Roasted Monkfish with Brandade Ravioli and Saffron Bouillon; Cabbage-Wrapped Steamed Salmon with Rock Shrimps in a Riesling Butter Sauce and Three Delicate Raviolis in a Light Broth; Molten Chocolate Cake with Coffee Ice Cream
Occupation: Homemaker, volunteer, former marketing executive
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Pisces
Reviewed Pisces: Wednesday, December 6, 2005
My husband and I met friends from the South Bay at Pisces because it was the perfect “half-way point,” but we enjoyed it so much we returned soon after. We hadn’t been back, though, and since we heard there’d been changes, were happy to have a reason to return.
We walk to many restaurants in the city so we’re spoiled, but the drive to Burlingame was easy. You can see the bright blue neon fish that marks Pisces the moment you leave the freeway, and it puts you in a mood for fun. We also loved the fish drawing on the sidewalk at the entrance and mysterious shimmering fish chasing one another’s tail around it in a circle of light. The place was hopping, and we had to circumvent the knot of people at the jammed bar right near the entrance. For those of us who love rail travel in Europe and elsewhere, it gave us the same buzz of expectation you feel as you walk to your place in the dining car. You’re off on a travel or, in this case, culinary adventure.
Pisces is in an old railway depot. The room is simple and tasteful, almost as streamlined as the TGV or the Japanese shinkansen with white tablecloths on two rows of tables down the long sides. It’s filled with windows on either side with a mix of interesting, subdued oil painting, framed posters, and fabulous floral arrangements punctuating the room here and there in warm rich colors that set off the cool beige walls. Best of all are the wood planked benches along one side, filled now with diners.
Despite the impatience waiting commuters must have felt, there’s no sense of urgency here and we had plenty of time to consider the mostly seafood menu. Seafood is a healthy alternative and we liked the fact that the dishes are creative, combining favorite fish like salmon and more unusual, difficult fish to prepare -- like skate and monkfish -- with interesting touches. It took us a while to decide since we wanted to taste as many dishes as possible and everything sounded wonderful.
The fritto misto was served in an unusual, asymmetric white bowl. The sunchoke and black trumpet mushroom soup, irresistible because we don’t see it often, was well worth the try, and the crab cakes were classic and satisfying.
Another “fun” point: Suddenly a commuter train roars by the window in a blur of light. Not too often. Only two fast ones and one slow one while we were there, but it makes you remember where you are and the clever adaptive use of a commonplace space.
Our main courses were beautifully presented, and portions were satisfying without overwhelming. The steamed clams were made hearty and filling with the addition of savory chorizo and the texture enhanced with pieces of grilled bread. The bread, by the way, was served warm and crunchy which is a plus in any restaurant. The guest who chose the cabbage-wrapped steamed salmon was amazed at its artistry and remarked that it must have taken someone a long time to prepare. The roasted monkfish was served in a saffron bouillon, which gave the meaty fish an exotic “kick,” and the skate, quite hard to cook right, was very palatable. By the time we had finished entrees and the sautéed Broccolini and green bean sides, we had little room for dessert. We shared a heavenly molten chocolate cake with subtle coffee ice cream and caramel, so meltingly good it made us wish we had saved more room.
The selective wine list leans toward whites, as would be expected, and towards California wine in general, but our Valange Pouilly Fuisse was the perfect enhancement to dinner.
Neither fusion or small plates, boringly basic or “over the top,” Pisces is serious about trying creative preparations with new ingredients that still “work” and could become new classics. Whether you can walk there, take the freeway or the train, or hop a flying fish, it’s worth a try. How soon will we be back? For lazy "city folk" like us, only our horoscope knows for sure.
Occupation: Inside Sales Representative
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Anh Hong
Reviewed Pisces: Thursday, December 8, 2005
For the appetizer, we all split the ahi tuna tartar with chive flowers. It came with two small pieces of toasted bread about 3-inches long and about 1/16-inch thick. The tuna had too much pepper in it, I thought. I asked for more of the toast points and they gladly brought more out. That was $14 and had about two tablespoons of ahi. Then one of us had the romaine salad for $9. There were about eight small leaves of romaine from the heart, and it had about a tablespoon of crumbled blue cheese on it. We were a little surprised at how meager it looked. However, the taste of the dressing was good because they crushed the blue cheese in with the dressing, so the cheese was an integral part of the dressing.
Two of us ordered the roasted monkfish with brandade ravioli in a light, clear saffron broth ($20), and the other had the cabbage-wrapped steamed salmon with rock shrimps in a Riesling butter sauce. The monkfish was dry and hard and flavorless. Chez Michel (now Gary Danko's) had that down, and it was the poor man's lobster there. This was a thin piece, which was way overcooked with some paprika on the outside of it to give it color, and it was on top of three delicate raviolis and then in the light broth. The raviolis were good. The fish I did not finish. My friend Lilli, who had the salmon, thought it was overcooked, but I thought it was perfectly cooked. It's strange because it's a block of salmon, which was then cut into three pieces, so it's difficult to not have the edges a little more well done than the center. It was odd though, because I did not see any rock shrimp on the plate. It was like three blocks of salmon about 2-inches long and 1-inch thick with a thin piece of steamed cabbage on the outside.
We ordered two side dishes, the Broccolini with garlic ($5) and the frites ($5). The Broccolini was only about one cup though -- very, very small portion. It was almost a joke when they brought it out. You could finish it in four bites. The frites were good, but again, small in size. They filled a small 12-oz parfait glass and did not go past the top. We tried to order more and they told us they were out of them at 8:30PM.
