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Jan 17, 2002 05:10 PM


  • m

I have been meaning to get to Delfina for over a year and finally made it last night. While I would go back if someone else chose it, I am not in a big rush to do so. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I just don’t see what the big deal is, or why it is so hard to get reservations.

The restaurant was almost full by the time I arrived at 7:15. We had a 7:30 reservation and our table wasn’t ready until 7:45 or so. After being seated we were provided a small bowl of olives. After several requests we were given crusty bread as well. Other than the initial failure to bring bread, our waitress was friendly and competent, and I did not notice a hint of attitude by her or any of the staff.

We tried the grilled calamari over white bean salad and beef carpaccio for starters. The grilled calamari was darkly charred but not bitter at all, and very fresh. I was surprised at the smallness of the portion, just four small pieces for $8.75. The white beans underneath were very flavorful. The carpaccio was very good as well. A large plate of shaved beef with some sort of slaw, covered with crushed capers and aioli. We had a few glasses of Calera Central Coast Chard to accompany the appetizers. Nice wine, full bodied and fruity, but a tad too toasty.

For the entrees we tried the grilled flat iron steak with fries, and grilled scallops served with a black olive tapenade. The steak was great, cooked perfectly (medium rare) and full of flavor. It almost reminded me more of venison then beef, and was well worth the $17.95 tab. The fries were heavily flavored with fried sage and rosemary, very crispy and very good. The scallops were very simply prepared but were flavorful, probably due more to freshness rather than the preparation. The black olive tapenade was a nice contrast but nothing special. We also tried a side of sautéed broccoli rabe with garlic, which was nicely bitter. Sampled the 1999 Querciabella Chianti and Greenwood Ridge Cabernet with the entrees. The Chianti stood out.

For dessert we tried the profiteroles and some brewed tea. The profiteroles were filled with (espresso?) ice cream and were good, though I am not a huge profiterole fan. The tea list is quite impressive, with full descriptions of the tea flavors and caffeine level.

I understand the concept at Delfina is simple food, and I don’t have a problem with that. However, considering the simplicity of some of the creations, prices seemed a little high. Had all the entrees and appetizers been a bit less expensive I would have been more impressed. Overall tab came to $134 for two, including tax and 20% tip. The wine tab accounted for $45 of that. For that kind of money, there is a long list of restaurants that serve equally good food, but get much less attention.

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  1. Hmmm, Delfina definitely used to be cheaper--more like $6 for apps, $12-15 for entrees. Still one of my favorite places, because of (not in spite of) the simplicity of the food.

    1. I think some of us think back to the days when the most expensive entree at Delfina was $15-16 for the same kind of food.

      I haven't been back in a long time (> 1 year), and it looks like the prices have crept up slightly.

      I remember enjoying the grilled calamari then, but back then the portion was a bit more generous than what you got -- also 4 pieces, but fairly large ones.

      1. It seems symptomatic that dining experiences at cutting edge Bay area restaurants leave diners underwhelmed. "I could have done that" seems to be a common sentiment and I think that detracts from the thrill we subliminally seek when we dine out. I have yet to have the heart pounding, revelatory experience in the area that I did when at nineteen, I ate at Le Cirque in NYC. It was like being born again--I didn't know that these things were actually possible. Food prepared by imaginative and qualified experts with ties culturally to local cuisine, custom and tradition cannot be outdone by the trendy and come-latelies.

        12 Replies
        1. re: Ken Hoffman
          Jonathan King

          I don't know Delfina from Del Shannon, but I couldn't agree more with the tenor of this poster's comments. Any frycook with a mango and a mandoline calls her mishmash "cuisine," and it's debased a word that, come right down to it, never has had much of a foothold in North America anyhow ... the glory days of Creole cookery (please,insert your favorite regional style here) notwithstanding.

          1. re: Jonathan King

            Right on. I mean thanks for the home cooked meal but charge some other fool the sky high prices!

            1. re: Ken Hoffman

              A couple of years ago, for his 70th birthday I gave my stew-loving father a year's worth of monthly stew dinners, to be cooked by your's truly.

              I later figured out that if I included a reasonable cost for my labor, it was by far the most expensive present I've ever given. When I factored in the time I spent menu planning, shopping, prepping, cooking and cleaning up, I estimated that if I were going to present a bill these fairly simple (no lobster or fois gras) three-course dinners for four would have run about $200 each. Of course I'm not a food professional who would undoubtedly be more efficient and have economies of scale; on the other hand, I didn't have to factor in overhead.

