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SPQR Report, long-ish

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Well since there hasn't been a report since Dec. 27 I thought I would throw my hat in the ring for the new year. I went to SPQR on Jan 31st with 4 other friends, one of whom is a sommelier from NYC who was visiting. Accordingly he had almost complete control of the wine selection and was sitting on the opposite end of the table from me, so this report will focus on the food w/ no wine commentary.

The approach:

We showed up at about 7:30 on a rainy Thursday night and had to wait till about 9 PM for a table. The waitress was apologetic for the wait and the seating was quick, efficient and friendly.

Round 1: Small Dishes

We ordered 8 small plates to share, they were brought out at a near perfect pace. We never felt like we were waiting around or being rushed. I forget the order they came so I'll run down my thoughts on each in the order they were on the menu.

Sunchoke, radicchio, almond, parsley and tangerine salad:

As many of the small plates would turn out to be, this one was a great balance of flavors. The presentation was slightly sloppy, though this may have been intentional to go with the rustic flavor of SPQR. All of the ingredients were fresh and there seemed to be a light vinegar dressing. A great mix of textures as well. I'm pretty sure this dish did not come out last, but if you order a range of small plates I might try and get it last, the clean bright flavors would serve as a great palate refresher before moving to pasta or entrees. Would definitely order again.

Puntarelle salad with tuna conserva, chiles, and anchovy.

This was one of the least balanced of the small dishes. The anchovy flavor overwhelmed the dish, and if there were in fact chiles involved they were completely drowned out by the intensity of the anchovies. If you're a huge anchovy fan order this dish, otherwise pass.

Straciatella

This was one of if not *the* hit dish of the table. Perfect for a cool rainy night with great balanced flavor and a nice creaminess. Just order it.

White Beans with Pork Soffritto

The table agreed that this dish was a little too greasy, but other than that textural problem it's a great dish. The beans are perfectly cooked and serve a nice counterpoint to the very intense soffritto. Would probably order again.

Local calamari with tondini beans, capers, and fried breadcrumbs.

Like the other two fresh seafood dishes we would end up ordering, this dish was pitch perfect. The calamari was perfectly cooked, with a pleasant texture, no chewiness and a great, fresh flavor. My one adjustment would be to dial down the amount of breadcrumbs, though their presence generally adds a great texture element to the dish. Would order again every time.

Brussel Sprouts with garlic, capers, lemon and parsley

I don't want to comment on this dish from my own personal thoughts because I really cannot stand brussel sprouts. I've tried them braised, steamed, fried, and roasted and cannot get over the flavor. The rest of the table, however, definitely enjoyed them. Order if you like sprouts.

Sweetbreads with celery, garlic, lemon, and oregano

A big hit at the table, even with those who had to be cajoled and harassed into actually eating sweetbreads. The celery was a great complement to the perfectly (let me say it again: "perfectly") fried sweetbreads. My one complaint would be that the other listed flavors in the dish did not come through very strongly. Still, order even if the thought makes you squeamish.

Mozzarella bocconcini with spicy tomato sauce

Don't be fooled, these really are just mozzarella sticks (in this case balls, not sticks.) HOWEVER, they are the best mozzarella sticks you will ever eat. They are perfectly fried, without a hint of greasiness and the sauce beats the pants off your typical "marinara" dipping sauce. As a side note about SPQR service: one of our friends bit into a bocconcini and was splashed in the face by some hot oil or water trapped within the breading. Literally before I had even realized it happened, our server had notified the manager who was there in a heart beat to make sure everything was OK and who ultimately comped a few dishes for us. Would order every time, even without the great managerial attention.

Round 2: Pastas

Rotelle with octopus, lentils, and fried chiles

As noted above with the calamari antipasti, this dish was again pitch perfect. The octopus was perfectly cooked, as were the lentils. The sauce was amazing and the chiles added the perfect amount of heat. Best pasta dish we had, IMHO. A must-order.

Rigatoni Amatriciana - Guanciale, tomatoes, red onions, pecorino, and chiles

Like the octopus dish, the chiles added just the right amount of heat to this dish though, ultimately, it was not a great dish. There was nothing wrong with it particularly, but compared to the brilliance of the small plates, and the delicious octopus pasta, this was only so-so. Order if you must have amatriciana.

Rigatoni Carbonara

Here I defer to david kaplan's analysis: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/473457 which I had not read prior to going to SPQR. The dish was so hopeful in its ingredient list and description and fairly disappointing in the execution. Not deserving of the hype, not worth an order, especially as an entree.

Round 3: Entrees

Fried Lamb Neck with marinated ceci beans.

