Every year since it opened in 2003, Michael and Lindsay Tusk's Quince has seemed to grow a little more polished. Last year, the Tusks moved Quince from its serene, close quarters in Pacific Heights to a palace near Jackson Square. As a friend put it recently, the restaurant is now tony enough to attract the kind of diners who don't care about the quality of the food. Thanks be to the chef, the food hasn't lost its ability to amaze.
With their Michelin star secure and their ambitions nestled into the proper setting, the Tusks have taken on the restaurant equivalent of building a cabin on the Mendocino coast. Cotogna (Italian for "quince"), which opened adjacent to Quince in November, is a casual(ish) place with small plates, scaled-down pastas, and a wood-fired oven, rotisserie, and grill. It's also beautifully realized — translating everything that is so refined about Quince into classic California simplicity. In my two meals there, I encountered no strange errors to jar me out of the mood Cotogna was setting and, unless pizza counts, no brazen pandering to the plebs. No $15 burger. Imagine.
Perhaps my affection for Michael Tusk's pastas simply transferred to the new place, where chef Ryan Childs, hired away from Chez Panisse, does them justice. Case in point: garganelli tossed with a ragout of rabbit and artichokes ($16). The bottom of the bowl was covered in egg-yolk-yellow rolls of pasta — medallions of dough rolled out to the thickness of a business card, striped with thread-thick ridges, then curled into rough tubes. It was cooked so precisely that, as I chewed, I could sense exactly where each tube overlapped. Behind the pasta, more harmony than melody, were artichokes and chunks of rabbit braised in a tomato-tinged white wine sauce. It was pasta that rewarded the kind of quiet concentration we normally reserve for nigiri or single-estate chocolate.
Cotogna is working a San Francisco look that continues to appeal: warehouse reimagined as farmhouse. The box-shaped room is ringed in exposed brick and striated woods, with lights that preserve everyone in liquid amber, and a bank of flames at the back of the open kitchen. The restaurant is rustic for those of us who like our wines fermented in clay urns and bottled by purple-lipped peasants, then air-freighted across the world and bought with a flash of a plastic rectangle. It's situated so that, at lunch, Cotogna draws in the people who live and work tens of stories above it — a millionaire's cantina. Then, at night, the prices stay the same, and a $40 exorbitant lunch becomes an affordable dinner. Old money is joined by foodistas. The mood, oddly enough, becomes more private and respectful.
Perhaps because their training is ongoing, the servers seem to travel in packs, delivering the entrées together and covering the dining room zone by zone. (The approach works.) David Lynch's wine list, which largely represents the northern half of Italy, takes a novel approach: Every glass costs $10, every bottle $40. Connoisseurs will surely call out bargains and overpriced bottles, but for most diners, the list makes choosing a wine a matter of pairing, not price.
Is it optimistic for the owners to divide the menu into antipasti, primi, grill/oven, and a long list of vegetable sides? Possibly. The waiters don't seem to hold anyone to those distinctions, since most of us consolidate the categories into "big dish" and "little dish," then order just as many from each category as we please. So a meal may start with a tiny plate of shaved fennel, mandarin oranges, olives, and parsley leaves ($6) set next to Dungeness crab toasts showered in translucent, red-rimmed coins of radish ($12).
A tangle of rose-tipped chicories ($12), flecked with pomegranate seeds, their bite tamed by a swipe of the fork through a puddle of burrata, makes as good a beginning to the meal as a side of multicolored baby carrots ($6), roasted in anise and honey (from Cotogna's rooftop hives) so long the root vegetables become candied. They could double as a dessert, those carrots. So could a deep-green spinach sformato ($12), a cheese-enriched custard with the texture of warm ricotta. Cotogna's signature dessert, a flanlike "bonét" with the texture of a whim and a cocoa-bitter caramel sauce, will serve the purpose too.
Though the pizzas that come out of the wood-fired oven are evenly spotted and crisp, 2010 was a year of extraordinary pizzas, and by comparison Cotogna's don't make much of an impression. The oven is used more memorably for pastas sauced in oven-braised meats, such as the lamb pappardelle ($16) — thick ribbons that look as if a spoonful of stew has been dabbed on them and taste as if they were formed out of roasted lamb. And the spit-roasted pork ($20), which is rubbed with fennel and chiles and slowly turned over the flames, slices up into pale-pink rounds rimmed in a smoky, blistery crust.
Was Cotogna conceived as Marie Antoinette's "little farm" to the Versailles of Quince? Perhaps, but the more rustic restaurant is a destination in itself. Quince may demonstrate the flourish of Italian cuisine, but Cotogna honors its heart.