Monday, March 03, 2008

Orson - 4th Street - SoMa - San Francisco

One Enchanted, Magical, Evening: An Early First Impression
*Including 12 Bonus Tips for Successful Dining at Orson

Serendipity came into play when I was pondering on which restaurant a friend and I should choose to meet at last week. Browsing through news that Orson was about to open caught my eye and my mind was set. That this particular friend and I had enjoyed our first ever meal together at Elizabeth Falkner's other restaurant, Citizen Cake, three years ago and also in February, sealed the deal. I called and secured a reservation for Wednesday, their second night of opening.

Courtesy of a Caltrain that was running on time, I arrived at Orson a good ten minutes early for our 7pm rendezvous and was immediately offered the choice of waiting at the bar or at the table. (Hallelujah!) I opted to head straight to our two-top and I was happy to be shown to a quiet enclave from where I had a great opportunity to soak up the scene around me.

Orson is large and lofty. A mezzanine level with suspended walkways overlook the ground floor which is dominated by a large, oval bar. The wait and bar staff wear slightly dandy, distinctive uniforms marked by officer-like stripes around the arm and a jaunty tie whilst the hostesses were all beautifully dressed in what I guessed must be highlights from their own very attractive wardrobes. (Think adorable, short baby-blue dress paired with darling little white ankle boots: Very cute indeed!)

My waiter came over to help me choose a cocktail and talk to me about the menu whilst I was waiting for my companion who was having problem finding a taxi. I was lucky that the rest of his section was empty as it meant he had the time to fully (and enthusiastically) walk me through the drink options many of which included unusual spirits and ingredients about which I found I needed an education: Osmanthus, batavia-arak, rhum clement creole shrubb, veloce? It was difficult to pin down my choice and I jokingly told the waiter that I might have to try one of everything. Little did I know at that point...

To cut an intriguing, tasty, four-hour-long story short, our evening at Orson was only a whisker short of perfect. Really! I can't help thinking about the meal five days later and smiling about how lucky we were to be able to experience Orson in what, surely, must have been a somewhat unique way. Either, they simply hadn't picked up enough business by the time of our visit, or they had limited the number of reservations to keep things manageable as it was only their second night. How often is someone who arrives at a restaurant before 7pm encouraged to stay until closing time? We weren't rushed, it wasn't over crowded, the pacing was leisurely which just happened to fit exactly with our own relaxed mood that evening, there were no delays that we noticed, neither were we made to feel like we, ourselves, were being too slow. We just went with the flow. We ordered cocktails, we ordered some snacks, more cocktails, more savoury food, a bottle of wine, a few more things to eat. Then desserts? Why not - and then how about a night cap to conclude and a little gift (surprisingly delicious chocolate-coated foie gras, sprinkled with coarse salt) sent out from the kitchen?

At the end of our evening, when the check was brought to us, I honestly had absolutely no idea that a full four hours had passed since I first sat down. Proof, if any were needed, that time really does fly when you are having fun.

My only worry, now, is, that any subsequent visit will not live up to this first one. C'mon - what restaurant is going to let you stay for 4 hours when they need to turn two tables a night? On the other hand - the way Orson's menu is presented - as we experienced it, after a few teasers you are encouraged to order lots of explore plates (two to three per person) and share to get the full experience. That novel way of dining - which I can only describe as a kind of tasting menu of your own choosing, is probably better not hurried. When we were there, only half the menu was in place, even. Had there been the full choice available I suspect we may have even tried a few more dishes and stayed a little longer still. I am left wondering, do Orson plan to turn two tables per night - and if so - where does that leave the kind of wonderful dining experience myself and Fatemeh were able to take pleasure in - where the experience naturally developed at its own leisurely pace?

* 12 Tips for Enjoying Dinner at Orson:
1) Don't complain that the one dish you ordered didn't fill you up after the waiter recommended you should order at least two or three per person.
2) Don't go to Orson if quantity is your benchmark.
3) Don't go to to Orson if you are not open-minded about food.
4) Don't take a fussy eater to Orson.
5) Don't go to Orson if you think molecular gastronomy is totally stupid before you've even tried it.
7) Don't hold back - over the course of the evening we ordered no less than 12 dishes between the two of us and we weren't the slightest bit stuffed.
6) Do go to Orson with someone who has the same level of passion and interest and intrigue about food as you do.
7) Do make sure you order the light smoked fish, black rice, keffir lime, bacon which was the star dish of our evening.
8) Do have fun - it can be found in the Parmegiano Pudding. (Think grown-up pop rocks.) The Pigwich and Pork Buns are fun dishes too.
9) Don't miss out on the cocktails - we tasted no less than 5 different ones and they were all absolutely superb. (I'm no wimp so the catch 22 was my personal favorite)
10) Don't go to Orson if you are on a tight budget. To do Orson right, it's going to cost you some. If you are worried about the size of the bill, head somewhere cheaper, fretting about money will only serve to dampen the pleasure of dinner.
11) Only go to Orson with people who are happy to share their food.
12) Don't be embarrassed about ordering several desserts: After all, the owner is a famous pastry chef! (Cheesecake crema is very good.)
13) What are you waiting for?

