ginger and salt

bay area birthday: wayfare tavern.

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In anticipation of celebrating my little sister’s birthday in San Francisco, we started brainstorming different dinner options a few weeks in advance.  We knew we both wanted to try something new, but it’s always daunting in a city like San Francisco where the dining options are endless.  Hot off his untimely Top Chef Masters win, Chris Cosentino’s Incanto was completely booked so we went back to the drawing board.

Now I’m not a Food Network fan, but am admittedly in love with Ina Garten and happened to stumble upon her rave review of Tyler Florence’s Wayfare Tavern on her blog.  Since Ina has yet to let me down in the kitchen and in life, I decided to take her word for it.

We arrived at Wayfare on Saturday night, the Financial District feeling especially sleepy on the weekend and with all of the locals tucked away in sports bars to watch the tail end of the Giants’ World Series game.  Our dining companion for the night was my sister’s close friend, Maggie, who is always a treat to eat out with as she’s pretty much up to try anything. Upon being seated upstairs in the dimly lit restaurant, we ordered a bottle of dry rosé and were served warm popovers with butter while we perused the menu.  The popovers were good, but not great.  The insides were soft and airy, but the outsides were too crusty and felt like they had been baked earlier in the day and had hardened over the course of the evening.

The server informed us that the special appetizer for the night was poutine (a Canadian dish involving French fries, gravy, and other amazing toppings), and we ordered it without hesitation.  It arrived with tender, braised short rib, mozzarella cheese curds, crispy fried onions, and truffle gravy.  Between the saltiness of the meat, the meltiness of the cheese, and the crispy-but-soft texture of the fries, the dish confirmed that poutine just might be one of the greatest comfort foods ever created.

Maggie and I then split oysters on the half-shell and ate Hammersleys, Kusshis, and Buckley Bays, all from the Pacific Northwest.  Again, good but not great.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have ordered oysters who traveled as far as I had for dinner.

For our entrees, I went with the American Kobe Tartare, my sister ordered the Chilled Maine Lobster, and Maggie ordered the Wayfare Burger ‘Le Grand’.  My sister loved her lobster and Maggie was very happy with the burger, which was served on a brioche bun with Marin brie, roasted onion, smoked bacon, with a sunny side up Petaluma egg.  The beef itself is a grass-fed proprietary grind and I can attest that it was a pretty delicious, decadent burger.  As you can see from the picture, the tartare looked a bit different from the tartare I’m used to seeing.  The meat was lighter in color and even with the French mustard dressing, herbes fines, and egg yolk, it unfortunately didn’t pack the punch that I was hoping for.

To accompany our entrees, we ordered the Crispy Brussels Sprouts and the Roasted Fairytale Pumpkin.  With garlic, parmesan, and pine nuts, the brussels sprouts were tasty, but somewhat predictable. (Side note: Ina is including a dish ‘inspired’ by these in her new cookbook, Foolproof. Here’s to hoping she can work her magic on them). Drizzled with spiced honey and sage, the flavors were there with the pumpkin, but the texture was stringier than usual and this was a bit of a distraction for me.

The dessert was one of the high notes of the night as we split the Sticky Toffee Pudding, one of my all-time favorite British desserts when done well.  In addition, the server made the thoughtful request to have a lit candle and a happy birthday message drizzled on the plate.  It was served with cocoa nib praline which added the perfect crunch and cubeb peppercorn ice cream, which we were hesitant about, but served as the perfect complement to the sweet toffee pudding.  We were also served small warm, salted brown butter cookies when our check arrived, a nice touch to help soften the blow.

Ultimately, I suppose I should’ve lowered my expectations for a Food Network star’s restaurant.  While it was tempting to go all ‘Pete Wells on Guy Fieri’ just for dramatic effect, I have to admit that there are things that Florence’s staff is doing well.  Wayfare Tavern continues to get good press and was even included in Eater San Francisco’s list of the ’38 Essential Restaurants’ published this October.  In my opinion, the atmosphere and concept felt manufactured and impersonal, and the food didn’t seem particularly thoughtful or inventive.  If you want a conservative, special occasion restaurant where there’s something for everyone on the menu, this is your place.  Just don’t expect the ‘wow’ factor.

Wayfare Tavern, 558 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, CA, 415.772.9060, http://www.wayfaretavern.com, Reservations Recommended

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