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Mar 30, 2008 08:55 PM

Luce Report [San Francisco]

Luce is the restaurant in the new Intercontinental Hotel on Howard at Fifth Street. Let's just get this out of the way: it's a terrible location. But don't let that stop you from going to this restaurant; we had one of the best meals we've had in the city. More on that later, but first logistics. We parked catty corner from the hotel in a lot that promises a $10 flat fee, but the machine didn't work. The homeless guy with a gimp said he'd protect the car with his life for $5, even though the sign specifically said not to pay "unauthorized persons". We took him at his word; the car was still there after dinner, as was the homeless guy, so I "tipped" him $3. ($8 for parking in San Francisco is a total bargain; the last time I parked at the W Hotel, it cost me $24 with validation!)

The hotel is designed to defend itself against the very same kind of homeless people we encountered in the parking lot. You have to enter through the main door; there are security people every 10 feet. So this is not a trip for the faint-hearted, including GoingOutAgain, who was beginning to question our last minute decision to try Luce, despite the lack of reviews on Chowhound.

Persevere! The meal was a complete delight for us and the four other tables occupied on a Sunday evening. The wine list was pretty broad, and includes both expensive and inexpensive selections. We decided to try the "Luce" 2004 Montalcino Super Tuscan. This super tuscan is a product of the joint venture between Frescobaldi and Robert Mondavi (a beautiful, but not inexpensive bottle at $127). There is some connection between the name of the wine and the name of the restaurant, but I haven't been able to find what it is online after leaving the restaurant.

The chef is a French lady named Dominique Crenn, who must be one of the most creative chefs whose output we've had the pleasure to eat. For instance, GoingOutAgain ordered the Black Ink Trofiette "Carbonara": baby calamari on a pasta soaked in black ink with a poached egg, pancetta, and parmesan cheese with plenty of garlic. Her comment was that there is a tartness that cuts the richness of the egg and pasta. I had the Calamari Brochetta: calamari filled with goat cheese with sprig of rosemary stuck through a small black olive; surrounded on the plate with a tomato chutney, sliced kumquats (possibly pickled), and a fennel slaw. The variety allowed me to combine the elements into different tastes, leading to a remarkable variety from an appetizer. (The whole menu under-describes what you actually get, which is a refreshing change from menus that give you every gory detail and leave nothing to surprise you on the table.)

For entrees, GOA ordered the "Wild-Caught Sea Scallops". The scallops came two ways: three with truffled caviar on a scallop ceviche and three with a bacon tortellini in a Pernod foam, all arranged around an arugula salad of tangerines & cauliflower. The scallop ceviche was an amazing trick to put on top of a grilled scallop; who would have thunk? And the combination of pancetta and scallop was also a pleasant combination.

I ordered the "Niman Ranch Aged Rib Eye Steak". Before the entree arrived, the waitress delivered three salts to give me a chance to decide which one to use to flavor the steak. The steak itself was a filet topped with Medjool dates and braised oxtail with a date-reduction sauce and surrounded by seasonal vegetables. The entree came with a side of polenta bianca, a white polenta fried and accompanied by a gorgonzola dolce latte sauce. The steak itself was perfectly cooked, but the combination of the dates and the sauce and oxtail was an amazing complement, a delicately balanced set of tastes.

Dominique Crenn came out to visit with us twice and I must admit that I was so charmed that I was considering asking her hand in marriage, despite the fact that she wore a wedding ring and my girlfriend was sitting across the table from me. I asked who inspired her and she gave her mother credit, as well as a chef in Brittany, whose first name is Olivier (but enough of the Luce meant I can't remember his last name).

If we can figure out the parking and manage the relatively unwelcoming environment, we plan to make Luce a regular on our itinerary in gastronomic San Francisco.

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  1. Thanks for the report! Someone was complaining just a couple of days ago that there weren't any reports on chowhound about Luce.

