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New favorite restaurant: Acquerello

I’m in love. Giddy as a schoolgirl. It’s been a long time since a restaurant has utterly swept me off my feet, maded me wrinkle my brow in wonder and then smile uncontrollably. Last night, I fell in love with Acquerello.

I’ve been eager to go to Acquerello for some time now. Many people have raved about it, especially the foodies and italophiles. Qualified praise, that. So I was thrilled when our friends Nick and Russ invited us to join them for dinner there with their friends Seth and Shadi. Apart from Nick, all of us were Acquerello virgins.

I’ll aspire to describe the evening as best as possible. I did not take any photos, despite recent guidance on how best to do so. I also wish I had gotten a rundown of the wines. Nick worked with the sommelier on the selections, and so I only know what we drank in broad strokes. But they were phenomal wines all.

Acquerello’s dining room is reminiscent of a Tuscan farmhouse or perhaps even a Romanesque chapel, with ochre- and siena-tinted walls and a vaulted ceiling of dark wood with a panted floral pattern. A large fresco on the far wall and numerous watercolor paintings (hence the name: "acquerello" means watercolor in Italian) round out the design. The overall effect is transportive, just edging on over-the-top yet still distinctly bearing the stamp of Italian aesthetic. Its warm and comforting atmosphere balances the formality of the place.

Notes on the dishes, wines and (perhaps most importantly) service after the jump.

Acquerello’s menu is daunting, not so much for the sheer volume of dishes — there were only perhaps six options each for antipasti, primi and secondi — but because they all sound so tempting. Chef Suzette Grisham is renowned for taking traditional Italian dishes and making them modern and light, yet she is clearly not afraid of pushing the envelope on richness either. Still, one of our group was lactose-intolerant, and she was able to navigate the menu just fine.

I’ll cover the dishes in groups. We pretty much all tasted each others’ food, so it’s just easier to talk about it all collectively.

As an aperitif, they provided us a shot glass with a mix of orange juice and sweet vermouth, which was both refreshing and acidic enough to get the senses tingling.

Grilled baby octopus salad in its own ink: Tender, crips tentacles, nice smoky flavor, pleasant spice to the dressing and ink, just a teensy bit oversalted, but delicious.

Chilled galia melon soup with prosciutto and mint: Extremely bright, sweet melon flavor, brilliant green color, offset nicely with the saltiness of the prosciutto and the coolness of mint. I’ll try this at home.

Budino of parmigiano-reggiano with shaved asparagus: Texture as light as air, flavor as rich as butter. The faint crunch of asparagus a perfect foil to the fluffy texture of the budino. Not diet food, but who’s dieting tonight?

Salad of arugula with nectarines and prosciutto: Extracted from the tasting menu. The nectarines were meltingly ripe.

Starters were paired with a white wine. Again, I didn’t pay close enough attention to the wines (dammit). This had a huge bouquet, bright and floral like a gewurtztraminer, but dry and crisp on the palate. My kind of wine!

Penne with foie gras and black truffle: The foie was finished in marsala, which gave the dish a nice sweetness. I had exactly one bite of this dish, and it sent me to the moon and back. It’s seriously rich, though; I don’t know if I could have a whole bowl of it.

Lobster panzerotti in lobster sauce: Contrary to what I expected, the sauce was tomato-y and rich, with a fair amount of peppery spice and a gentle saffron finish at the end. Amazingly, the lobster was not lost but rather well framed by these flavors, rising right between the spice and the saffron.

Ox-tail ravioli in brodo: Whereas the lobster pasta had heft, the broth in this dish gave it lightness. I wasn’t expecting to like it (I don’t really dig oxtail), but I did!

Seafood risotto: Amazingly creamy texture for having no dairy in it whatsoever. It also had a strong saffron flavor yet none of the yellow color you would expect.

The wine was a nebbiolo with a tremendous bouquet, yet was light enough to complement even the more delicate dishes.

Duck breast with a crisp potato cake and, erm, some kind of greens: It’s getting later in the night (did I mention it was a 9 pm seating?) and the details start to escape me. The potato cake was quite good. The duck was very good as well. Still have some in the fridge, so perhaps I’ll come back with another assessment. Three of us had this dish, though.

Grilled dorade with polenta and baby fennel:
Perfect. The fish was moist and well-seasoned.

And there was a beef dish I didn’t try. I was getting full.

This time we had a big, complex Sicilian wine that had tons of structure. It was almost like a Napa cabernet.

I can only speak to what DPaul and I had: Vanilla gelato with 25-year balsamic. There is no substitute in the world for true, well-aged balsamic. I could drink it by the shot. Against the sweetness and creaminess of the gelato, it took on the brightness of cherries and the depth of wine.

They pulled out a fortified barolo for us on this one as a digestif. Again, I wish I had gotten more information. This was the most remarkable thing I have ever tasted. I was expecting something port-like. The color of the stuff was almost black, with bluish refractions. The bouquet was a crazy cacophony of raisin, mint, eucalyptus, and the party of flavors kept going upon tasting. I have never had any wine, much less a fortified wine, with such an amazingly complex and diverse array of flavors. I can still taste it now.

This was the standout. At the outset, the service was understated and formal yet approachable. Our table wasn’t quite ready when we arrived (and not all our party had arrived, so it worked out well); the hostess made us comfortable at one of the tables in the foyer. We were brought glasses of prosecco while we waited.

At the table, our waiter was again at first reserved yet friendly. But as the night wore on, and the dining room began to clear out, the two (gay) waiters buzzed around our table, chatting jovially, ribbing each other and us. Eventually we were the only ones left, and they became our private servers and new best friends. I demand professionalism from servers yet abhor stuffiness. How lovely to have had such a relaxed and genial experience in such a
professional and formal environment. It was the best of both worlds.

Acquerello is not your everyday Italian restaurant — the bill came to about $125 per person. But considering we each had three courses plus dessert, and wines to match, plus the delightful experience all around, it is more than worth every penny. I can hardly wait to return.

1722 Sacramento St (between Van Ness and Polk)

This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. Sean, this is great, I really appreciated you giving a proper review before going over the meal course by course. I’d imagine it’s hard to get away with such a simple dessert as aged balsamic and gelato at a nice restaurant, but it seems they did!

  2. Well, I think it’s less about them getting away with it than simply what we wanted. To be fair, they make their own gelato, and true 25-year balsamic is far from an everyday ingredient. They had other tempting dolce as well, but we were too stuffed — and it was too hot in there — to tempt us.

  3. Yeah, I remember the first time I had it, I was in awe. Drizzling a bit on some good gelato sounds fantastic!

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