new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Perbacco: Northern Italian Awesomeness

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Perbacco: Northern Italian Awesomeness

230 California Street
San Francisco, CA 94111

Perbacco is a sleek and cool Italian restaurant in San Francisco's Financial District, focusing on the flavor of Italy's Piemonte and Ligurian regions, with a tinge of French and Provencal tastes. With all these diverse influences, Perbacco puts up a long and interesting menu, featuring house made salume selections, a crudo list, and a selection of interesting hand-made pastas. I always appreciate a long-ass and interesting menu, and Perbacco doesn't disappoint.

I am exceedingly fond of our West coast sardines so I couldn't resist sampling the house cured local sardines with salsa verde, celery heart, and marinated egg yolk ($7.00). These were served chilled and had a pronounced and distinctly sardine flavor: you love it or you do not, there is little in between. I found the egg yolks played nicely off the oily fish-ness of the sardines, and the salsa verde gave things a nice herbal flavor.

Next was the roasted red and gold beets with arugula, Castelmagno cheese, and white balsamic vinaigrette ($10.00). This was a simple but successful salad, melding two different varieties of meaty and slightly fruity beets with the peppery bite of arugula and the earthy flavor of a good strong cheese. I have had variants of this dish all over the place in California and this was a pretty worthy (and nicely sized) rendition - and a very attractive presentation to boot.

We flipped for the handcut tagliatelle with 5 hour pork sugo, porcini mushrooms ($16.00 entree size, $11.00 appetizer sized). Perbacco prides itself on its freshly made pasta, and this dish backs all tha talk up: the fresh and tender tagliatelle went perfectly with the rich and meaty sugo, which had a delightfully earthy flavor derived from porcini mushrooms. My mother enjoyed this so much that she had it for an appetizer and an entree, and I suppose that is a fitting testimonial.

My dad went for the Coniglio al civet with Devil's Gulch rabbit, spiced red wine sauce, otto file polenta, and crispy pancetta. This was a face-foward and distinctly wine flavored dish, and the combination of slightly gamey rabbit, powerfully flavored sauce, and crispy, porky pancetta was a successful one. I wish rabbit found its way onto more menus, Thumper-related sentiments be damned.

I selected the special Ligurian fish stew with lobster broth, mussels, fish, scallops, shrimp, and mussels. The meaty and decadent broth was spiced lightly with saffron and had a piquant flash of tomato: it reminded me rather of a highly refined cioppino. The seafood was fresh and perfectly cooked, bypassing seafood stew's common issues with overcooked and rubbery shellfish. It's a light dish, almost too elegant: I would have liked a bit more of that delicious broth.

The sleeper hit of the evening were the side of brown butter brussels sprouts with capers and parmigiano reggiano ($5.00). These charmers flavored the falling-apart tender sprouts with a powerful hit of capers, rich brown butter, and distinctly stinky parmigiano. The overall flavor was that of a decadently rich and interesting casserole, and these were pretty impossible to risk - although the actual flavor of the sprouts was a secondary player here.

For the dessert course, we tried the pistachio panna cotta ($8.00), a straight forward and satisfyingly firm pudding with a nutty, slightly perfumed pistachio flavor. This was not a fancy dish, but it was a good ending to a rich meal.

We finished with a cheese plate, picking from Perbacco's nice selection of artisan cheeses. We settled on Bianco Sotto Bosco, a cow and goat milk cheese infused with truffles, and Caprino Di Riofrano, goat's milk cheese wrapped in chestnut leaf. ($12.00 for selection of two). I am no cheese critic, but both cheeses were earthy and tasty (and it is very hard to make truffled cheese bad.)

Perbacco's dining room is very sleek and contemporary, and those expecting some sort of homey regional Italian experience will be disappointed. The place has the appearance of a restaurant tailor-made for power lunches and important networking dinners: in other words, don't come expecting a romantic environment or overwrought opera music on the sound system. The beautiful people are served by what seemed to be an engaging and well trained waitstaff: our server was friendly and knowledgeable, and our food came out with impressive speed and timing.

We will certainly return to Perbacco soon. It's excellent and interesting regional Italian dining at surprisingly regional prices - there really isn't much not to love.

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