Scott Howard - San Francisco - Jackson Street
After initially being compelled to dine there against my will by some pals who hijacked my birthday plans this past June, a date which is now marked in my diary as a blissful blur of pork belly, beef cheeks, scallops and Brachetto, Scott Howard has fast become one of my favourite restaurants in San Francisco. I love the acute sense of transition I feel as I escape the busy sidewalks of lower North Beach, slipping past the heavy drapes at its doorway and crossing the threshold between outside and in. My eyes quickly adjust to the dark wood decor, the warmth of which is reflected by the always-genial welcome at the host stand. There is no ostentation in Scott Howard's design, save, perhaps, the unbelievably enormous arrangement of flowers that make a vivid impression in the middle of the room. The overall effect is timeless: Modern yet classy. In six visits, I haven't been sat at the same table twice and I still can't decide whether I prefer to eat centre-stage on the bustling, lowered main floor, or at one of the quieter two tops over-looking the street. There is one solitary booth with a rather awkward disposition in that it has its back turned against the action and not much of a view. Nevertheless, I think it is my favourite seat and if you prefer to focus on sharing plates and enjoying conversation, instead of bustle and people-watching, you will probably like the intimacy and relative quietness this particular table offers too. At peak hours, Scott Howard's noise levels can become lively, but the ceiling is smartly designed to bounce the acoustics around and lessen the blow. Although you could never quite describe it as hushed, it is bearable.
At the height of the Summer, just after our second visit, where my appreciation of Scott Howard's food reached dizzying heights during a plate-cleaning extravaganza that included succulent duck rillettes piled high on little toasts, crispy veal sweetbreads moistened by a smoky maderia jus and set on the smoothest of potato purées, a perfectly cooked piece of venison and fought-hard-for dibs on a side dish of their irresistible, sloppy, goaty, orzo mac'n'cheese, I thought I'd reached a new high. Easy, I thought, I'll use my self-imposed reviewing standards as an excuse to make a third visit, confirm that Scott Howard is the new dining nirvana, write a glowing appraisal, done and dusted, as simple as that.
Hang fire. Not so simple as I first thought. The third visit, at the beginning of August, threw me through a hoop. Everything had changed. No more appetizers and main courses. No more side dishes, No more portions of orzo mac'n'cheese. Previous menu replaced by small, "multi-course tasting selections".
I am actually one of those people, despised by many, who actually prefers small plates, but Scott Howard's food had been so wonderful until that point, I'd been sending even my large entree plates back to the kitchen, cleaner than when they'd left the dishwasher. Not one drip of sauce, not one speck of oil, not any crumb of bread, in fact a complete lack of evidence that was itself the clue to my high level of satisfaction with every dish that had been put before me.
I took a deep breath and determined that although things were looking bleak in terms of my blog's content, I'd just have to invest in another three visits before I could write a fair account of the menu. Try as I might, with Scott Howard involved, I couldn't muster any feelings of hardship at the thought of the task, especially when smaller plates would mean more plates and more plates would mean additional new things to try. I accepted my new fate with gusto.
And gusto also happens to be the precise word to describe my attitude to Scott Howard's excellent bread basket which hits the table fresh from the oven, the treasures inside wrapped in a heavy linen to keep them toasty. If you are lucky, and according to my calculations luck is only on my side about 66.66% of the time, a batch of piping hot, little cheese biscuits will be tucked amongst the breads. If you cave in and taste one, preferably after splitting and spreading it with a cool pat of butter, you will covet these morsels for ever more, so much so that you might suffer anxiety attacks if you ever arrive to find that they have run out for the night. It happens, but by nature, life seems to balance itself out. On the flip side, the staff once surprised me with a take-out box packed full of them, when I'd simply enquired if I might be able to take home the couple of leftovers in our basket. If you are ever bowled over by a similar gesture, please be smart and don't then leave them in a taxi.
