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SPQR report: one thumb up, one thumb down

To be fair: it's a big thumb up and a little thumb down. We had a really nice meal last night and will definitely return but had a big disappointment.

We ordered 5 small plates and two pastas: pork ribs, sausage with lentils, grilled pecorino w mushrooms, butter beans w puntarelle & anchovies, and fried brussels sprouts; spaghetti carbonara and rigatoni amatriciana. The small plates ranged from very good (the ribs were tasty though boring) to mind-blowing (grilled pecorino was salty & smoky from grilling, cooked just enough to make it soft without losing shape; fried brussels sprouts were as good as any fried vegetable I've had in Rome). Service was astounding: patient, gracious, and well-informed. The entire staff smiled with every interaction, no matter how small, even when we were blocking their way as they were balancing a dozen dirty plates or full glasses of wine. I've never experienced such gracious, easy-going service.

The big disappointment was the pasta sauces, especially the carbonara. Despite the praise that SPQR's carbonara has gotten on this board, I thought it worse than any I've had in Rome or made at home, and around average compared with other versions I've tried at U.S. restaurants. And this was even though the ingredient list was exactly right: pecorino, egg yolk, and guanciale (no cream, egg white, or, god forbid, peas). I found the sauce bland, lumpily textured, and lacking the usual richness that should come from rendered pork fat and egg yolk. My best guess is that there were two issues with the execution. First, according to our server, they add egg to the pasta in the saucepan over the heat before adding the cheese, so I suspect this ends up cooking the egg too much and losing the runny richness of the partially-cooked yolk. Second, the guanciale was cut very thinly and was pre-cooked slightly if at all before being tossed with the pasta. I suspect little of the fat was rendered.

I much prefer guanciale cut into chunks and fried before being tossed with the pasta so it crisps, yielding what someone on the board once poetically described as "pork puffs" -- crunchy on the outside yet airy inside. Some of the rendered fat then gets tossed with the pasta after the pasta has been mixed with raw yolk and cheese off the heat, so not to overcook the egg. I prefer carbonara to blend egg yolk, cheese, and guanciale fat seamlessly into a rich, clingy sauce, with crunchy guanciale bits for contrast.

SPQR's carbonara didn't come together like that at all. There were distinct bits of cooked egg and grated cheese throughout, which separated from the pasta strands, and floppy bits of undercooked guanciale whose flavor didn't permeate the rest of the dish. Perhaps this should continue as a thread on the general board (about finding the perfect carbonara) or the home cooking board (about making the perfect carbonara).

For the amatriciana, guanciale was cut the same way, which bothered me less since it would lose its crispiness as it simmers in the tomato sauce even if it had been pre-fried, but still.

I'll definitely return for the small plates. I would certainly try other pastas on the menu, such as the one with rabbit ragu and black kale that I'm now kicking myself for not ordering last night. But it might take a bit of time before I get over my carbonara let-down before I brave the crowds there again.

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  1. Not "pork puffs" as I initally wrote but "crispy puff of porkiness" -- even more poetic -- which I read in this article on how to make and use guanciale:

    http://www.themorningnews.org/archive...

    1 Reply
    1. re: david kaplan

      You had me at "pork" and "puff," whatever the exact combination. A shame about the sauce, but I look forward to trying the small plates you recommended.

    2. You pretty much hit it from my perspective. I went with 3 friends a few weeks ago. We had 5 apps, all of which were at least very good. A couple (octopus and fried cauliflower) were great. I also had the carbonara and my reaction was the same as yours. I will say that quality of the spaghetti itself was excellent. One friend had the brisket, which although was a bit chewy, was very flavorful.

      I may go back when I go to Yoshi's again in a week, but it'll be when it opens at 5:30. It was crowded enough at 6 on a weeknight. I can only imagine it's gotten way worse since Bauer's review.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Larry Stein

        My very first report -- a week or so after they opened -- said pretty much the same thing; eat and love the appetizers but walk up the street to Vivande for pasta.

      2. Out of curiosity, should the guanciale have added almost a rancid taste to the dish? I've not had guanciale before, but thought it overpowered the carbonara. I actually looked up what it was, as it wasn't the pancetta that I've had before (although in the US, not Italy). I also thought it should have been cooked more to be crispier, but the texture and intense flavor were not to my liking. So, was it made poorly, or is it me?

        Susan

        1 Reply
        1. re: waldrons

          Hard to say. Guanciale has a bit of a sour flavor to me, but it's quite different from rancid. I'm not sure it could go rancid with the amount of salt and sugar involved during the curing process. Regardless, the egg yolks should not be overcooked, the porky bits should be crisp/tender, and there should be lots of black pepper. I personally suspect the prohibition against egg whites is a product of laziness since their proteins seize at a lower temperature than the yolks and if a cook isn't careful they'll have scrambled eggs with noodles--in the romanticized version of this dish's creation, I have a hard time thinking the coal miner's wife wouldn't use the whole egg.

        2. Finally made it to SPQR last night. When I mentioned to my hosts that there were no reservations, he said, oh, we'll go when they open then, with visions of walking right in.

          Wait at 5:45 was forecast at an hour and fifteen minutes. They won't call you or give you a pager; you just have to come back and huddle uncomfortably breathing down the necks of the poor people at the front tables and worrying about how much you're paying the baby sitter and the $50 you just spent on drinks at the bar down the street.

          We liked but didn't love the food. Four of us shared 10 appetizers, 2 pastas, and 2 desserts, which was more than enough. We also had a carafe plus another glass of wine and a pot of tea.

          Prices are reasonable, and service is warm enough once you're seated. The tables are too small for so many plates, though, leaving the bussers to constantly fight you for the plates; we knocked a couple of giant serving spoons off the table. And our plates were a mix of sauces and debris by the time I asked for replacements.

          Memorable: canneloni with a gorgeous tomato sauce and some kind of pork stuffed inside; prosciutto; chicory salad with tangerines and roasted potatoes (?); roasted potatoes with chiles and anchovies (?) (the only dish we really fought over)

          Ribs were flavorful but like most of the meal oversalted, puntarelle salad was way overdressed; sweetbreads were fried beyond recognition. I found the pork sofrito tasty, but I'm not a fan of beans and would have preferred it as a pasta sauce.

          I had a glass of riesling/gewurtztraminer/sb from Alto Adige that was a perfect complement to the food.

          I didn't like the celebrated almond milk granita. It was like eating flavored snow with some kind of soy dollop on top. Fortunately we all loved the warm rice pudding with dates and pistachios. (By 8 p.m., they were out of panna cotta).

          SPQR is meant to be a casual place, and it's clearly suffering from too much popularity. While you could come with one or two people to sit at the bar, we enjoyed being able to try more of the menu, and we traded notes and in one case bites with the table next to us. We left stuffed for ~$135 before tip, not much more than we'd spent for a somewhat disappointing meal at NoPa the night before for two.

          Still, I'd rather make a reservation. It's hard for any food to live up to a 75-minute wait.

          1. link

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            SPQR
            1911 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, CA 94115