SPQR had me fooled. Given it was awarded a Michelin star for fine Italian food, I expected a stuffy, polite, quaint restaurant filled with overdressed waitstaff who pour wine with one hand behind their back. My first suspicion that I was wrong is when I walked past it a few nights before on my way from State Bird Provisions to Altier Crenn. From the outside, the vibe seemed more hipster than a classic Italian joint with the presence of surprisingly pounding, quaky rhythms as opposed to uncle Vito playing the violin table side.
I emailed quite a bit in advance to see if I could secure a table of 6 for a group I was with at a conference. They told me such as table was not available but when I got on open table I was able to secure two tables of 4 at the same time. It seemed odd to me…sorta pretentious;quite risible in fact. On the day of, I was a real nuisance and called to see if we could combine of two tables of 4 into one table of 5 due to a few last minute cancellations. They hesitantly accommodated us but once I walked in, I understood the issue. The restaurant is not designed for large groups. Small tables are crammed into every square foot of the smallish dining area. When seated, one of us ended up stuck in a swelling, protruding, quillon-resembling seat which blocked the path of everybody walking by.
The menu changes frequently but usually focuses on a decent array of appetizers, a number of pasta dishes and a few mains. There is no doubt the pasta is the cornerstone of the menu given the fact there are usually a dozen or so smart, piquant, quirky rations available at any given time. I started with the octopus garnished with kale sprouts, panissa (a lemon chick pea cake) and a vibrant puree laced with pistachio. Chick peas and octopus work so well together and the panissa was a creative and enjoyable way to marry the flavours . The octopus was tender and the subtle use of lemon accented everything well.
Although I didn’t opt for the pasta, members of my dining party did and I had the opportunity to try a few bites of each. The bucatini “straw and hay”, california blue cheese, linden walnut, kale and sage brown butter ($26) was a delightful interpretation of this popular combination. Whole walnuts and sage leaves along with large pieces of kale made it a visually appealing dish which was able to balance the intensity of the rich cheese sauce.
Another tablemate chose the famed and in the eyes of some, risky blutnudlen which sounds more horrific than the assassination of Julius Caesar. This popular dish mixes blood pasta with blood sausage ragu and pig’s foot breadcrumbs ($25). I must admit it was a novelty to try but beyond a few bites a sanguine pasta queming ravenous hipsters is not my cup of tea. It was rich and flavourful and reminded me why, as a pseudo-Catholic, my consumption of blood tends to stop at transubstantiation. I couldn’t imagine finishing the whole plate.
Instead of pasta, I opted for the Guinea hen “rosticceria style”, wild rice porridge, roasted strawberry, turnip and pink pepper ($36). The presentation was a pleasant mess. The delcious hen was almost hidden among the colours of the Italian flag. The texture was somewhat reminiscent of a good shawarma. The meat was crispy but held in its moisture. The wild rice porridge was vibrant and the strawberries sweetened the pot. The sulphur of the turnip rounded the plate out.
We decided on a family style approach to dessert and ordered a trio which included 1. fried blueberry pie, butterscotch, lemon curd and burnt sugar gelato, 2. hibiscus bombolini, cherry vanilla, cherry bark vanilla and fior di latte gelato and 3. peanut and milk chocolate pudding , malt and chocolate gelato. The consensus at the table was that the bombolini was the best followed by the pudding and the fried blueberry pie (all $14). The blueberry pie was the one I was most excited about but there were too many flavours and the butterscotch didn’t really fit. The pudding was boring looking and tasted almost the same. It was very predictable which was kind of odd given the dishes which led up to dessert.
SPQR is a perfect fit for Fillmore Street in San Francisco. It ignores the traditional concepts of fine Italian dining by presenting beautiful dishes but throws away the spacious room filled with white linen in favour of a labyrinth of small table scattered throughout a broom closet. The service was characteristic of the latter with the staff dressed in black as opposed to a shirt and tie. The food was delicious and deserves the accolades it has received over the years. That said, I have to agree with many that say the food is somewhat pricey; quasi-ridiculous in fact. Perhaps Herod had a role in charging $25 for pasta and $14 for dessert. Despite this, the place is always jam packed so it doesn’t seem to deter the masses. In the end, when I polled my guests to see if they majority enjoyed the experience they agreed that it was stupendously polished;quorum reached.