              Just something to consider when comparing the cost of eating at home to eating out.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler


                But what a joy to sit down to a meal prepared by your own hands, with love and caring.

                Sometimes, when Nate and I sit down to a dinner we've planned and thoughtfully prepared - sometimes spending more time shopping and cooking than eating! - we are hard-pressed to recall why we dine out at all...

                . then we take one look at the kitchen, and remember!

            2. re: Jonathan King

              What does "Any fry cook with a mango and mandoline calls her mishmash "cuisine" have to do with this topic at all? And where do you get off with "her"?
              (Yes, I am insulted. I am a "her" & I can do alot with a mango & a mandoline when I feel like it.)

              The main thread topic has to do with the integrity of a restaurants worth. . . pretty basic. This has layers & layers & layers to it. It's part of the expectations, the initial response, it's part of the after-thought, it's part of the comparing, research, return too and reaccess mode we all do with eating out.

              Get back to what Delfina's is about and spare us.

              1. re: Lucy Gore

                You're point is well taken. I have eaten at Delfina. I went with a friend who works in Manhattan. We surveyed the glowing reviews handing in the entrance and sat down to a respectable meal. It was good. It was not great. It was not particularly memorable. It seemed like a lot of other contemporary Bay Area food experiences I have had in the past 3-4 years. My friend was completely underwhelmed. For the same money, he said, great food can be had up and down Manhattan. I tend to agree. Delfina was crowned king shortly after it opened. People poured into the place curious, hopeful and wanting to be seen. I was just left wanting.

                1. re: Lucy Gore
                  Jonathan King

                  You're right, and I'm sorry. My rant was heartfelt (it's a long-held opinion), but had little to do with the topic. Dunno what triggered it, but there ya go.

                  As for insulting you, a person cannot win sometimes. I alternate "his" and "her" in my own writing to avoid the monotonous "his." Nothing personal or gender-specific, I assure you!

                  1. re: Jonathan King

                    Sorry for the rant, myself!

                    Yes, this simple "what do you think" thought has generated alot of banked emotion. It is good conversation, regardless.

                    I have not been to Delfina and will look forward to it all the more now. I read recently an excerpt in a book that reminded me of how a chowhound could be regarded in the world. It had nothing to do with this site, but could!

                    "There are two kinds of travelers. There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see and sees it, and the kind who has an image in his head and goes out to accomplish it. The first visitor has an easier time, but I think the second visitor sees more. He is constantly comparing what he sees to what he wants, so he sees with his mind, and maybe even with his heart, or tries to."

                    Thanks for the good discussion!

              2. re: Ken Hoffman

                I wholeheartedly agree that a chef with good training and fundamentals is going to produce a meal that is significantly better than a trendy come-lately.

                On the other hand, not every restaurant can deliver a revelation, and certainly not every kitchen is gunning to do so. To be honest, it would be pretty hard to come up with something revelatory to a sophisticated and experienced eater like you, or to many of the other hounds here. Also, the diner's experience may come into play. If you had the same exact meal at Le Cirque again now, would it be as much of a revelation?

                One other thing that I've actually been looking for more these days is competence. For example, can any kitchen make an honest-to-goodness satay? Sometimes it's just as hard to satisfy a birthright (or even harder) than it is to provide something mind-blowing.

                I feel that it's worthwhile to understand what the restaurant is trying to do, where its ambitions lie, and whether it succeeds in what it's trying to do. Then decide whether the price is justified by the kitchen's ambition and the extent to which that ambition is satisfied. Also consider whether the restaurant's goals matches one's preferences. I also think about whether I'm subtle enough to appreciate the food in its entirety. (The last point may not apply to everyone, but it certainly applies to me. For example, it's very very likely that a $5000 bottle of wine is going to be wasted on me; I probably couldn't tell that it was 10 times better than a $500 bottle of wine. Hence I try to go for food and drinks that are within my dynamic range.)

                Lastly, the idea of "I can make this." In my personal experience, I have to think twice about apparently "simple" dishes. Could I have come up with the recipe? Could I have procured those quality ingredients? Could I have timed the oven such that the dish comes out just right? I speak only for myself, and sometimes I can't. A dish might look simple, but that can be potentially deceptive.

                1. re: Limster

                  Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I did in no way mean to impart the impression that only experiences like dining at Le Cirque are satifying. The pleasures of great food can be had at the most humble and simple establishment. An experienced diner knows immediately whether the chef's offering is a flashy amalgamation or the real deal. Great meals are made by honest cooks whose relationship with the foods they prepare is one based on respect, love and a deep knowledge. I am at a loss as to why certain places garner such attention and praise when clearly they are just not that special. I believe the next great food movement will reflect these sentiments....whether the offering be a steaming bowl of pho, a great burger or a delicate piece of sea bass.
                  A concrete upper end example might be a restaurant like L'Amie Donia in Palo Alto. While no means perfect, there is no doubt that each plate presented is the result of an obsessive love affair with food.

