Butterfly Restaurant: Reviews

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Terrence Brewer
Name: Terrence
Occupation: Jazz Guitarist
Location: Alameda
Favorite Restaurant: Butterfly Restaurant
Reviewed Butterfly Restaurant: Thursday, February 11, 2010

Butterfly is one of San Francisco’s great dining experiences. Having been in business for over a decade and in the Embarcadero location for over five years, Butterfly has the perfect combination of great food and wonderful atmosphere. I had the great fortune of performing here as a jazz guitarist for almost nine years, so I got know the menu, owners, chef, and wait staff well. My experiences as a guest are always wonderful.

As soon as I walk in, I’m greeted by a host and taken to a table. Right away you notice what great atmosphere Butterfly has. Since Butterfly is located on the Embracadero at Pier 33, you have terrific view of the San Francisco Bay; the water actually comes underneath the restaurant about halfway, so at a window seat you feel as if you are sitting on top of the Bay! The lighting is low, but not so low you can’t make out what you are eating. Butterfly also always has great music playing on the house sound system; on this particular day, it was great Brazilian music with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto.

Butterfly’s origins in the "California-Asian fusion" movement are pulled off better than any restaurant I’ve been to. The Asian influences in each dish are always subtle and complementary. Once seated, I received the traditional complimentary Butterfly starter appetizer of edamame beans dipped in olive oil and covered with sea salt and black and white sesame seeds. Next, I ordered the poached pear salad, fried calamari, and ahi tuna rolls for an appetizer. All of the appetizers arrived within five to ten minutes. The pear salad, with both red and white pears, was amazing. The dressing was light, and the sweetness of the pears balanced the savory of the warm blue cheese corn muffin. The calamari is one of my favorite dishes at Butterfly. It is lightly battered and served with lemon cucumbers and Tabasco rémoulade and is never over cooked! The ahi tuna rolls are fantastic. Lightly battered with tempura, the ahi tuna rolls are served with wasabi and balanced with a crème fraîche, which is amazing. In my nine years of eating at Butterfly, I have never had to salt or pepper my food, a true sign of the great flavor your food has there!


For a main course, I had the New York strip steak with mushroom jus. I asked for the steak medium, and it was perfect -- pink through the middle with a tiny bit of searing on top. The steak was tender and juicy. The mushroom jus was amazingly flavorful. It also came with a small twice-baked potato and a shrimp-stuffed shiitake mushroom. Amazing blend of Asian spices, seasonings, and foods blended with California cuisine.

In regards to the dessert, a disclaimer first, I love bananas, but do not normally like banana flavored food items. However, Butterfly’s warm banana bread pudding is truly one of the best desserts I’ve ever had! It’s served warm with macapuno ice cream, powdered sugar, and this great sauce, which I’m still trying to figure out. The banana taste is subtle and balanced by the ice cream and sauce. The bottom and middle of the pudding are so soft and moist and the top is crispy -- such a great texture combination.

The entire dinning experience at Butterfly is wonderful. The food is amazing, and while it can be more expensive than some places, the portions and quality of the food makes it well worth it! The staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and the atmosphere, while upscale, is conducive to jeans and t-shirts or a business suit.

Tom Temprano
Name: Tom
Occupation: Non-Profit Worker
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Auntie April's Chicken, Waffles & Soul Food
Reviewed Butterfly Restaurant: Thursday, February 18, 2010

As a big fan of approaching situations with an open mind, I’m loath to admit that I was dead set on hating Butterfly before dining there. When I hear things like "Asian fusion," "specialty cocktails," and "Pier 33," it reminds me of the income tax bracket I’m in and also of several less-than-exemplary wallet-busting situations that resulted in weeks of forced ramen consumption. Now that I’ve copped to my prejudice, I have to say that Butterfly threw me a serious curveball.

Not knowing what to do in situations where a place takes reservations, I made one online for a Thursday evening at 7, which was surprisingly simple. My guest and I arrived and were taken to one of only a handful of tables in the restaurant that were afforded an unencumbered view of the Bay, complete with passing ferries and the lights of Sausalito. The décor was also better than I had expected, cool but not gaudy, except for the chandeliers that looked like demonic sea urchins, which were actually a whole lot of fun.

