Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Watercress -Valencia Street -San Francisco - CA

Watercress 1152 Valencia St (between 22nd & 23rd Sts), 415 648-6000

Date of visit: Thursday October 14th 2004, 8.30pm.

I'd heard whispers that Watercress was producing good food at great prices under new ownership so I wanted to check it out. One of the new owners used to head the bar at Plouf where I've spent many fun evenings so I was intrigued to see how the transition from bartender to restauranteur was suiting him.

The decor is decidedly uncharming, with a patterned green carpet and lots of severe dark woods. Use of warm, dim lighting goes some way to mask the ugly furnishings, creating a cosy, homely, inviting atmosphere.

Our dining companions for the evening are friends of both of the new owners which meant we were spoilt with what I can only assume was extra special treatment. On our arrival, 4 beautiful long-stemmed fancy champagne glasses filled with bubbly were handed to us to enjoy whilst we perused the menu.

The main draw of the Watercress menu is that there is a Three Course Full Choice Menu with a very reasonable set price of $19.95. There are no restrictions on this deal, although the steak and braised lamb shank dishes do carry a $5 surcharge.

In case you should decide to go a la carte, all of the petite assiettes are priced at $5.95. Amongst the list of 10 appetizers there are a couple of salads available, a soup of the day and some crispy goat cheese wantons. Everything else is fish or seafood based. Carnivores needn't worry, however, as they won't be disappointed by the entree selection which is more dominated by meat whilst still offering several choices for fish eaters and catering for vegetarians too.

After we had made our selections and ordered a bottle of Vacqueyras, we were each brought an unexpected amuse bouche. Everyone else was given a little helping of salmon tartare, but as I had actually chosen that dish for my appetizer, I was given a taster of Grilled Tiger Prawns with celery, tomatoes, green scallions and brown butter instead. They were perched on a little mound of mashed potato. The tasty char-grilled prawns were hot, fresh and succulent with the salty brown butter adding a little decadence into the mix. These actually turned out to be far more tasty than the appetizer I had actually chosen.

Salmon Tartare Spring Aioli, Creme Fraiche, Chives, Potato Chips $5.95
The presentation was absolutely stunning. More in line with a dish you'd expect to see at a 5 star restaurant, the diced raw salmon was beautifully arranged as a stylish circular terrine topped with the waffled potato chips. The portion was large too, perhaps too large. But looks aren't everything and the dish didn't have as much substance as I'd expected. The fish was disappointedly bland. Luckily someone else's appetizer was decorated with a wedge of lemon which I squeezed onto my tartare to give it a bit more oomph. Conversely the potato chips were extremely salty so I mixed them in with the fish to help further with the seasoning. The measures I took did help, but with some small adjustments, the kitchen should have no excuse not to elevate the taste of this dish to match the standard set by its appearance.

Pacific Oysters on the Half Shell Dampierre Champagne Mignonette $5.95
Now is the season for oysters so three of us shared this as an extra dish. Six oysters, at less than a dollar each is great value and these medium-sized oysters were plump and quite delicious, not too briney, not too chewy, exactly as I like them, served with tasty accompaniments. Perfection.

Duck Confit Au Orange Roasted Garlic, Baby Spinach, Mashed Potatoes $13.95
I love duck but was a little nervous about the 'au orange' in case it was too sweet. Luckily, the orange component came from a tasty sauce dominated by slightly bitter orange rind and so my fears were averted. The duck leg itself was meltingly tender and soft, as was the spinach. The creamy mashed potato served to soak up all the tasty juices and briefly act as a pillow for the plump little roasted garlic cloves that had been dotted around the edge of the plate.

Grilled Rib Eye Steak
French Fries, Asparagus, Borderlaise Sauce $19.95
This was the choice of two of our party. Both Frenchmen, usually fans of more choice cuts of steak, both declared their pieces of rib eye to be extremely good and tasty pieces of meat. They could hardly contain their surprise. I believed them when they said it was good, for once I wasn't even offered a chance to try it. Hmmph! When it came to sharing their fries, however, they had no choice but to surrender. Us girls took one look at the long, dark brown, stunning looking fries on their plates and dived straight in, without even being invited. All of us agreed they were the best fries we could remember tasting in a restaurant. Soft flavoursome potato dominated the centre of these chipped potatoes, which were marginally fatter than standard French Fries. The outside was crispy, but not too much so, balancing the softness within.

As the menu requests "No substitutions please", and there are no extra side dishes either, the only way to get ahold of a portion of these fries is to order the steak dish. At first, I was disappointed by this fact, but then I pondered on it a little while and convinced myself that perhaps the fact that the fries were being produced in such small quantities was what actually made them so astonishing.

Despite having eaten far more than any of us needed, we'd all chosen the set menu meaning desserts were de riguer. For once, I made the best choice of the evening. I never choose cheesecake, but this time something made me do it, probably the mention of chocolate truffle in the description. It turned out to be a creative bent on a regular cheesecake. A little bed of sweet and crunchy caramelized pecans were covered with a tiny little bruleed disc of cheesecake, topped with a miniscule white chocolate truffle and then crowned with some fresh fruit. Because it was so small, and because the cheesecake was without a regular, heavy, biscuit base, this dessert was light and the perfect end to a satisfying and enjoyable meal.

The boys were not so enchanted with their almond paste and apple tarts which despite their tasty fillings, had soggy, instead of the puffy pastry they were hoping for. The choux pastry in the icecream profiterole dish was equally unappetizing, it was declared to be uncooked.

The food at Watercress at $19.95 for three courses is an incredible value and this is the major draw. The staff told us that they were making changes to the menu very slowly, careful not to alienate the dedicated regular customers they had inherited with the restaurant. Hopefully Watercress will continue to build on its successful dishes while recognizing and attacking the areas on its menu where they need to improve.
Watercress -Valencia Street -San Francisco - CA


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