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Barbacco [SF]

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Ate at Barbacco for the first time. The food was great. It was loud. The service didn't quite hit the right notes.

Although we'd made a res, we were seated at the bar. Next to screaming 20-something young women (we definitely brought up the median age, and that may be an underlying theme of this review). But the 20-somethings kind of had to scream to be heard. And everyone else had to scream to be heard over them. And so on.

Almost all the food was wonderful--romaine salad w/ anchovy parm bright and balanced, pomodoro soup nice deep flavors, house-cured sardine bruchetta perhaps the most briliant flavors, pasta w/ pork ragu a very good rendition, pork meatballs very tasty, charred brussel sprouts crispy/ punchy (maybe a tad too much balsamic). Didn't love the squid (tomato sauce fought w/ the fish imo, though my husband enjoyed). Bruchetta w/ greens a miss (flat/dull-tasting). And while I liked the truffled lardo bruschetta quite a lot, my husband took one bite and let me finish it (suspect he's just not a lardo guy).

Way more food than we understood from the "small plates" (turned out more like "medium") moniker and low prices, so we got to take stuff home. The waiter first encouraged us to get lots of dishes, explaining that they were small plates to share--but he did (thankfully) stop us from ordering even more than we did. He asked if we wanted suggestions and then proceeded to suggest 10 different things--none of which sounded delicious. So maybe it was just a mis-match of tastes, but his extensive recitations began to feel more of an intrusion than a help.

And the way food was brought out was a bit of a puzzle. Initially, one dish at a time, which was quite nice--we got to savor each dish that we shared. But then suddenly four dishes at once, pasta, meatballs, squid, brussel sprouts. Perhaps because they decided this was our main course, though actually each was in a separate category on the menu (pasta, fish, main, veg) --perhaps because it was late, and the kitchen was wrapping up--maybe it was up to us to say we wanted the pasta, then the fish, then the meatballs and veg--though the pacing up til then had been done by the kitchen and done well.

When we stepped back onto the sidewalk, my husband said, that was great, let's go back. I said, that was great, and I'm not sure I want to go back. The food was worthy of Michael Bauer's 3 stars--and maybe better than what we'd eaten the last time we were at Perbacco at a much higher price-point. But there was something jangley about the whole experience, such that I ended up very well fed but wishing for more of a sense of contentment. It felt more like a bar w/ really good food rather than a lovely restaurant--and that's maybe what it's supposed to be.

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Perbacco
230 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111

Barbacco
230 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111

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  1. Thanks for the detailed report, especially the ambiance comments.

    1. It really is supposed to be more like wine bar than a restaurant. I agree that the noise levels can be overwhelming, although I dropped in to pick up some take out after work on Monday and it was very reasonable. I got the fried Brussels sprouts everyone raves about and they were damn good, even for someone like me who isn't crazy about anchovies.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        I work nearby and was wondering about getting take out to take home to dinner. How did the food travel? My home is 25 minutes from the restaurant so I've been reluctant to give it a try.

        1. re: farmersdaughter

          I think it would depend on what you get. They do catering/lunch delivery, so they're experienced at packing their food up, they have several different types of containers and they put it in a handle bag.

      2. What time was your reservation & how long was the wait for a table?

        1. I like Barbacco. Sitting at the bar always works for me because I get a sense of engagement/participation: food is always delivered in the order I set (I negotiate this with the waiter/waitress); I can request bigger/smaller portions as the night goes on; chatting with neighbors has always been a pleasant part of the experience. I would hate to be exiled to a booth.

          I'm not sure I get the iPad wine list but my wife likes it and says it's pretty helpful in narrowing down selections. That's good enough for me.

          Deb and I were there the night the Giants clinched the NLCS (big flat screen over the bar carried the action). It was a raucous time. We loved every minute of it.

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          Barbacco
          230 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111

          5 Replies
          1. re: steve h.

            I had lunch there Friday and the waiter consulted with me about how I wanted my order "coursed," plus she brought me a taste of one of the wines I was considering ordering. The only "issue" I had was that I wanted to order half the menu. Seriously, I can't think of many restaurants where I find so much of the menu appealing. They've been opening early on the weekends to show the Giants game -- talk about a place to watch the game with great food!

