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Mar 21, 2010 11:21 PM

Chef's tasting menu at Mr. Pollo [SF]

Melanie had dropped by Mr. Pollo on Mission at 24th to check out the offerings of their Venezuelan chef, and noticed that he was offering a chef's tasting menu, prix fixe for $19.95. She rounded up a bunch of folks, including some visiting chowhounds, and the eight of us pushed together three two-tops, leaving one other table and two counter seats. Yes, it's a hole in the wall.

But it's a hole in the wall with a talented, passionate chef. How many Mission dives have a chef, not just a cook? How many have a chef who has cooked in top restaurants around San Francisco and across the country? How many have a chef who says that what he wanted to do was get rid of the menus and ask people what they wanted to eat and how much they wanted to pay, and he would cook for them? What other chef is offering a tasting menu for which he also does all the prep, serving and dishwashing?

This chef would be Manny Torres Gimenez, from Venezuela, and for our dinner he served:

An amuse bouche Venezuelan-style "stuffed" arepa: a silver-dollar-sized disk of white cornmeal, split and sandwiched with a slice of kiwi. The crisp browned crust on the outside of the arepa and the creamy interior were a surprisingly delicious contrast with the cool, sweet-tangy kiwi.

Next, a Colombian-style arepa: a corn aroma arose from a bigger disk, more deeply browned on the outside and oozing with cheese. A bit of sugarcane had caused the caramelization on the outside and brought out the corn flavor.

The arepa trio concluded with Venezuela chachapas: disks of crispy browned pureed fresh yellow corn folded around melting cheese.

From arepas we transitioned to their cousin, the empanada. This was a Colombian version, a crisp halfmoon-shaped anchiote-tinted cornmeal pasty filled with a smooth chicken-potato mixture. The filling was fairly bland on its own, but came with aji, a dipping sauce made of chopped green onions, vinegar, cilantro, etc.

Finally, the main course: a duo of braised lamb on a bed of anchiote rice and a grilled baby goat rib. This came plated with a dollop of a complex sauce that included jasmine and lavender flowers and other herbs. The lamb, based on a dish his grandmother taught him, was tender and deliciously simple. The goat rib was perfectly cooked medium rare, with crispy fat along the bone, and was surprisingly mild. Chef Gimenez said it comes from Australia.

As we were wrapping up, the chef told us he would be happy to put together a dinner based around dishes or ingredients of our choice, or a menu of dishes paired to chosen wines. Reservations are not required, but given the size of the restaurant and the fact that it's a one-man operation since Chef Gimenez recently took over sole proprietorship, strongly recommended.

He told us this was the first Sunday he'd been open and that from now on he would be open seven days a week.

Mr. Pollo
2823 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

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  1. Fantastic meal organized by Melanie. Thanks for setting it up and bringing those delicious wines. As Ruth's write-up covers most everything, I'll only add a few comments.

    The amuse-bouch surprised me, as the kiwi was pretty harmonious with the corn dough. It wasn't too sweet, and the kiwi brought some nice acidity.

    We found out that they filled the arepa with Monterey Jack because importing cheese would be far too expensive. It certainly melted nicely; I thought it even had some ricotta-esque notes that I found pleasant. The cheese wasn't sharp and the sugar was kept to a minimum, so I found the sugar to be a great addition. Crisp edges, moist corn interior, and melted cheese. Can't go wrong with that.

    The chachapa was probably my least favorite, though it was my two friends' favorite course. I thought it was the least nuanced, melted jack inside crispy yellow corn, but it was pleasant enough.

    The empanada, which the chef might have called something else that I don't remember, was probably my favorite course of the night. A pretty hard crust, probably the result of having created the empanadas a while in advance, but I liked biting through it to get to the tender potato-chicken filling. Some of the others thought it was a little salty, but I liked seeing those salt crystals on the outside. Combined with the almost Chinese-tasting aji, you got all kinds of tastes and sensations.

    The lamb and goat was a satisfying plate of soul food. I didn't exactly understand what was in the sauce, which he seemed to imply included some sort of lamb element, but it really tied together the lamb with the rice. Did he say there was achiote in the rice as well? The doneness of the goat was pretty variable from plate to plate. Mine was pretty gray, but Melanie's plate next to mine was a little bloody. I'm guessing he didn't rest it very long. Despite that, it was incredibly tender, well-seasoned, and not too gamey at all. It was definitely a great bite or two of goat. I was gnawing on the bone afterwards trying to get it all. When my friend accidentally spilled his dish on himself, the chef made him a new plate of food without problem.

    The chef was a really nice guy, the food was soul-satisfying, and the company was as fun as ever. Tonight was a great night at Mr. Pollo.

    Mr. Pollo
    2823 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

    2 Replies
    1. re: LikeFrogButOOOH

      Manny Torres Gimenez, who was doing the tasting menu at Mr. Pollo, moved to Roxy's Cafe in December. Mr. Pollo's landlord has since been trying to copy what Gimenez was doing.

