‘Tis a rare occasion when you find a college student on a budget dining out in downtown San Francisco, where even the simplest dishes can rack up high prices – but, as circumstances would dictate, I found myself standing outside of Perbacco, an upscale Italian ristorante, just last Friday.
This chic restaurant – marked with the triple $$$ sign on many social apps – was already buzzing with dapper businessmen and women in crisp suits, tailored pants, and polished loafers when I arrived at noon. Even though I had to wait only a few minutes for my party, I was very thankful that we had made a reservation ahead of time – for, judging from the natural hustle and bustle of the place, it seemed like a necessity if we ever hoped to secure ourselves a seat amongst the city’s elite. Well, at least during the rush hours.
THE IMPRESSION (L’IMPRESSIONE)
Elegant. Modern. Classy. Those were the first words that popped into my mind as I went past the heavy front doors to enter an elongated, minimalistic-yet-stylish room that would become my temporary haven for the next two hours. The restaurant easily exuded an old-world, antiquated charm, with its faded brick walls, marble counters, prominent cheese display, and large vases of flowing flowers and vines. However, modernity would not be excluded – Perbacco was also decidedly contemporary, with a streamlined look, contemporary lamps, and grid-layout of tables.
The service, as perhaps to be expected, was also excellente: within moments of sitting down, we were promptly given our menus along with a small plate of grissini – Italian breadsticks – and basil pesto to start with. The pesto – and you must forgive me for not taking a photo of this, for I more or less dove in – was absolutely delicious, with a beautifully mellow forest green color and smooth, lustrous texture that served as the perfect complement to the breadsticks’ crunchy nature. There seemed to be more oil in this pesto than many of the other ones that I’ve tried, but that was precisely why I loved it so – every breadstick required less pesto, but the flavor did not fade.
Then, when we had finished la piccola porzione, our most gracious waiter brought us each a slice of artisan bread – a most pleasant surprise, as I had not expected that at all. Of course, I had to dip it in the pesto, even though it was perfectly soft and flavorful without it.
Then, the menu. Looking online now, I realized that the menu changes oh-so-slightly every day. Regardless, its purpose remains the same: to introduce “urban San Francisco to the full range of flavors found in the Italian regions of Piemonte and Liguria, with a touch of France by way of Provence.” Following the traditional Italian meal structure, it was divided into four sections: “Appetizers” (or Antipasto); “Soup/Pasta/Risotto” (Il Primo); Main Courses (Il Secondo); and dishes that were “On the Side” (Il Contorno).
THE APPETIZER (IL ANTIPASTO)
Wracked by indecisiveness, and, I will admit, unfamiliarity with what some of the ingredients, I decided to engage the “choosing” strategy that I have always found to be effective: I closed my eyes and let my finger drop to a random point on the menu. Then, I opened them.
The “Seasonal Stone Fruit Salad” served with house smoked lardo, radicchio, almonds, and stone fruit vinaigrette.
Quite yummy-sounding, indeed! It was well worth a try – especially since I had not known then what “stone fruit” was (although I found out quickly that it was merely a fancy term for plums, cherries, peaches, and apricots). However, I must say that the “Fritto Misto of Rock Shrimp” with seasonal beans, olives, fennel, and lemon aioli also intrigued me, as well as the “Vitello Tonnato” – slow roasted veal with lemon and albacore tuna sauce, capers, and arugula.
The presentation, I must say, was quite beautiful – the colors of the assorted fruits and greens were bright, playful, and dynamic. However, when I took a bite, I was slightly disappointed – not as spectacular as I had imagined it to be. The radicchio, an Italian leaf vegetable, was bitter by nature and left a subtle acrimonious tang in my mouth – a small problem that I quickly fixed by alternating it with small bites of the sliced peaches (or stone fruit), which, thankfully, were refreshingly light and sweet. The lardo, a type of salume or cured pig fat, was foreign to me but quite delectable as well; it was the first time I had ever tried it, and, for some reason, reminded me a lot of mozzarella – perhaps due to its creamy texture and milky color. As a result, I found that it balanced well with the airier radicchio. On the other hand, I found the stone fruit vinaigrette to be so-so. Nothing too memorable.
Overall, il antipasto was not bad, but not quite deserving of its price ($12) either. 5 out of 10.
THE MAIN COURSE (IL SECONDO)
Then, it was time for the main course. Ironically, I had much less trouble deciding this time, having been able to study the menu for slightly longer. While everything looked extraordinarily appetizing, I ended up ordering the “Pan Seared Hanger Steak” (medium rare) with roasted king trumpet mushrooms, arugula, and caramelized onions.
I’m not quite sure why I had chose it over the “Subrich” – Piemontese veal and pork meatballs with brown butter-sage apples, potato puree, and spiced veal jus – or the “Langaroli” – pasta filled with brasato of short ribs and procini mushrooms with a red wine butter sauce – but I think it probably had to do with the fact that, in the nature of a true college student, I had not had steak in so long. The idea of consuming a nice, solid chunk of meat – even if it was for lunch and not dinner – was too tempting to pass up.
Without hesitation, the pan seared hanger steak it was.
While the fruit stone salad had been mediocre, I found the hanger steak to be delightful – succulent and tender with just the slightest hint of seasoning. For those who enjoy a lot of flavor on their meat, it may have been a tad on the dull or bland side; but for those who prefer to go – or well, eat – au natural, the level of flavoring was just right. With each bite, I made sure to truly savor the natural flavor of the meat – which, when combined with the sautéed king trumpet mushrooms and caramelized onions, was simply divine. The greens served on the side – the arugula – was, once again, too bitter and did not seem to suite my palate. Nevertheless, I suppose that it was a slightly healthier option than receiving a heaping of potato purée or pasta – even though I would have perhaps enjoyed either more.
Overall, I would give the dish a 7 out of 10. Not exactly mind-blowing, but quite tasty nonetheless.
THE DESSERT (IL DOLCE)
Alas, I have a most terrible confession to make: I did not have time to look at the dessert menu – my all-time favorite of all menus. BUT, as a true foodie with a sweet tooth like none other, I must say that I did enjoy analyzing it. I imagine the conversation with the waiter would go something like this:
My dear tesoro, would you perhaps like to venture to try a taste of the “Bonet,” a wild harvested chocolate custard with whipped cream and amaretti?
Si, per favore!
Or what something a bit richer and creamier – the “Sformatino,” a caramelized white chocolate mousse with cherry compote, bittersweet chocolate
ganache, and hazelnut caramel?
Do you even have to ask?
And the gelato flavors that we have – blueberry swirled lavender, especially – are absolutely divine!
I have no doubt about it!
To be honest, I may just have to return…Even if it means reserving a whole table to myself just to try out the dessert.
Overall, I found Perbacco to be quite lovely, if not life-changing. The ingredients were fresh, even if the dishes themselves did not appear to be too novel or inventive. The atmosphere, too, was quite charming – although it would not be a place that I would think of dining on a regular basis (obviously because of the expense, but also because I found it too formal for most occasions…even though I am one to celebrate often and joyfully without cause).
Atmosphere: Formal, chic, great for important business meetings
Quality of Food: Wonderful, very fresh ingredients
Service: Absolutely excellent
Price Range: $10-12 for appetizers, $15-20 for main courses, $9-10 for desserts
Overall Rating (out of 5): 4.0
Recommend for a Newbie? Perhaps, but not a “must-try” place