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              I like Barbacco a lot. My only gripe is no grappa!

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              Barbacco
              230 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111

              1. re: steve h.

                I've always loved Perbacco. And I have eaten at Barbacco a number of times - at lunch and dinner.

                I'm happy to report the food is as good as ever.

                Had the following at lunch today ....

                1. Chef's Salumi Plate - today we missed the Chicchioli - everything else was really nice - mortadella, lox, etc. The server explained the most recent batch they made was not completely cured at the time, hence the absence.

                2. 3 Bruschette - Duck Liver Pate, Lox and then Local Sardines - all superlative.

                3. We split the porchetta sandwich, this sw was served with shaved fennel and arugula - the salad had a lot of pickled veggies though - mainly carrot and cucumber.

                4. To round off the meal we also had the usual brussel sprouts with anchovies and capers and red wine vinaigrette.

                No complaints whatsoever - the service, food, noise level hit all the right notes.

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                Perbacco
                230 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111

                Barbacco
                230 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111

                1. re: osho

                  Not to sound like a broken record, but Barbacco continues to shine bright.

                  Couple of new (to me) dishes:

                  A ridiculously delicious poached shrimp sandwich with the ubiquitous arugula and pickled veggies. Shrimp were tiny and perfectly pink and cooked just right.

                  Pork meatballs with spinach ragu with raisins and pine nuts - this is different from the meatball dish that shows up at Perbacco which has the meat trifecta - pork, veal and beef. Lots of flavour and the meatballs had that elusive perfect texture.

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                  Perbacco
                  230 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111

                  Barbacco
                  230 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111

                  1. re: osho

                    >Not to sound like a broken record,
                    >but Barbacco continues to shine bright.
                    >
                    Barbacco is one of my favorite places in the city right now ... you can get out of there for ~$20is ... say the Bruschette trio + a drink ... or splurge. I like strong flavors, and they've got'em.

                    (I like Broken Record too, but not in the same league).

                    No problems with the service either ... we ordered quite a number of things, and I was kinda impressed the woman fielding the requests didnt write anything down. We even had a little conversation about "arent you going to write anything down?" ... it was good natured on all sides (I dont think she took offense, since I tried to communicate i was impressed, and not telling her how to do her job).

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                    Broken Record
                    1166 Geneva Ave, San Francisco, CA

                    Barbacco
                    230 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111

          2. Had a nice late meal last night.

            The highlight was a spectacular farrotto ($11) made with parmesan rind-mushroom broth, parmesan, mushrooms, and greens. One of the best vegetarian entrées I've ever had.

            Also really liked the salumi platter (larger size, $18), squid in spicy tomato sauce ($8), Brussels sprouts with capers and anchovy vinaigrette ($4), and roasted squash with pumpkin seeds ($4). Arancini ($3 each) stuffed with braised short rib and mozzarella should have been fried a bit longer, the cheese hadn't melted, but they were delicious just the same.

            Except for the squid, portions were very generous for the price, so it was way more food than we needed. I'd order less next time.

            4 Replies
            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Comfortable shoes.
              Thanks for the report. The FiDi actually has a pulse after dark.

              1. re: steve h.

                I remarked on that during dinner. When I worked nearby, there was hardly anything, last night there were a bunch of places to choose from when the movie got out at 9:15.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  I had a decent martini at Shields in mid-December. Early dinner at Cotogna the same week was really good.
                  Very impressive.

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                  Cotogna
                  490 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133

                  1. re: steve h.

                    I've tried most of the sandwiches on the lunch menu and have not had a miss yet. Everything is warm and the meat is always generously portioned. I'm also a big fan of the brussels sprouts, but I seem to like those wherever I go, so it probably and addiction...

            2. Had a late dinner last night, I was once again impressed by the modest prices for the quality and quantity of the food. The salad of olive oil-poached tuna with beans and vegetables was a startlingly large and fish-heavy helping for $11, similar for the farrotto at $12. Also had a couple of suppli (arancini, $4 each), a couple of bruschette ($3 each), and sides of brussels sprouts cooked in duck fat with anchovy dressing ($5) and roasted Vidalia onions ($4), and were so full we took half the farrotto home. $23 a head before drinks, tax, and tip.

