in this regard) is how this chef uses as many parts of one meat or seafood as he can. There is no part wasted at Farallon and he will find a way to use that part in another offering or as a different version of itself on the same plate, be it abalone skirts or even the seaweed that the abalones feed on through their lifetimes. I could be wrong, but I think this ingenuity is what leads to innovation in cooking–having an otherwise undesirable part and being able to propel it into something not only palatable but enjoyable.
His cooking is a very pleasant and invigorating look at how his mind works, and how it ends up on the plate is really a journey through a medley of flavors and palate experiences. At least through the courses I was able to enjoy at Farallon, there was no same note hit over and over again, like butter for some restaurants, or a fatty cream sauce over and over again until you’re quite exhausted and tired of the meal and your taste buds are actually depleted, craving soda or a juice or anything different. At Farallon, with each course offering, it was a seamless journey with distinct turns, with each course balanced in flavor but introducing a new dimension, sensation and overall feeling.
And that’s what makes the meal at Farallon so enjoyable.
There are many different places in San Francisco that will provide you with great food, and Farallon is, without a doubt in my mind, one of them. In fact, the fact that I have never been compelled to go there beforehand (and you can imagine that most people will almost always ask me if I’ve been here, or there–and that I should try it) tells me it’s grossly underestimated and undervalued; either that, or the previous chef(s) did something drastically different.
But what takes them up a notch further from just “great food” is that flavor exploration and excursion, with a menu that is simple but boldly encouraging you to try new flavors. You can come in here saying you hate abalone, but you won’t leave hating abalone if that’s what’s offered. You can say that tarragon is disgusting, but no–tarragon, used properly in the right proportions under masterful hands is magical.
But the excursion includes the service and at Farallon, as mentioned previously, the service was impeccable. Whether it’s training or reality, the servers all appeared happy, which in turn makes the customer happy because that authenticity is felt. And from our server to as many as I could see, people smiled even if you weren’t one of their tables and made casual conversation if you were in the vicinity. It made ME want to work there!
Another thing I wanted to mention was the pacing. From start to finish, it was two hours, which is a whole lot shorter than many other restaurants. Now I’m accustomed to long, drawn-out dinners and for places like The French Laundry, the four-hour dinner is part of the experience. But when not eating there, I’d really like it if my dinners didn’t exceed two hours, and at Farallon, the timing was superb. Once they removed your plate, I’d have my next course within 5-6 minute, tops, just one after the other, and a wine pouring in between.
Really superb service.
But after all is said and done, I am still me, so I’ll mention the only two dings that I found at Farallon.
First, the bread service. I didn’t find anything specific wrong with the bread, but there was also nothing at all special about it. It looked like Acme bread but it most certainly was not. The butter, as mentioned, was fantastic but based on that bread, I was wondering if I’d be looking for a second dinner, yet again. It’s a disservice to the restaurant to serve that bread because it doesn’t even hold a candle to the quality of food that follows, though if you’re wanting your patrons to not fill up on bread–that works.
My second ding would be the sommelier, but not for the wine choices. We had two gentlemen come by pouring the wines through the evening and that was one area where Farallon fell far behind other restaurants of its caliber. Both gentlemen were friendly enough so as not to be curt, but neither made the wine better. At restaurants like Saison, Spruce, Acquerello and even Meadowood (which, obviously, I dinged for many other things), the sommelier provides a lot more value aside from simply selecting the wine for the meal and manually pouring it; they make you care about the wine you’re drinking and provide a wealth of information. At Farallon, it was basically telling you the name of the wine, maybe the region it was from, they poured–and then they left.
Now don’t get me wrong: I normally don’t like doing wine pairings because I don’t want to be bothered with small pourings of wine (just give me the bottle!), but when I do and when I’m paying for “wine pairing,” I expect a little more value to be provided by having opted to pay more money for less wine overall. Otherwise, there’s no point to wine pairing if you know enough to order what you like with what you’re eating.
Summary | Farallon in San Francisco
All in all, I suspect that Farallon will soon be receiving at least one Michelin star(s) soon. While I’ve only been there once and am already planning to revisit, if this is what the cooking at Farallon is like, I don’t know how they wouldn’t get their star.
Whatever they served before, I’ll never know, but Chef Ryczek’s cooking is on point and even though it’s not my restaurant, I’d gladly put it up against some of the city’s finest like Gary Danko or Acquerello–two outstanding restaurants in their own right–but against other staples like restaurants I won’t mention by name here, Farallon would win even though the other restaurants are infinitely better known.
You can visit Farallon’s website here, and note that their menu changes all the time based on seasonality and availability. The link below will always take you to their current menu for the day.
As you can see, they don’t just stick to salmon or sea bass like many other restaurants; at Farallon, they’re cooking up sturgeon and ling cod!
I mentioned to Chef Ryczek that I have historically sucked at cooking ling cod after I’ve caught them fishing. Since I hadn’t tried it on that evening, I was curious how he cooked them because no matter which way I tried, it made lake bass look appetizing.
During our short conversation, he was able to give me pointers, and a method of eating ling cod that I’d never even considered.
Ling Cod Recipe, by Chef Ryczek:
- Take 3 parts salt and 2 parts sugar and rub it all over the ling cod
- Let rest overnight in the refrigerator.
- Wash off and let the fish completely dry.
- Slice like sashimi — “You can eat it that way for days!” says Chef.
And there is no price you can attach on having a wonderfully pleasant time with people you care about over amazing plates of food, at least not in my world.
And there is no price you can attach on having a wonderfully pleasant time with people you care about over amazing plates of food, at least not in my world.
Farallon is not cheap by any means.
At $95 per person for the tasting menu without a drop of wine, it’s up there. Add in wine tasting and it’s another $70, for a total of $165 per person. In fact, it’s up there with the rest of the restaurants I’ve mentioned in this review, except for The French Laundry, Saison and Restaurant at Meadowood, which are easily triple the price of dining at Farallon. But in San Francisco, at this caliber, this is not overly expensive but it is most certainly not economical dining. If you order a la carte, for one appetizer and one entreé, it would be about $60-70 per person before wine. The preconception I had about it all being tourists just because it’s in Union Square is flawed, at best, because it’s actually more pricey than most tourists would usually opt for, but they’re missing out.
What Farallon will offer you at that price, though, is a culinary experience that will have you leaving dinner absolutely delighted both inside and out. And there is no price you can attach on having a wonderfully pleasant time with people you care about over amazing plates of food, at least not in my world.