My first foray into SPQR's menu was on Sunday night when I sat at the Chef's counter with a friend. She and I arrived a couple of minutes before the restaurant opened for dinner and joined about 30 people waiting outside for the restaurant to open. We beelined for the Chef's counter -- it's my favorite place to sit at A16, and I thought it would be the place to watch all the action here as well. I was correct. The chefs at SPQR are working in an extremely small kitchen. Watching the process of preparing about 40 different dishes from a space about the size of my IBK was as fun as watching a great movie.
Together, we shared 3 antipasti dishes, a pasta, an entree and a dessert. The "fresh shelling beans with pork soffritto" were the highlight of the antipasti. The sweetness of the fresh beans really married with the salty deliciousness of the pork, and the broth that came with it was perfect for soaking up with bread. We also tasted the bay scallops with dried tomatoes and Tropea onions, and the suppli al telefono. All were excellent and I would have each dish again (though probably not until I work my way through a little more of the menu).
I knew that we were in for a treat with the pasta. Having lived in Italy for eight months, and traveled there for extended trips in the past few years, I am a bit judgmental about my pasta. We ordered a simple Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe, spaghetti tossed with Pecorino Romano while it's still hot so that it creates a creamy covering for the spaghetti strands, and tossed with pepper. I respect this dish for everything that it was: delicious, honest, and simple with a fantastic housemade al dente noodle. I also respect it for everything that it wasn't. A dish this simple is inevitably made more complicated in lesser kitchens, and chefs feel the need to add other ingredients.
We followed the pasta with an entree of local calamari with ceci beans, capers, rapini and onions that was delicious. By this time, the chef across the counter finally had a moment to look up and speak to us. He had been working hard from the moment that we walked in. "What are you having for dessert," he asked. "Have the panino." Neither of us take chef's recommendations lightly, so we did as we were told. The panino was essentially a grilled sweet sandwich with caramelized condensed milk between two slices of grilled white bread and topped with chocolate sprinkling and fleur de sel. We paired it with a delicious brachetto, and took a bite. "Oh wow," my friend exclaimed. "Can we have a few more of these," we joked.
Wine is a major focus at SPQR, with many of the wines available by the taste, glass, carafe or bottle. I found the wine prices to be reasonable, and enjoyed the comfort of going into a place where a rock star sommelier like Shelley Lindgren has had a hand in the wine list. I felt comfortable with any wine on the list, and it was fun to work our way through a few different glasses.
As an initial impression, SPQR is going to be a serious player in the San Francisco restaurant scene. Everything at this restaurant, from the service on up, is done with competence and skill. For another review of SPQR, check out Joy's blog post.