I had a glass of Zinfandel, which was $9 a glass -- it was pretty good. I also had a Grey Goose Orange martini with Cointreau and cranberry. That was served up in a chilled martini glass and was $7.75. It was delish. I thought it was great that they were willing to give us a taste of the wine before we ordered the glass. However, their selections of wine by the bottle were outrageous and were three times the cost of the wine if you purchased it outside at a store. At most places it's double, but this was triple. For instance, a bottle that would normally cost $19 at Whole Foods was $69. Imagine what our bill would have been if we had a bottle of wine and not just the glass of wine.
I rate the portion size as "good," not "excellent," because I think the Brocollini and frites serving should have been larger. The monkfish was so bad, I didn't even finish all of it. The salmon was just those three blocks and it looked awkward on the plate. The tuna tartare and salad were also quite small. I mean, for $9, a salad should be more than eight small hearts of romaine leaves.
We discussed the quality of the food at the table. We all concurred and gave them a rating of five out of ten. It just wasn't great. Now, if I worked at a company near the restaurant and had corporate guests, I guess it's okay if you know what to order. But when city folk come 'a knockin,' you better make it right. If Jean-Claude from Aqua Dev. knew that the monkfish was so horrific, he'd be down there for two weeks riding their ass. I might tell him after the show airs. It was absolutely horrific and dry. Frozen fish sticks have a lighter consistency and more flavor than that fish.
The service was only poor/fair. I sat at the bar waiting for my friends who were twenty minutes late 'cause the baby threw up on my friend and all over himself. It took the bartender fifteen minutes to acknowledge me. He was swamped and the only bartender for the restaurant. However, as soon as my friends arrived, they gave us the table straight away. The bartender was our waiter because they were short-staffed. The drinks were brought to the table in five minutes, which was good. The appetizers came in ten minutes. Bread came right away and there was good butter, by the way! The entrees, however, took another forty minutes to come out. We were stunned at how long it took the kitchen to do that. I think they must have cooked our monkfish, kept it under the lights for warmth, and then cooked the salmon, and that's why the monkfish was so damn overcooked and tough.
In terms of the décor, it's an interesting little space with creativity in the use of space. It's right by the train tracks, so it gives you the feeling that you are in a train station going somewhere. The light wood and other colors work well with the velvet curtains. It's got some wall booth type of seating along the side of the wall, which were comfortable. However, it's directly next to the train tracks and the noise is loud because of the ceiling height.
In conclusion, I won't go back there. Like I said before, if you have the company paying for it, and if you were in Topeka, KS, and it's the only game in town, you'd be thrilled to find this place. But when you have the selection of restaurants in the Bay Area like we have, I say go elsewhere. Shoot, I go to Aqua on California all the time and it's consistent as can be! Same prices too!
Occupation: Insurance Agent
Favorite Restaurant: Aziza
Reviewed Pisces: Saturday, December 3, 2005
The Bay Area has many great restaurants and Pisces in not one of them. It’s not that the food is bad; it just isn’t very good. It’s expensive and there isn’t a whole lot of it. Some of the dishes had good qualities, but not a single dish was great.
Tuna Tartar had a lovely, melt in your mouth texture that was almost creamy and contrasted well with the crunchy crostini. The tuna itself was bland and boring and could have used something (a pinch of salt, a kick of spice) to bring out the flavor.
Sturgeon had a pleasant, firm texture and a subtle smokey flavor. This was the most well prepared dish I had. Still, there was no wow moment, no revelation, no culinary epiphany. This was high point of the evening, and it was merely passable.
Skate Wings had tender, flakey flesh with a well-browned crust. Yet the Grenobloise sauce disguised the flavor of the fish. The chef used far too many capers, which overwhelmed the dish with an extremely strong sour taste.
Roasted Winter Vegetables were awful. A tiny portion of overcooked, over seasoned veggies. These are vegetables for people who don’t like vegetables. As one who loves vegetables, I found them limp and tasteless. At a restaurant of this price range, located in the produce Mecca that is California, serving vegetables like these is inexcusable.
Décor was simple: beige, long and narrow. There was a subtle maritime theme; the lights were reminiscent of kelp and the interior reminded me of a boat. The atmosphere was somewhere in limbo between coffee shop and Gary Danko. I didn’t feel transported or relaxed like I do at other restaurants. Tablecloths were covered in paper. Nice walls, beige hotel-like carpeting. Attentive service combined with the oblivion of a coffee shop waitress. Some folks were in evening gowns and suits, while others were in jeans. Ultimately, it’s pretty boring and run-of-the-mil. It was nothing special, but not uncomfortable.
Service was extremely attentive. In fact, it was too attentive and crossed the line into intrusive. I don’t need to be asked how my meal is three times, by server, busser and manager, all while I’m trying to eat. I don’t need to be asked if I want another drink three times either. Good service predicts your needs without intruding on your meal. Instead, we got attentive service with the oblivion of a coffee shop waitress. For a restaurant in this price range, the performance was amateurish.
I have no qualms about spending $100 on dinner for two. I love food and I adore a good restaurant. Yet there are so many restaurants in the Bay Area that are superior to Pisces; restaurants that are not hanging on the coattails of a parent restaurant conglomerate.
The dishes at Pisces were at best, passable and at worst, laughable. Pisces may get by in Burlingame, but it would not last a week in the city. Any true Bay Area foodie will be disappointed with the food, amused by the service, and outraged when the bill arrives.