    Luce - InterContinental San Francisco Hotel
    888 Howard Street, San Francisco, CA 94103

    1. I had ordered the pasta described by StewartsDinDin as an appetizer -- it was priced so close to the appetizer pricing that I assumed it would be a small portion. It was HUGE, we shared it and had leftover. In fact, my only regret about the dinner is that I ate the roll (which was warm and fine but not spectacular) -- I am a big eater and couldn't finish the portions, which were generous. They also gave us a selection of sweets at closing, which I always prefer to an amuse bouche at the opener.

      2 Replies
      1. re: goingoutagain

        Did you order dessert? This seemed interesting ...

        Study of Chocolate
        Chocolate Egg
        Chocolate Pot de Crème
        Caramel-Pear Chocolate Ice Cream
        Chocolate Beignet
        Saffron Chocolate Mousse
        All made with Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate

        As did this ...
        Goat Cheese Pana Cotta Maple-Walnut and Beet

        Yeah, that menu is a good read.

        For lunch and weekend brunch they have an upscael bahn mi ...

        Vietnamese Berkshire Pork Belly Sandwich Caramelized Onion, Cilantro, Mint, Carrot, Celery, Jalapeño

        Dominique Crenn, was named by Esquire magazine as one of America’s most promising “Chefs to Watch”

        The opentable site mentions an outdoor patio. Did you notice it?

        1. re: rworange

          We had dinner there earlier this month on its first Saturday night after opening. Some inventory issues were still being worked out (far more grappa on display in the bar than was available for consumption). But the staff made the extra effort to meet and greet, including the chef as mentioned above. Part of that was because they weren't terribly busy, but it was honest.

          The Study of Chocolate was pretty good -- too much for one person and better to share, IMO. But we've all had the death by chocolate medley at restaurants before. This wasn't terribly that different from some of the better examples of others.

          The Berkshire pork belly dinner was quite good, though much more tender than we expected. And as far as an outdoor patio goes, there are a few of them located throughout the hotel on the East and West sides of the building.

      2. "If we can figure out the parking ...": the opentable entry says $15 valet parking with validation. There's also the 5th & Mission garage a block away, $3 per hour.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          They are offering free parking at the hotel until July. A huge plus. We ate there again tonight and were blown away. Much more surprising, ambitious food than we find in the other high-end (and more pricecy) SF restaurants. Definitely our favorite.

        2. The whole menu under-describes what you actually get, which is a refreshing change from menus that give you every gory detail and leave nothing to surprise you on the table.)

          I beg to differ with the above quote from StewartsDinDin: Anyone with any food allergies or other types of restrictions swoons with delight at seeing detailed descriptions rather than surprises that often seem to fall into one or the other of those categories.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Fine

            Now I have a dilemma...should I go to Ame or Luce?

            1. re: vivers

              Last year we went to Luce for my birthday; last night we celebrated at Ame. Go to Ame.
              The Taste of Ame Sashimi plate is splendid for $39... Lissa's Staff Meal was a composition of freshness, texture, and knife skill; the Sea Urchin Bruschetta with Lardo and uni is melting richness — and the Rhubarb Pie & Ice Cream $10 - can be shared if you are so inclined. On Wednesdays, the prix fixe for $55 includes wine pairings and it is a delightful value. We also split the Chawan Mushi and the Alaskan Black Cod. The food is artful and the service is exemplary.

              My two favorite restaurants in the City are now La Folie and Ame.

              Ame Restaurant
              689 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94105

          2. I took my dad there for his birthday in December. It was a conceptually well thought out menu with interesting flavor profiles. It was also a great deal- four people, each with 3 courses and two bottles of wine for under $80/person after tax + tip.

            My only issue (and what's prevented me from returning) was that every dish was room temperature or cold. Did you notice any issues with that? Maybe it was drafty between the kitchen and our table (it *was* December), but had the main dishes been served hot I think I would have become a regular.