              The Natural Process Alliance Sauvignon Blanc also seemed like a good value at $25 / 500ml.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                It really is a good value. The only problem is that, as you noted, it's hard not to over-order!

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  It wasn't really over-ordering, the plan was to have some extra farrotto for lunch.

                2. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Those brussels sprouts were served at the table next to me last week at lunch. They looked fantastic. I enjoyed every bite of my polpette (it was a special) of three large meatballs with pine nuts & raisins, and 2 of us shared a spicy grilled squid appetizer. I tend to feel rushed by the service at Barbacco, and this was no exception, but I do love the food and agree about the modest prices for the quality.

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                  Barbacco
                  230 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111

                3. Today I split lunch with a CHer and her hubby. we had: the nduja-(a soft, spicy spreadable house-made salami)-stuffed squid, the justly famed brussels sprouts, two of the little bruschetti (the sardine and the lardo), an order of the polpette and the farotto. i think the squid was my favorite - perfectly cooked, great tender texture, and the filling was so flavorful. The lardo was rosemary scented, and meltingly delicious, served under a tangle of frisee. The sardine was piquant, topped with potato slices and just a little too little salsa verde for my taste. The polpette was nice and springy, with a great tomato-ey sauce. It was my first time trying farotto - the dish had fantastic texture and deep mushroom flavors. It was my first time eating in-house - I've only taken things to go before - and it's pretty loud, but the service was very good and fast without feeling a bit rushed.

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: mariacarmen

                    Thanks for the tips--- I had reservations a few hours after your posted! The nduja stuffed squid was fantastic. It had a great spicy flavor, and the tender texture of the squid was a great contrast to the smoothness of the filling. After having lackluster farro pastas elsewhere, I was reluctant to try the farotto, but gave it shot anyway. I'm glad I followed your advise-- it had a strong umami taste, and was better than any mushroom risotto I've eaten. Each kernel had a good amount of resistance, and worked nicely with the texture of the mushrooms.

                    The asian pear, gorgonzola, and honey bruschetta was simple and excellent. They seem to have whipped the cheese and the honey together into a paste.

                    On the downside, I found the mixed chicories, pomegranate, fuju persimmons, and balsamico to be overdressed and the pork stuffed olives to be slightly overcooked. Also, this was my first time not at the bar, and I found that the iPad drink menus took up too much table space. These minor things aside, Barbacco is one of the best value Italian places in the city. I can't wait till next summer to eat their olive oil cake again (slices toasted, drizzled with olive oil, and served with peaches and orange creme fraiche).

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                    Barbacco
                    230 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111

                    1. re: hyperbowler

                      oh wow, that olive oil cake sounds amazing.
                      we saw those iPads yesterday, but weren't sure what they were, as we only had water for lunch. so what, you order your drink, it goes electronically to the bar, and then they bring you your drink?

                      i've been toying with the idea of sitting at the bar solo and just having two of those decadent little lardo bruschetti for lunch again....

                      1. re: mariacarmen

                        The iPads are just the wine list. They're not connected to the point of sale system.

                        http://www.incentient.com/testimonial...

                        They also have proprietary handhelds that let them put in orders and swipe credit cards without leaving the table, as well as belt-worn printers for printing receipts.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          The handhelds are becoming standard in Europe -- the US is actually pretty far behind in credit card technology, since we haven't adopted "chip and pin" (you swipe your card on the handheld and enter a PIN). Chip and pin is considered superior because a PIN is more secure than a signature, and the card never leaves your possession. It amazes me how many people are unwilling to use their credit cards on the internet because the number might be stolen but think nothing of handing it to a server who then takes it out of their sight for several minutes!

                          To get back to the topic at hand, I find the iPad wine list at Barbacco to be cumbersome and not nearly as informative as it should be, given the trade-off in ease of use vs. a paper list.

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            I find the iPad wine lists a bit clumsy, but they do offer far more information than most wine lists, and they're almost always up to date.

                            I didn't see any handheld POS order-entry gizmos in France or Spain in June.

                            The card-swiper things have been standard there for years.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Right. That's what I meant: the card-swiper things.