Things got even better when our server let us know that Tuesday-Thursday evenings, Butterfly offers a three-course "Winter Menu," which, for someone who’s used to value menus including four-piece chicken nuggets and pint-sized burgers, was a complete jaw dropper. For $21, my guest and I got to choose between three tantalizing options for a first course, entrée, and dessert. Yes!
After ordering several "specialty cocktails," which, at $9 each, were pretty darn special, we got down to selecting our meals. As a declared pork aficionado, I delighted in selecting the kalua pig in butter lettuce cups as my first course. The pork was as tender and flavorful as any I’d ever had, and the delicious plum sauce it was served with made for a perfect sweet-savory blend. My dinner date chose the shrimp bisque with a puff pastry top, which was the size of a softball, and as buttery and doughy as could be.

As excited as we were about our first courses, our entrees got even better. My guest ordered the grilled Angus hanger steak, which was served over a tangle of pan-fried noodles, shrimp, and portabello mushrooms, and topped with fresh mâche. The steak was a perfect medium-rare with a rich smoky flavor, and the pan-fried noodles were crisp, but not even slightly greasy. My entrée, the sizzling turmeric grilled snapper was served much like my kalua pig, complete with cold noodles, grilled herbs and vegetables, and crisp butter lettuce to wrap it all up in. Putting them all together was fun in and of itself, and the resulting concoction knocked my socks off. The snapper was moist and had soaked up all of the tasty lemongrass and basil it had been sizzling in when it arrived. At this point we were already stuffed, and both of us struggled to finish even half of our entrees and had them wrapped up to go. What a lunch that made!

For dessert, which I was afraid to even think about, given my satiated state, I went with the warm chocolate torte, which was served with a generous scoop of chocolate ice cream. The richness contained in each bite was a chocolate lovers dream, and I forced myself to finish as much as I could stuff in. My date ordered the classic vanilla crème brûlée, which was light, flavorful and nothing short of perfect.

I can’t say how surprised I was by the value and quality we found at Butterfly. For a total of $75, we both left with huge grins on our faces and tomorrow’s bagged lunch to boot. While there were certainly moments that reminded me where I was, like the group at the table next to us guffawing over the apparently hilarious process of buying million dollar homes, even they couldn’t dampen the experience. And for two folks who laugh about struggling to balance rent and cell phone bills, it made the fact that we could afford such a great night on the town all the more pleasurable.

Stacy Roach
Name: Stacy
Occupation: Sales Consultant
Location: Alamo
Favorite Restaurant: Incontro Ristorante
Reviewed Butterfly Restaurant: Friday, February 12, 2010

We walked into Butterfly as a light mist was falling on the Embarcadero. We have walked past this restaurant dozens of times, but never made it in. I have a built-in prejudice against anything on the waterfront as being touristy and not a good value. I realize that many restaurants along San Francisco’s waterfront are changing that perception, like the Water Bar, Epic Roasthouse, La Mar, and the Slanted Door, but there’s still Sinbad's.

Anyway, we made a reservation through OpenTable (love that site) and were seated promptly by the hostess. The restaurant is not huge, but the high ceilings, the large wooded support beams, and the floor-to-ceiling windows all along the Bay side of the restaurant give it a feeling of spaciousness. I especially loved the huge sea anemone chandeliers. We were shown to a table for two facing the water. There were beautiful winking lights across the Bay, and we argued over whether it was Berkeley or El Cerrito we were seeing, until our waiter, Tom, corrected us both -- it was the lights of refineries in Richmond. Huh. They really are pretty at night from this side of the Bay.

Tom was a fantastic waiter, attentive, funny, and efficient. Often, we start our meal with a cocktail, and Butterfly’s cocktail menu was intriguing and inventive, but we opted to skip cocktails, and go right to wine. Their wine list is good, not huge, but you can see that care was taken with the selections. This makes sense, since one of the investors is the wine maker at Reverie Vineyard in Napa. Based on our thinking about our dinner choices, we opted to select a Pinot Noir. Not wanting to break the bank on the wine, we actually selected the cheapest bottle on the Pinot list, a bottle of 2008 De Loach Pinot Noir. At $48, it was a lovely wine. Living so close to wine country, it's hard to pay a lot for a bottle in a restaurant.