Orson: 508 4th Street, San Francisco, CA 9410, 415 777-1508 Reserve Online

This review was a first impression written after just one visit in the first week of opening and as such our experience may not be a typical representation of dining at Orson. Date of visit: Wednesday February 27th 2008.

Wednesday March 12 Update: Headed back to Orson to try out some more cocktails at the bar. A few new favourites worth mentioning: House cured ham, grilled garlic-tomato rubbed bread was really fabulous. They started aging this ham 18 months ago, people! Don't miss it. Also this Campari-lover loved the strawberry blonde Negroni. At the end of the evening, as the bar quietened, we got chatting to Jacqueline Patterson, the mixologist. She is one smart lady. When I mentioned to her, in all that I've got left of my English accent, "I've been before and my favourite was the Catch 22", she immediately said "You don't have a blog, do you, called Becks & Posh?" How astute is that? Although I don't care to have my anonymity blown, if someone is going to blow it, I can't think of a more engaging mixologist to do so. Jackie made my friend Brian a "Brian Special", with Domaine de Canton Ginger & Cognac Liqueur. It was so good, I had to have a glass of Brian all to myself. My original Orson dining-mate couldn't stay away from Orson either, she's already made a second visit too.

Third visit March 27th 2008:
Sat at the bar with Brian and let Jackie look after us. Since she's a Master of Mixology I don't remember a great deal about the evening, except that the cocktails were strong and the smoked fish was great.

Fourth visit May 24th 2008:
Took Fred and Hans for dinner. On a Saturday night, Orson wasn't too crowded. We arrived early so that we could sit at the bar and have Jackie make us a cocktail or two. I had a Catch 22 and the boys had the manly cucumber gimlets. For Fred's second drink Jackie made him something special, based on the fact he doesn't like sweet drinks. He was really happy when she delivered some sort of fresh mint concoction. Hans was complaining he was bored with life but when we sat down to dinner and the parmigiano pudding with the pop rocks arrived he brightened up. We had a fun night. I loved the new dish on the menu: porcini, anchovies, scarlet turnip, sherry vinaigrette. Hans liked the pigwich so much he had to order a second.

Fifth visit July 2008:

Sixth visit August 13th 2008:
It's hard to remember a night at Orson, so strong are the cocktails. However, I can recall a crispy pork belly dish that was served with tiny tomatoes and a lot of feisty spice. Sardines with bitter beans were great too, but the charred hamachi tartare was pedestrian in comparison. That can't be said of the desserts which were all great. We did the taster. But it was the pluots with honey ice and olive oil ice creams that stole the show. Or you could argue that Jackie stole the show with her cocktails again. Either way, it's all good.

Seventh visit August 28th 2008:
Arrived for dessert and cocktails. Was disappointed that old favourites like the "Pigwich" and the "Parmigian Pudding" were off the menu. Drank one of Jacqueline Patterson's delicious inventions, the 'Chocolini': scarlet ibis rum, vanilla syrup, house chocolate liquor. Asked after her but she'd already left for the night. A week later read the news she'd been let go for good. This makes me so sad. To me, Jackie was the main draw of Orson. Can't wait to hear where she ends up because I am so following her there. Jackie - if you read this - please do let me know.

Eighth & Probably Final visit, September 30th 2008:
Fatemeh wanted a celery gimlet. We got there at 10.30 pm it was SO SAD. We had to ask if they were still open - it was empty save two tables near the window, (each filled with four older guys just finishing up). So we sat at the bar. To my right the bar surface was all covered in crumbs and spills. They didn't clean it up the whole time we were was there. There was an industrial sized saran(sp?) wrap [aka as 'cling film in UK], an ugly plastic scoop, a dirty old rag of a towel and a shoddy looking plastic container just sitting on the bar. It looked ugly - like we were in a sandwich shop at the end of lunch service. Aside from the gimlet, there were three other cocktails on the menu which were just pedestrian. I had the rather sweet negroni. I feel like its come full circle. I dined so well there with Fatemeh on the first week of their opeining, and now I feel that six months later together we have just witnessed their swan song. Btw, if you are interested, Jackie will be starting at Zinnia, opening October 22nd in the old Scott Howard space.

QUESTION OF THE DAY graphic copyright sam breach
?Does the thought of Orson turn you on or turn you cold?