      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        we went tonight, not having heard about the change in ownership/chef... still, we had a great meal.

        walked in and took the last available 2-top for the night - apparently they use different chefs for different shifts or seatings, but after this one (it was 7:00), the chef from Wise & Sons was having a private party there.

        our waiter recommended the 2 of us each get the 4-course, $20 prix-fixe and split an arepa, which they've kept on the menu as a holdover from the last chef. so we did.

        first up was a light and flavorful vietnamese-style broth with ginger, sliced baby corn, baby shrimp, glass noodles, basil and other things. very good.

        next, the star of the night, a wonderfully creamy and buttery plate of shrimp and grits with a brown sauce described as "New Orleans flavor" by the waiter, which tasted mostly of worcestershire (in a good way). a sincerely perfect dish.

        then came our arepa - overstuffed with carnitas, gooey cheese, veggies, and a cilantro crema. very tasty, but it pushed me over the edge into almost full before our main course came. so though i loved it, i'd probably not need to get an arepa every time, even splitting it. (and it's extra, not part of the prix-fixe.)

        the main dish was seared flank steak over sauteed bok choy, with indian eggplants on a bed of cauli/sumac puree, and drizzled with a coconut/sambal sauce. this was probably the weakest dish, as the bok choy was actually hard to eat (a little stringy) but it was still tasty - the steak had a wonderful caramel flavor.

        we almost never eat dessert, but since this came with the meal.... a lovely rosewater tart yogurt with granola and tangy/sweet fresh mango - light and a perfect ending.

        nice little wine list, too. i had a dry-as-dirt rose and a nice, tobacco-y cotes du rhone.

        i'm sorry the original chef is no longer there as I only went once during his tenure and ordered an arepa to go (and it was a much more traditional version - very good), but i am thrilled to have finally tried this place - this quality of food for that price? amazing.

    2. I have mixed feelings about the dinner here. First of all for what we received, I thought it was overpriced. Especially since the tasting menu was posted as 15 dollars and shiftily changed to 20 when reservations were being made.

      The various incarnations on the corn arepa theme could have been put in a basket as an appetizer and then we would of had the one entree. I think calling it a tasting menu was a little misleading as was the statement that the chef goes to the farmers market for fresh produce. The only thing green on the table was the herbs in the aji.

      The fact that he left Venezuela at an early age and cooked in nearly every other ethnic cuisine restaurant except his own (he consulted at one) was disconcerting too. I was longing for a much soulful interpretation of the food of his motherland.

      I guess it boils down to the fact that I didn't see the value in the food because I am pretty confident I could have cooked it just as well or better. This is very true for the entree which tasted like a bland lamb and potato stew over rice that left my mouth "cottony."

      The chef seems passionate for sure, but I think this just fell a little short. I think the cuisines of Venezuela/ Columbia has so much more to inspire.

      2 Replies
      1. re: kare_raisu

        I'm not a fan of the "I could have cooked it just as well" theory of value. Maybe you could have, but I couldn't have, not if I include all the time I would have to spend researching recipes, sourcing ingredients, etc. I thought the value was fair, if not extraordinary.

        I think your point about the menu being somewhat uninspired and there not being much evidence of it being market driven is well taken, though. I think maybe he's still feeling his way for what he should be doing with these dinners: should he be offering people unfamiliar with the cuisine a traditional meal, or should he be more "out there" and risk turning off people who are expecting food like that cooked by grandma back home.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          Its not a theory of value but a fact - i could have put lamb meat and potatoes in a crockpot and came out with an equally if not tastier result. I didn't really see any inspiration from his stints at SPQR, Les Halles etc seep into the food which would have been interesting.

          I think I only appreciated really his ability to finesse the cornmeal into different guises.

          1911 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, CA 94115

      2. Controversy, heheh!

        Been too busy to post, will try to add more details later today. In the meantime, here's the slideshow of our dinner.

        Mr. Pollo
        2823 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

        1 Reply
        1. re: Melanie Wong

          That was $20 bucks? Looks great and looks like a deal to me.

        2. Let me add a few impressions of our tasting menu dinner. First, I didn’t have a chance to speak to Chef Manny directly about it. I called to make a reservation last week and the man who answered was quite gruff and said that the price would be $19.99 per person plus tax. I didn’t think it was the chef, and stopped by Friday night to make sure that there hadn’t been a change in personnel. The chef had the night off and th woman on duty didn’t speak much English either. I tried to ask her why our quoted price was higher than the $15 on the new menus, shown here, and all she said was that it was “special”. The new price was communicated in advance to those attending.

          Mr. Pollo’s new printed menu

          In our chat with Chef Manny, we learned that this was the first time that Mr. Pollo was open on Sunday. Also that the man I spoke to was his previous partner, maybe those had some bearing on the price or maybe we had a more elaborate entrée than typical. I should have investigated further with the chef when I had the chance, but failed to do so. Turning a blind eye to the bottles we brought in made it more than worth it to me.

          I found all the food quite well-executed. Well, maybe not the empanada. Part of the main dish was a personal excursion, the others were typical of their cuisines. The chef deserves kudos for the skill shown with the arepas and cachapa, all head and shoulders above the quality found in this area. I was surprised to not have any greens or “farmers market veggies” as had been promoted to me in my first encounter with the chef. If there had been a vegetable side, a simple salad or maybe a garden soup, I would have no complaints at all.

