Sunday, January 22, 2012

Flour+Water, January 19, 2012

Thursday we found ourselves in the Mission, looking for dinner a little on the late side. We stumbled, soaked and shivering, into Flour+Water, where we were treated to one of the best meals I’ve had recently. Of course I had heard the hype, the great things from people who would know, but as a result I almost expected to be disappointed. Happily, my preconceptions did not get in the way of enjoying a stunningly good dinner.

We were seated immediately by a fairly pleasant hostess, but had to wait a bit before seeing our otherwise friendly waiter. They've done a great job using candlelight and warm woods to create an intimate but casual atmosphere, although I suspect at peak times it might feel crowded. At ten pm on a Thursday, it was relaxed and welcoming.

We were offered still and sparkling water, both on tap and complimentary (as it should be). Perusing the wine list revealed a good selection of hard to find Italian wines at very accessible prices ($30-$90). By the glass the choices are fewer, but well curated so that every dish and palate can be satisfyingly matched. Their beer selection is small but includes some standouts, like the Linden St. Brewery Black Lager I drank with my meal.

We decided to start with pastas, skipping the admittedly tempting pork trotter appetizer. I had to have the squid ink spaghetti with clams, squid, watermelon radish and chili oil. I had not had a squid ink pasta since a sublime experience at Rafael, in Lima, so ordering it was my challenge to Flour+Water. The spaghetti was beautiful, dark as night and fragrant with brine and the musky depth of the ink. The texture of the pasta was a perfect al dente, just firm enough to slightly resist my teeth, and the each noodle was silky. It tasted like wet earth and the sea, as poetic as that may sound. Despite being a seafood pasta, it was quite rich. The minimal sauce of ink and seafood juices was just enough to coat the pasta without obscuring the extraordinary flavor and texture of the pasta itself. Perfectly cooked clams and squid provided a nice textural counterpoint to the noodles. The one element that seemed to get lost was the chili oil, since I did not detect any spice whatsoever. It would have been nice to have a bright chili taste to cut the richness just a little, but to be honest I only thought this after the meal. While enjoying the decadence of this phenomenal dish, I thought of little else but my pleasure.

My friends had rosemary pappardelle with braised veal and a prosciutto, braised cabbage, fontina, potato and red onion pizza. The pappardelle was again texturally perfect, further evidence of Flour+Water’s clear mastery of pastas. Paired with the veal, the dish was light but incredibly savory. My first impression was that the rosemary was overpowering, but as I chewed and swallowed the mild, almost sweet veal created a perfect balance with the astringency of the rosemary. My mouth felt completely alert after tasting this dish, and I would order it again in a minute. Unfortunately for this review, I did not taste the pizza, but it looked delicious and my friend quite enjoyed it.

We all split a root vegetable gratin, which was everything gratin should be: creamy and loaded with butter. The root vegetables added a twist to the usual butter and potatoes gratin, making it more complex and even richer in flavor, if that can be believed. I felt like I could hear Thomas Keller extolling the virtues of butter in the background with every bite I took. Trust me that this is a good thing.

We ended with a good macchiato and a chocolate budino; a dense, almost fudgy pudding. This was explosively good, with just enough sea salt to make your mouth salivate and just enough bitterness from the chocolate. It was topped with a coffee caramel whipped cream that would have made me happy on its own. The flavors were perfect, though I would have preferred a slightly less dense consistency for the budino itself. Ultimately it made my mouth so happy that this small concern was just that.

In conclusion, I would like to dispel the idea that this restaurant is somehow overpriced or does not provide value for money. Neither of these assertions is true. The portions were plenty, neither precious nor grotesque. I was honestly surprised that the bill for three people’s meals, a side, dessert, coffee and five beers came out to a modest $30 per person. Considering the stellar quality of the food, good service and elegant surroundings, Flour+Water is one of the more affordable choices at its level. I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates perfect pasta, a good glass of wine and that uniquely Californian aesthetic of well-executed casual elegance.

I loved Flour+Water, and I will be returning as often as possible.

Buon Appetito!

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