Local Resources
My Orson Dining partner, Fatemeh asks of San Francisco "Interesting Food -- Are You Ready For It?"
Cocktails at Orson by my friend Anita
We spotted Paul H from Chowhound dining at the bar on the same evening as us. I tend to agree with his statement that Orson "is certainly one of the most interesting new restaurants to open in the city for a long time"
Orson by Optic

2005 | Pizzetta 211 - 211 23rd Ave - San Francisco

© 2008 Sam Breach
Orson - 4th Street - SoMa - San Francisco


  • At 3/3/08 08:33, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Can we welcome your mojo back???

  • At 3/3/08 08:38, Blogger Sam said…

    I don't think my mojo is back. I have been struggling to write this post for 4 days. Mojo didn't come by to help me ;)

    Good news is that I decided to spring clean. I figure it will take me several weeks to do the whole house. But I am finding it cathartic and I hope that once all the cobwebs are dusted away and all the superfluous junk has been gotten rid of, I might be able to see my mojo.

  • At 3/3/08 10:11, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You say Orson "is certainly one of the most interesting new restaurants to open in the city for a long time" but is interesting what the diner wants.

  • At 3/3/08 10:31, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Anonymous -

    I would wager, based on the success of restaurants like WD-50 and Alinea, that diners are ready for "interesting" food, so long as it's also delicious.

    In Orson's case, that is most certainly true.

  • At 3/3/08 10:43, Blogger wheresmymind said… the expression "Slightly Dandy"

  • At 3/3/08 13:48, Blogger ChrisB said…

    Glad the spring cleaning is progressing and that you had a good time at Orson's.

  • At 3/3/08 15:03, Blogger Beccy said…

    Sounds like a great evening

  • At 3/3/08 17:30, Blogger Kyla said…

    Must try Orson soon! Hope you feel the mojo soon, but you know, if you don't thats okay too. Blogging is a choice, not an obligation...

  • At 3/3/08 18:24, Blogger Mark DeLoura said…

    And to think a couple days ago I was sitting at WD-50 and complaining to someone that there are no "molecular gastronomy"-style restaurants in San Francisco. Yay, thanks Sam!

  • At 3/3/08 18:40, Blogger Alice Q. Foodie said…

    Sounds very cool - something look forward to on a future visit! Good luck with the cleaning, I need to do the same.

  • At 3/3/08 18:57, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    that is so enidd's type of place. next time, she begs, please invite her...

  • At 3/3/08 21:03, Blogger BreadBox said…

    Welcome back, if not to your mojo, at least to your posting:-)

    We like reading your words even when your mojo is missing....

  • At 4/3/08 11:13, Blogger Casey said…

    Thanks for a truly thoughtful and helpful review. I'm a big fan of Faulkner's desserts and love her cookbook -- which I blogged about briefly a while back. It's a great read.

  • At 5/3/08 23:14, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I had the good fortune to eat at Orson last night, and I had a similarly fantastic experience. We ate at the bar--we intended to stop in only for a cocktail, really, but were lured to stay by the intriguing menu. The parmigiano reggiano pudding with cocoa nib "pop rocks" actually made me laugh out loud with glee, which isn't something food makes me to do very often. Extremely high marks, too, for the pork buns. Superdelicious. I can't wait to go back, maybe with a slightly larger group, so I can work my way through more of the menu!

  • At 6/3/08 01:30, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    We popped back in tonight, and I've just written a wholly inappropriate post.

    I'm a little in flirt with this place. It's seriously and truly outstanding, in the very sense of the word.

  • At 7/3/08 07:53, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    this sounds like i place i want to go. once i come into my inheritance, i mean.

  • At 8/3/08 14:59, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thank you for such a wonderful post. I felt like I was right there with you! Orson's is a restaurant that I am going to have to put on my places to go list!

  • At 9/3/08 07:41, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I bummed that I'm not back home to try it. I've been such a longtime fan of Elizabeth's from way back when she just had the little bakery by Haight Street. Man, what I would give for a kickass cocktail too. No such thing in Paris.

    Speaking of 4 hours meals, you're always welcome to come visit the restaurant I cook at in Paris ;-). Gros Bisous, Ms. Glaze

  • At 10/3/08 19:40, Blogger Sam said…

    Ms Glaze - oh how I wish..!

  • At 21/3/08 00:11, Blogger JackiePB said…

    Hey Sam, Jackie your mixologist here! It was great to meet all of you and I am so pleased that you have been enjoying my new home. Please come to visit me with the whole gang again soon, I have a couple of new drinks on the list and some concoctions I've been working on up my sleeve. Cheers!

  • At 23/3/08 23:31, Blogger Sam said…

    Hey Jackie - you must be reading my mind: Brian and I already had Thursday marked on the calendar for a return visit. I am all for concoctions.


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