          Venezuelan-style kiwi mini arepas as amuse-bouche – Golden and lightly crisp from the griddle and so tender and delicate inside.

          Colombian-style cheese arepa – Even better than the previous cook used to make here, the level of carmelization on the crust was quite remarkable and even more so for getting so much color without scorching. The sweetness of the sugar cane popped out the corny flavor notes even more.

          Cachapa – I’ve only had a cachapa once before at Café Coupa in Palo Alto which charges $16 for one. This was more tender inside and crisper outside, a much finer version.

          Ají sauce – As others have noted, this tasted vaguely Cantonese to me. I was craving some capsicum at this point and was a little let down that something named ají (chile pepper) had no heat. But I did like the savoriness it added to the empanada.

          Empanada – Filled with chicken and potatoes, the deep-fried crust was stained with red achiote. The crust was a bit too tough. Without the ají sauce, this was have been too bland alone.

          Entrees in a row at the table – We were a bit cramped with eight seated at three two-tops pushed together. Four is probably the ideal party size for eating here. There was no room on the table for water glasses, for example. Here’s the shot before one full plate ended up on someone’s lap.

          Closer look at the braised lamb and grilled goat rib chop plates – The braised lamb and potatoes may seem simple, but the careful browning from searing off or roasting added more flavor than can be achieved in a crockpot alone. Also, the texture was on point, not stringy or dried out, yet tender and fully cooked. I was a little tired at this point and didn’t focus as closely on the “comma” of complex sauce painted on the plate to try to deconstruct it. I just know that I enjoyed it immensely on the delicious grilled rib chop. Like others, I picked up the bone to gnaw on it, not wanting to miss a bit of the flavor.

          Chef Manny in action – In a small place like this, every seat in the house is at the Chef’s Table with a clear view of the cooking, as shown here.

          My other quibble is that the meal ended somewhat abruptly. Offering some fresh fruit as a final offering to signal the end would be a good touch.

          Chef Manny said that he wanted to present his own style of cooking at taqueria prices. For me, he succeeded at that.

          Mr. Pollo
          2823 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

          Coupa Cafe
          538 Ramona St, Palo Alto, CA 94301

          1 Reply
          1. re: Melanie Wong

            I was tasked with deciding where to eat with my Mom in the city one night, so I decided to give her an adventure and we went to Mr. Pollo. Because we had ballet tickets we got there just as it was opening (at 6 p.m.) and we were the second party in line. The restaurant quickly filled up, mostly people ordering the tasting menu (four courses for $15).

            I didn't take notes, but the four courses were: a fairly traditional Venezuelan chicken and rice soup; a fried oyster and the world's smallest scallop on a bed of greens; a slice of pork tenderloin with ...?; and a fairly traditional braise of lamb with rice cooked with beet greens and garnished with beets.

            I'm still not sure that he's quite got it down: the two more traditional courses were better than the two more "chefly" courses (with the caveat that I don't like oysters -- Mom liked that dish a lot, and the tiny scallop was kind of neat the way it just burst in my mouth like a small grape). The pork dish was clearly unmemorable, except that I thought the pork was a bit dry. The use of seasonal vegetables -- including fresh favas (with the pork, now that I think about it) is more apparent than it was in our previous dinner. The chicken soup and the braised lamb were both delicious and on their own were worth the price, as is the whole experience -- my Mom had a blast and has been telling friends about the $15 tasting menu she had in a hole in the wall in the Mission. Chef Manny remembered that I'd been in before and was an otherwise delightful and charming host, and the people in the restaurant were a convivial mix of and friends/regulars. Unfortunately we had to dash away, since it took a while for him to get the food coming and we had gobble down the final course to make our curtain -- it would have been nice to linger a little more and talk to him more about the food.

            Mr. Pollo
            2823 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

          2. I tried the tasting menu with a coworker back when it was $15pp. I have to say it was the first meal I ever ate where I was hungrier when I left than when I arrived. The coup de grâce was the final course where we saw the chef dig out a couple of huge plates and we though to ourselves we were finally going to get served something of substance. It ended up being a scrawny, meatless quail leg with a couple of fingernail sized plantain bits along side it.

            Thankfully Rosamunde Sausage was across the street...

            3 Replies
            1. re: Civil Bear

              It's still $15 a person. Our chowdown was apparently a "special" meal at a "special" price. I wouldn't say I left hungry -- the plates we had were more substantial than you describe, but the servings weren't huge. Enough to satisfy me, but maybe not enough for a Bear.

              1. re: Civil Bear

                The menu does say "Tasting" menu, so I'm not expecting huge portions.

                1. re: baron45

                  Me neither. But I was expecting to be at least somewhat satisfied after four "courses." Even my 100-lb coworker went away hungry.

                  Perhaps stretching the four microscopic courses out for over an hour had something to with it as well. Two bites of something that looked pretty and then another 15 wait for the next bite or two...