                  1. re: Ken Hoffman

                    This is such a wonderful, thought-provoking topic for all folk, not even us hounds. It's something I have conversation in daily. The original post was so honest and I personally feel it is an important ponder. We all have to eat, we all evolve from this experience and are changed by it, daily. It's simply substance for many, and there's nothing wrong with that.

                    Mike's post on Delfina's does create a personal, inward look at the "what & how dynamics" of a dining out experince effects us all. The coolest thing is that it is personal, it demands attention, if you care and you can't control it. Sounds like a relationship, to me.

                    (Sorry for the blast of heat on the last post, too.)

                2. re: Ken Hoffman
                  Recovering Chef

                  "I could have done that" is also a common complaint by many about a majority of Fine Art since Impressionism.

                  The truth is that almost all amateurs COULD NOT have done that.

                3. Your review, and the reactions below make me think of the spirited thread about Chez Panisse. When evaluating restaurants, many people seem to lean toward one of two camps. One view places greater value on the execution and service experienced during the dining experience. The other camp searches for the extreme in freshness of ingredients, and a simplicity of preparation that doesn't sully that purity. Though generally in the latter camp, (and so a fan of both Delfina and Chez Panisse) I think that those two philosophies offer very different experiences; both of which have merit. [I am still looking for the place that fuses the two ideas perfectly!] I wouldn't want to eat at a Le Cirque every night,Chez Panisse, or even a inexpensive/fresh street stall somewhere in S.E. Asia! As great as all of those experiences can be, we Chowhounds crave variety. The context, our mood, and even budget govern our enjoyment of various restaurants.

                  In defense of Delfina: minus wine, you spent $89 for a fair amount of food. I think that that is a reasonable tarif that reflects the cost of goods,labor, rent/life in the bay area. Besides, for $45 worth of wine, you should spend what you did!

                  Just some thoughts! Would love to hear about some of your favorite restaurants.



                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Ian

                    Thanks for the comments. I appreciate simply prepared fresh food, and I did enjoy Delfina. I don’t think it needs to be defended. I certainly wasn’t expecting Elisabeth Daniel or the Fifth Floor, and don’t fault the restaurant for its simplicity. Nor do I consider myself to be firmly in either of the two camps you described. Like most, I value variety.

                    What strikes me is that Delfina is universally adored and receives so much attention across the board, as if they are doing something incredibly unique. I can’t really figure out why that is. My guess is that when they debuted they offered a great bargain, with $6 appetizers and $15 entrees, in a hip neighborhood. At those price points, the restaurant stands out. That no longer seems to be the case. While that doesn’t detract from the quality, it simply raises expectations.

                    I have never been to Chez Panisse but have heard so many negative things about it that I am not in a hurry to get there. I will admit for that kind of money I am looking for a different experience, something I can’t do at home after a trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market or Berkeley Bowl. That seems to be the biggest criticism I have heard about Chez Panisse. Unfortunately there are only so many dining dollars available and so many places on my list to try, so I may never get there.

                    Is $45 a high wine tab? It was three glasses each over the course of almost two hours. I thought the wine list was reasonably priced and offered several interesting choices. Plus, when you consider the $45 total wouldn’t even cover corkage at the French Laundry, it feels more and more reasonable every minute.

                  2. r
                    Recovering Chef

                    So... to sum up, you had a great meal but it was too "simple" for the cost? Is this correct?

                    If you ever wanted to know exactly what sort of comments drive a chef to drink, well... this is a perfect example - and to get it from a so-called "Chowhound" is seriously disheartening.

                    1 - Simplicity does NOT equal cheapness, nor does complexity equal quality. Many of the world's greatest chefs create very simple food - and their customers pay the price.

                    2 - For a good chef there is no greater compliment than to hear that a dish was great "because of the main ingredient." An amateur cook will take a mediocre main ingredient or a great main ingredient and treat each the same - ending up with a dish that does not RESPECT that ingredient or its quality. A good chef tries to find the best ingredients - and then showcases THOSE ingredients. When Gary Danko was at The Dining Room he used to periodically get Kobe beef. He would serve this as a main course. He would cube the filet (about 4 inches on a side), sear all sides and then serve on a large white plate napped in morel demi-glace that had been run through cheesecloth. It had no sides (vegetables or starch) and no garnish. It was NOT cheap. And it was a work of genius.

