we've visited the place for three different chefs, always sitting at the chef's counter, which has comfortable stools (five total). if the minimal, coffee shop-like ambience can be set aside, the food itself has ranged from acceptable to very good. we prefer sitting at a cook's counter whenever the option is available, and with the $10. corkage there's enough to keep me checking the website for the menus and background info on the chefs. the current chef, J.Koskiniemi, cooked us a meal that we enjoyed the most of the three we've sampled.
Koskiniemi brought in his own special serving ware, and his plates were very attractive visual compositions, several using edible flowers. we created our own tasting menu by ordering four appetizers and two main courses. (my hunch was the portions would be modest,; it turned out that way and we finished nearly everything, abstaining from dessert). the plainest looking dish, a soup of local mushrooms with a dab of lemon grass foam that resembled earth toned baby food, was like a light puree of mushroom essences, with no distracting dairy element like other versions of mushroom soup. the other outstanding appetizer was the tempura beets -- the technique warmed the beets through, gave them an ideal consistency while keeping them firmer than how they usually end up when they're roasted. the crust was a thin, crisp shell providing a bit of seasoning and textural variation.
the main courses, duck confit (a whole leg) with stone fruit reduction, served on a small bed of cous cous and a handful of perfectly cooked green beans, and coho salmon in a macadamia crust (more like a thin dusting on the top so the piece had a crisp skin on both sides), a light beur blanc, wild rice, sauteed spinach, were executed flawlessly. the reduction on the duck resembled plum sauce, and tasted like plums, but without any cloying aspect .either in sweetness or texture.
the ten dollar corkage provides barely adequate (6-7 oz) stemware, so if you bring a serious wine you may as well bring stemware (or stem-less crystal if that's your preference) too. [their wines were $10/glass, so they filled 'em nearly to the top]. none the less, our 2001 premier cru Vernand Pergelesses (les Fichots) was an excellent complement to the duck, salmon, and mushrooms, and enhanced the lobster tail, because of the vanilla-scented farro served under the lobster.
the prices were nearly the same as one would expect in a more comfortable restaurant setting -- mid twenties for the duck and salmon. but in terms of visually appealing plating, top notch ingredients and preparation, gustatory satisfaction, Koskiniemi's food to our tastes equalled or surpassed that of his fellow c.panisse alumni in not-very-fancy venues like Camino or Pizzaiolo.
Thank goodness, I was beginning to think we were the only people who didn't care much for Camino, LOL.
I should have added in my review - we don't drink. I will rarely have an after dinner liqueur or cognac. Because of this, restaurants such as Oliveto/Oakland and Chevalier/Lafayette leave us cold, because we aren't eating the food alongside something with enough acidity to bring the food to life.
Not drinking, BTW, also makes us even more sensitive to salt. We did like how the Hung's cooking at the Marco Polo stint was very tasty, but not oversalted. But all in all - we'd rather go elsewhere. We're not counter-seat people. Spouse has worked in a kitchen, being a graduate of City College's 2-yr program, and could care less about watching other people cook. Me, I cook enough (and my mother was a cookware shop owner and teacher) that I don't get a thrill out of watching it either. We're all about the finished product, LOL.
Three of us did the "Marco Polo" concept by amateur chefs David & Maddy Hung in late June. Food was okay but the concept needed work. Chinese-Italian came off as mostly Italian with little Chinese flavors evident. Very expensive for the amount of food we were given, which on some dishes approached skimpy.
Some of the dishes were good – vegetable platter was outstanding. Fish was nicely done. But a 'sugar crusted pork' done Pekin style with buns and hoisin was unexciting – more of a starter than an entree size. My veal osso bucco had a tasty gravy but very little of it, while the meat was dry and overcooked.
Worse, the rice was undercooked – I have no idea why this craze for 'al dente' has encompassed both beans and rice, but this is one of too many recent meals where the starches are coming so underdone there's a nasty hard crunch in the middle of each bean/grain. All of us diners are Asian so having bad rice is a huge black mark.
Desserts were ill-conceived and although high quality (as everything was), just didn't work. Tea was phenomenal but couldn't make up for the amateur flaws. If it had been a full-time restaurant, the summary would be: great ingredients, interesting concept, flawed execution. Hung is a good cook, but there was a timidity about using the Chinese ingredients to push the flavors to their full potential.
I wrote up a full review for my friends and sent David Hung a copy through the Guest Chef website. I received no reply so I'm not sure if he got it or not. It was an interesting experiment, however. We don't regret going.
I will say we did NOT LIKE the space. It is very tiny, yet incredibly noisy, a real Chron four-bell experience. Uncomfortable hard seats, smashed-in tables, having to shout at one another despite only having 4 tables and a counter, and then paying a premium for "maybe good, maybe not" food, is one of those experiences that is definitely a toss-up. When I know I can go to FIVE or Artisan Bistro for the same price, have polished service, a nicer dining room, and superb food along with less ear-ringing noise, it makes Guest Chef a bit of a question mark.
Windy and I and another friend had a nice dinner there back in late March when they had a Peruvian chef in residence (I thought I posted on it, but apparently not). The menu for the current chef looks very appealing. A lot of the chefs who do a rotation there have personal followings and so it's always a good idea to make a reservation. One caveat is that the wine list is extremely limited, so if that's important to you, you might want to check their corkage policy to see if it's worth BYOB.
Apparently the concept has been successful, and the owner is looking for a second location in SF.