For starters, we ordered the wok-fried Shanghai garlic noodles with fall vegetables and the duo of poached pear and endive salad. The noodles were delicious, the vegetables cooked perfectly, and the garlic was in the foreground without overpowering the dish. My only complaint was that the dish included green peppers. Now, green peppers are one of the very few things that I won’t eat. I think their flavor is terrible, although I love all other peppers -- red, yellow, orange, spicy, sweet, you name it. (I just discovered a Facebook Group called, "I Hate Green Peppers" -- excellent.) Now, if I see green peppers in the ingredient list of a dish, I just steer clear. If, as in the case of the Shanghai garlic noodles at Butterfly, the dish comes with surprise green peppers, I don’t send it back. I am, after all, a big girl. So, I carefully pick out the green peppers and set them discreetly to the side. I want to be clear, my issue with green peppers is all mine, and I don’t fault the restaurant at all. And, even though I had to pick through the noodles to find all the offensive little green squares (nice, even dice, by the way), it in no way diminished my enjoyment of the dish. I loved those noodles and was sad when they were gone. Apparently, Butterfly procures the noodles from Chinatown, and the only thing in English on their invoice is the bottom line dollar sign. See, I love that story because it speaks to the level of detail that the chef takes with his food.

The salad was equally yummy, with a light dressing. The pears were perfectly poached, and the endive spears had a dab of blue cheese with a candied walnut that you could pick up and eat with your fingers. The only discordant note on the salad plate was the Hawaiian bread and blue cheese muffin. By itself, the muffin was fantastic, but it was a bit too garlicky and savory to meld with the yummy flavors of the salad.

For our entrees, I selected the roasted Sonoma Liberty Duck "Peking Style," while my wife went with the five spice-braised Angus beef short ribs. Both were delicious, perfectly cooked, and beautifully presented. Tom delivered the short ribs and then poured the au jus from a cute little white pitcher over the crispy jasmine rice cakes. The five spice on the short ribs was perfect -- it wasn’t overly domineering, nor was it just a whisper. The rice cakes were a perfect accompaniment to the sultry fall-apart ribs. The duck combined a confit of the leg and thigh and the seared breast. So, right off the bat, a ton of duck on the plate. The breast was cooked and seasoned perfectly. The confit leg was delicate and fell off the bone into succulent little bites. The orange "salad" was pretty, but didn’t add much to the dish, and although the menu advertised kumquats, I didn’t spot any. My only real disappointment was the green onion crêpes. They were a bit too egg foo yong-y for my taste, and the flavor was off for my palate. But let me be clear, once I pushed them to the side, I got maximum pleasure from the duck, which went exquisitely with the Pinot Noir. As Tom said, "Duck and Pinot Noir are just made for each other."

My wife and I usually just split a dessert, but we were torn between three options on the dessert menu. First, the banana bread pudding with macapuno ice cream (sweet coconut) and macadamia nut brittle: you had me at bread pudding. Second, the warm chocolate torte with coffee ice cream. Not being huge chocolate people, we rarely choose the over-the-top chocolate dessert option, but both Tom and the manager highly recommended the dish. The third temptation was the banana lumpia rolls with coconut ice cream. Now, we already had one banana selection, and really, two girls don’t really need three desserts after a full and satisfying meal. But it was the coconut ice cream that was calling my name. We explained our dilemma to the manager, who solved it by bringing the bread pudding, the chocolate torte, and a beautiful little side of the coconut ice cream in a martini glass. Perfect. The bread pudding was off the charts good -- perfect consistency -- not too gummy and not at all dry. The warm chocolate torte was also delicious, with that gooey chocolate center that oozes out when you bust it open. And the coffee ice cream was a perfect partner. It was just really rich. The coconut ice cream was sublime with chunks of young coconut. We learned from Tom that the restaurant gets their ice cream from Mitchell’s in the Lower Mission. Mitchell’s apparently has all kinds of kooky tropical ice creams and has a retail storefront as well as being a wholesaler. Again, these are the little details that show the chef takes care in selecting the suppliers for his restaurant.

Speaking of the chef-owner, Robert Lam came out after our entrees to ask how our dinner was. I am always impressed when the chef mingles with the customers, getting feedback directly. Of course we gushed about our meal, and he was gracious, laughing along with us, as we talked about other five spice dishes we’ve had in the past at other restaurants that totally missed the mark. I saw him visit pretty much every table at some point during our meal.


Overall, our experience was excellent and not only would we go back, we would also take our discriminating foodie friends here. The total for our meal was very reasonable at $136.88, especially for a tablecloth restaurant right on the water.