                    3 - That "simple" sauce on the steak probably took somewhere in the vicinity of 10 to 12 man hours to make and includes numerous ingredients (some of them quite expensive).

                    The *illusion* of simplicity and a showcasing of perfect ingredients resulting in balanced food that seems somehow "not showy" is a hallmark of a true chef.

                    Sorry... I'll stop ranting now. Even after being out of the business for a while this sort of comment can cause my blood pressure to go through the roof.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: Recovering Chef

                      Maybe it'd help your blood pressure to categorize this sort of response another way.

                      Some people don't appreciate simplicity. Some only appreciate simplicity. It'd be best if people could appreciate different things on different levels in different ways, but most people are not flexible enough to appreciate the full range of creative possibility in any given realm. In fact, NO one appreciates it all (I, as a critic, try hard to do just that...while maintaining enough critical acuity to judge quality, which is quite a tough balancing act). And it's human nature to fault the other party when you fail to appreciate.

                      So what this customer is really saying is "it didn't suit me". That's all.

                      Those reading along who appreciate simplicity will understand the deal, and disregard the opinion. Those who dislike simplicity will be able to use the opinion to steer clear of something that might not suit them, either. Win-win.

                      A chef (or any artist) would go nuts trying to please EVERYONE. In addition to writing, I'm a trombonist. If a customer regrets having paid to hear me because I'm too aggressive or too subtle, too swinging or too modern....I just shrug my shoulders. Such opinions can't hurt me, because they clearly reflect listener taste, rather than my ability.


                      1. re: Jim Leff

                        Meanwhile, a strongly felt and clearly worded response like Recovering Chef's can be an education for anyone who can read it without taking his feelings personally. Perhaps the original poster will be inspired to taste "simplicity" with fresh attention. These boards have triggered a number of food epiphanies for me in that way. I still don't "appreciate it all" and probably never will, but I appreciate more and more.

                      2. re: Recovering Chef

                        I'm with you Mike.

                        What people who feel this way about simplicity dont realize is that they are responsible (to a certain degree) for the increase in the price of dining out. They are also responsible for the advent of the foot high tuna tartare napolean that is much prettier than it is tasty. It became much easier to impress people, and therefore charge them more, by sculpting a dish and complicating it with more ingredients, than making simple ingredients taste exactly how they should. I think most chefs are much more satisfied cooking a beautiful piece of fish perfectly, with a simple vegetable, starch and sauce than some dish with 35 ingredients that requires a zoning permit to sculpt.

                        I dont think people always realize what impresses them, but they should be aware that the attitude that simple ought to be cheaper inevitably leads to more expensive, more complicated but no better food. Usually, in my opinion, self consciously complicated food is worse than well done simple food.

                        1. re: jake pine

                          My humble opinion is there should be a balance. Chinese speak of "se, xiang, wei" - literally: color, fragrance and taste.

                          We all agree that it's terrible form to cover up incompetent cooking with elaborate presentation. And I am in total agreement that many places have sort of gone overboard with the presentation without paying as much attention to smells and tastes.

                          But an artful arrangement, followed by an alluring fragrance, that leads to a wonderful sensation on the palate, can make the experience all the more complete.

                          Personally, I feel that there is a place for complex food that is done tastefully, honestly and in the spirit of deliciousness. A more holistic approach if you like -- balancing presentation, fragrance and flavor. And doing things in a manner that does justice to the ingredient.

                          I think part of the trick in enjoying food is to be able to appreciate the food for what it is. For an extreme and obvious example: some of the best goreng pisang (fried bananas) I've had came in greasy newspaper or tiny plastic bags and would look completely out of place on fine china drizzled with sauces and a sprig of mint.

                          But once, I also enjoyed a nice roasted piece of foie gras, set comfortably on an apple puree, with beautifully cut apple slices baked with a touch of cinnamon that was enhanced by the garnish of a whole cinnamon stick. Elaborate and pretty, yes, but no disassembly required for eating in contrast to the said foot high tuna tower) and very much in tune with the character of the dish.

                        2. re: Recovering Chef

                          The intent of my post was to question why Delfina gets so much attention. I did not say the restaurant did not offer quality food or that simple dishes don't have value.

                          I didn't mention a sauce on the steak so I don't understand your comment.

                          To suggest price should not come into play when evaluating a restaurant is naive. I love a simple great burger, but I am not going be happy with a restaurant that charges $18 for it.