Lest you completely fill yourself up on those delicious complimentary baked goods, I'll suggest you move on to the Ahi Tuna Tartare and before you yawn and turn away, tired of this most ubiquitous of raw menu items, know that the Scott Howard version is nothing short of startling. Tiny hand-cut cubes of the ruby red fish top a circular bed of creamy avocado surrounded by petite piles of finely crumbed chorizo, espelette and piperade which you are expected to fold into the tuna yourself just like you would do with a traditional tartare. What is less expected is the faceless presence of vanilla bean oil which, like a gentle, sweet kiss, adds an unexpected but subtle nuance to every mouthful. So seduced were we, the first time we tried it, we had to order a second, immediately. The popularity of Scott Howard's Tartare is so assured you might have to be an early bird to catch it. On our last two visits they had already run out. If this happens your server will try and persuade you to choose the Japanese Hamachi instead, imploring that it is equally as fine. Don't fall for the ruse - the two thick, buttery slices of yellowtail, served with pickled cucumbers and beech mushrooms, fennel pollen and citrus ponzu are overwhelmed by the harsh acidity of the vinegar used in its preparation. A much better choice, if your nerves can handle sea urchin, would be to go with the tender scallop sashimi, dressed with splashes of yuzu and almond and then draped with a glistening and gorgeous selection of the freshest uni which imparts creaminess, nuttiness and essence of the ocean into every bite. Oysters are another mainstay of the raw menu where, in contrast to the other smaller, more delicate crudos, strong flavours, like ginger, chili and especially onion are delivered with a brute force that is satisfying if you are in the mood to kick off your evening with something feistier and more generous.
Soups are next up and Scott Howard's Carrot Broth, a stalwart on an otherwise oft changing menu, is apparently so beloved by its customers, that the recipe for it is handed out with every bill along with the instructions "try this at home". You really do have to adore carrots (I don't) to love this soup, because even though it contains a significant amount of cream, the intensity of carrot is at its fore. At the end of the summer an exquisite cold corn soup on the menu was at once creamy and refreshing and had us smacking our lips with delight. More recently, reflecting the change in seasons, a salty-sweet, creamy, tomato soup drizzled with olive oil brought warmth to the menu. It is perhaps less stunning, but its familiarity signals comfort, something that the onset of Autumn requires.
Salads at Scott Howard are not necessarily inspired, but can offer confidently executed versions of classic combinations, be that Mozzarella with heirloom tomatoes or greens with Parmesan, sherry vinegar and black mission figs. From time to time a superstar salad will drop by to liven up the selection, like a wonderful bowl of grainy mustard-dressed frisee leaves intertwined with juicy slivers of viscid Duck Confit, matsutake mushrooms and bacon, all sitting under the shade of a medium-rare poached egg. Never ever pass up on something you think you would like to try at Scott Howard, imagining you'll save it until next time, because the next time you visit it might no longer be there.
The consolation for missing things that previously thrilled you is the constant promise of fresh experience and the chance to discover new favourites each time you stop by. In August a beautifully fanned, small but juicy breast of duck lying atop a bed of sweet pea puree dotted with maitake mushrooms made me go mmmm. The same month exquisitely fashioned squash blossoms had been stuffed with goat cheese and then set sail on a light, smoky tomato and saffron sauce that had been given an artful touch of tapenade where the tiniest little cubes of olive had each been hand positioned to look like miniature pebbles set on the edge of a pond. Their perfectly-executed crispy poussin is a tender little bird with succulent meat and lively flavors in both its jus and the goat cheese polenta cake it is paired with. Scott Howard's chefs have a deft hand with Foie Gras, either sprinkling large grains of salt on thick, creamy, cool, torchon-style slabs of the liver for an intensely savoury experience or at the sweeter end of the spectrum, serving it freshly seared on toasted brioche with licorice greens and a huckleberry Meyer lemon gastrique. The latter preparation, where the lobe had been cooked just enough to impart a golden crust on the the liver without diminishing any of the fat-oozing, tender, custard-like offal at its centre, caused barely muffled groans of pleasure to escape from everyone who let it pass their lips.