                              There may be more info in the iPad, but its not the kind of information I find useful, i.e. something that might give me a better idea of what the wine actually tastes like or what it would be good paired with beyond the generic "chicken," "red meat," "spicy foods" etc. What would be super useful would be if you could save your own tasting notes onto it, so you could remember what you liked (or didn't like) on previous visits, and if you chose, it could be public for other people to see. The iPad could, and should, be much more interactive than it is. If it's just going to be a one-way information delivery device, then I think people are missing the real value of the device. As it is, it reminds me of signs in art museums that tell me a painting is "oil on canvas" (like I couldn't see that for myself) but not where it was made or what inspired it or anything else that could shed some light on it.

                            2. re: Ruth Lafler

                              They have similar iPad drink/wine lists at 5th Floor which we found to be similarly clumsy to use.

                    2. My experience was good but not great. Maybe I wasn't in the right mood. Maybe i've been eating too many good meals down the peninsula and this was on target compared to Madera earlier in the week, or Martin's West. I disliked how small the tables were, I disliked the ipad wine list. I liked the crudo special, the burrata. A nice light chicory salad, nothing special but a good addition. There are only a few pasta dishes on the menu, we had a lamb sugo.

                      The wine flights were very, very good. I had never had "orange wines" before, fermented in the skins longer. The france v italy was a good set of pairings - but I almost wish I could have bought 1/4 glasses instead of 1/2. We walked out a little too stuffed, and a little too drunk, to go hit yoshi's or have a nightcap over at perbacco.

                      The noise level didn't bother me too much. I just wanted a little more out of the food.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: bbulkow

                        My favorite dishes there are the sardine bruschetta, suppli / arancine, farrotto, brussels sprouts, and meatballs. The salumi and cheeses are also great.

                      2. The hubs & I dined there tonight and had the pesce crudo, and small sized olive oil poached tuna salad as starters. We shared the lardo bruschette, lasagna, and brussel sprouts accompanied with a quarto each of our chosen wine. Everything was highly enjoyable but the dessert menu was mundane, and unexciting. The noise level at 8:30 was manageable.

                        1. Barbacco's offering ready-to-go takeout by advance order Monday through Friday. Click "Barbacco Casa" in the menu: http://www.barbaccosf.com

                          1. Barbacco was one of my favorite places a few years ago, certainly for its value. It's been well over a year since my last visit, and I was disappointed to see it go downhill.

                            Recommended:

                            Spring onion, ricotta, and almond bruschetta
                            Hen of the woods mushroom bruschetta
                            Sweet summer corn, cherry tomatoes, and basil
                            Roasted octopus, potato, celery
                            Chocolate polenta cake --- the desserts come from Perbacco's kitchen and this was a success. The grittiness of the polenta brought this flourless chocolate cake to life.

                            Wouldn't recommend:

                            Chicken liver bruschetta--- offal taste too strong

                            The chitarra pasta with meatballs had excellent juicy meatballs. The pasta was cut as thick as udon noodles and looked promising, but they were gummy.

                            They ran out of polenta by 6:30, so we got the brussels sprouts. In the past, they were bright green with black charred bits, a bit too oily but delicious. Tonight they were brown throughout, like dead leaves, with no flavor other than the anchovies in the sauce.

                            The experience has changed to some degree and I understand the chef has changed as well. The tables near the door have been converted to shared tables. The tables feel a lot less congested, and this is in part due to the replacement of those awful iPads with good old paper menus. There were lots of empty seats for being a Saturday night.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: hyperbowler

                              Seating was always communal at the larger tables. The chef is the same as always, Staffan Terje. Saturdays are their slow night.

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                Huh, I guess reservations always placed me at the bar or in the type of seating they still have in the back half of the restaurant.

                                The server told me that the chef changed. The chef de cuisine changed three years ago, and tableHopper reported this past April that they're advertising for a new one.

                                1. re: hyperbowler

                                  Don't think Staffan ever spent much time running the kitchen at Barbacco hands-on on a daily basis. You'd see him toil away at the kitchen of Perbacco, but I think he always delegated the daily running of Barbacco. The two restaurant websites list him as "Chef/Owner" at Perbacco but just "Owner" at Barbacco.

                                  1. re: hyperbowler

                                    Terje is the chef. By definition a chef de cuisine reports to the chef.

                                    If they currently don't have a chef de cuisine, it's not surprising the kitchen is off its game.