This was a dish I both enjoyed, and was thankful to share with six people. The waitress informed us that the lamb neck had first been braised for a considerable period of time, then fried in a similar way to the mozarella antipasta. It was incredibly rich. I could feel my arteries clogging with each bite, but in a delightful way. Definitely don't order this just for yourself, but order it.

Bay Scallops with roasted cauliflower, rapini, and olives

Again, a perfect dish. SPQR seems to have a deft hand with fresh seafood, and this was my favorite of both the entrees and pasta dishes. The scallops were not rubbery at all and the flavor of the dish was light and accentuated, rather than masked, the natural deliciousness of the scallops. Order at all costs.

Round 4: Dessert

As a general note, I suspect you can't go wrong with dessert at SPQR. We ordered three, along with a few french press pots of (Blue Bottle)coffee and all was amazing.

Riso Budino with pistachios, dates, and lemon

This dessert came first and was a fantastic finish to such a rich, amazing dinner. The lemon and date flavors made themselves well known in a fresh, bright way. If you are stuffed, and only want one dessert, this is a great one to pick.

Griddled ricotta cake with crema fresca and bitter orange

Certainly not nearly as light as the Riso Budino, but still amazing. The ricotta cake was like a light, slightly fried bit of cheesecake, the oiliness of which was well cut by the bitter orange. If you're ready for a little more fried food, go ahead and order, you won't be disappointed.

Almond milk granita with espresso crema

WOW. As I told a friend just today, the granita was perfect, like clouds filled with angels singing; unbelievably light, no large ice crystal formation, and a perfect amount of sweetness. Even if you have absolutely no more room for food order this.

Well, I hope this was helpful in some way for fellow hounders. My general analysis: stick with small dishes and desserts with maybe a seafood oriented pasta dish or entree. Oh, and I forgot another bonus point. With all that food plus a lot of wine (I think six bottles, though I dont recall precisely) the bill was only $300 w/ tax before tip. If any of my comrades from dinner (who I think might be chowhound lurkers) want to add to my comments feel free. I'm sure I neither remembered everything correctly nor completely.

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  1. Terrific and helpful report ... especially about the sweetbreads ... since I fall into the squeamish catogory. It is one of those dishes like tripe that I won't order unless I know the kitchen well and trust them. So it is good to know where to get a good version.

    -----
    SPQR
    1911 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, CA 94115

    2 Replies
    1. re: rworange

      Great Report...I've copied it to take with me....I LOOOOVE sweetbreads so I'll be very happy!
      Straciatella (rags) is the soup right? (or gelato I guess) or was this a different kind of presentation? (it is my favorite Italian soup though, so I'm kind of hoping it was soup)
      I'll try going for lunch..see if the quality remains constant...

      1. re: ChowFun_derek

        Yup, the soup, not the gelato. :-)

    2. Great report. I haven't been yet, and doubt that I will go anytime soon, unless they start taking reservations. There's no way I'm going to wait for an hour and a half to eat dinner at a normal hour, no matter how good it is. I understand what the restaurant is trying to do, to keep it a casual trattoria, but unfortunately the place is just too popular to make that concept work.

      1. The fried sweetbreads are great. I thought they were seasoned very nicely, especially compared with the chicken livers, which were served with just lemon wedges. My favorite fried items were the brussels sprouts and the salt cod and potato croquettes.

        Pastry chef Jane Tseng's desserts are amazing, especially that almond milk granita with espresso whipped cream. Completely justifiable divergence from the Roman tradition.

        Much as I love the food, I wouldn't stand around for an hour and a half. Will they take cell phone numbers so you can sit comfortably in a bar or something?

        3 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          I was initially hesitant about the wait, but I'm glad we did. Not only was it worth it, but there is a very cool restaurant, Florio, two doors down with a rather spacious bar area (it looked to me as if many of the bar patrons were wait-listers elsewhere) and even a table or two outside for those who enjoy a pre-dinner cigarette. Also, the SPQR hostess was VERY specific about the wait time. They did not take a cell phone number (but we also didn't ask if they would), but they didn't seem to mind the occasional check-back by one or another member of our party, and I'm pretty sure they seated right on the nose of the quoted time.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            We also waited on 1.5 hrs on a Thur night at 7PM for two people. The wouldn't ake our number, but the time estimate they gave was right on the dot and we waited at a bar across the street.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              As a random aside, Trio Cafe, about a half a block south, is about to turn wine bar. I have a feeling a lot of SPQR customers will be cooling their heels there ...

            2. Thanks for the great report! I've only been once, but I really enjoyed it (with the exception of the Carbonara). I guess I got lucky - my husband and I only waited 45 minutes for a table on Saturday night.

              However, I must say that I normally hate brussel sprouts. But I LOVED these. Unbelievable. I will definitely be back for more!

              1. I think I was sitting next to your group that night ... I was the one who knocked a glass off the table with my bag when I walked in. :)