That some of Scott Howard's dishes are so utterly fantastic, means that there will be others that can't quite deliver the same levels of ecstasy. The sometimes stunning sweetbreads are at their best when they are served with a crispier coating that contrasts with the cushiony cloud of potato on which they lie. But when the glands are cooked in softer style, the juxtaposition between elements is less marked and the dish loses its edge. On one visit a tomato jam and pickled cucumber had taken the place of potato next to the sweetbreads which sounded intriguing, but taste wise was all over the shop and with no clear direction. Scott Howard's cooked scallops would be improved by an introduction to the Maillard effect since in a plain dish where they were paired with scallops corn and mushrooms, I found them to be insipid and pale. Monkfish with roasted tomatoes and cockle broth was a simple, clean-looking dish and the fish was perfectly tender but the end result was similarly unperky due to the watery broth. On my very first visit I enjoyed a pork belly, and I would probably still be ordering it to this day if, on the second tasting, it hadn't been a disaster - presented as a lump of wobbly white fat with no meat and not enough cooking time to make the fat anywhere near palatable. Thankfully the wait staff, who are mostly smart, savvy and extremely professional, noticed the problem and took the item off the bill without any fuss.
Scott Howard's linguine pasta with Saffron, the dish which sparked off a lively discussion about salt and pepper availability in restaurants, is the menu's token failure. They just don't seem to be able to get right. With the namesake spice barely discernible, the pasta dishes, whose ingredients vary on each visit, was initially recommended to me as a must have because "heirloom tomatoes won't be in season much longer". I usually find Scott Howard's seasoning levels to be spot on so I was disappointed to find the pasta was totally bland and that the tomatoes had been turned in to a flavourless mush. In the second attempt, with a chanterelle and leek stew, the vegetables were similarly lackluster but this time they were, at least salted. Third time, not lucky, presented us with an oversalted chanterelle, mint and olive combination that resulted in the least desirable of an already bad bunch of unpalatable noodles.
I was a little turned off Scott Howard's dessert menu when I was told on my first visit that they use artificially flavoured chips to make their butterscotch pudding. I have had the Brioche French toast a couple of times which, with its star anise and caramelised banana, is an exotic but filling treat. I have noticed that waiters generally pick this dessert as the one that they try and tempt customers with - so it must be popular - and it is always on the menu. Myself, I prefer to end the meal, instead, with a glass of Brachetto, although I wish they weren't so stingy with the pour.
Service has mostly been excellent at Scott Howard. On one visit, when they were thirty minutes late showing us to our table, we were all given complimentary glasses of J Cuvée 20 as an apology for the wait. I am guessing that Scott Howard probably track customers via Opentable because when we made two visits in as many days, the first thing they did was offer us a free round of drinks at the bar which I read as a thank you for our regular custom. One huge brownie point goes to the waiters who always ask if a drink is finished before removing the glass, but one brownie point is lost because they keep the wine and water bottles away from the table, not giving customers the chance to make their own pours which we would prefer. On the last visit, when our waitress was absent and our glasses lacking, I retrieved our bottle of wine from its hideaway on the table behind us and passed it to a friend to do the honours. The waitress spotted us and without warning, came up behind him, grabbed the bottle from his hand as he was midst-fillup and took over his action, spilling red wine on both his food and white shirt. The waitress in question doesn't do justice to the reputation of the other, excellent, servers, all of whom I think would have handled the situation differently. Since this happened I have decided to make it clear whenever I dine out, that I prefer to be in control of my own wine pours and I plan to test out some assertiveness, on my next visit to delicious Scott Howard.
Six visits were made to Scott Howard between June and October 2007 before this review was written.
Some Great Things About Scott Howard
The chef loves mushrooms and so do I. They are all over the menu and I am not complaining.
They show an appreciation of regulars.
Bargain - From 5.30-6.30 and 9.30pm - 10pm they offer a bargain prix fixe menu offering 3 courses for just $32 per person.
If you book a 9.30pm table on Opentable you get a bonus
Some Not So Great Things About Scott Howard
Wine bottles not left on the table
Up sale of water, also not left on the table, over-zealous refills by bussers
No salt and pepper readily available.
Menu-muddle - they let me order no less than two items (same main ingredient but different preparations) from an out of date menu causing two wrong dishes to end up on the table in front of me. They apologised and comped us a couple of drinks.
Incorrect information given by the person manning the phones. (She told us that menus would not change in the current month, when in fact they change constantly, causing us to cancel a booking because we didn't want to eat the exact same thing as she led us to believe we would do.)
500 Jackson St. (at Montgomery St.)
San Francisco , CA 94133