It doesn't take much to realize where the good tables are in a restaurant situated on the water's edge: They're the ones with a view that takes advantage of why the restaurant was built there in the first place. Which is why we were so dismayed with the table initially offered to us at Epic Roasthouse. It was one of three semicircular leather booths tucked under a lowered ceiling between the host stand in the foyer and the open kitchen. The booths resolutely turned their backs to the big main room with the soaring glass walls that made virtually every other seat in the house a good one. The space seemed dark and shut away from the alluring, light, and airy main room.
We were puzzled, because our reservation was made a month ago. We had arrived early, and there seemed to be plenty of empty tables in the main room. Couldn't they seat us there?
"Everything is booked," the host told us. He offered a window table upstairs in the bar room, but a look revealed it was casual, crowded, and painfully noisy. Mindful of an uncomfortable dinner endured a few weeks ago in the even more painfully noisy, low-ceilinged room — a room we would never eat in again — tucked behind the grand, lofty main space in Epic's sister restaurant next door, Waterbar, we turned it down.
After some thought on the host's part, he offered a table on the banquette in the main room if we could be done by 8:15. In a place where you're paying top dollar, nobody likes to have constraints, but that was time enough for a leisurely dinner. Staff pushed together two tables set for two, and we settled in, hoping for a good meal and a pleasant evening.
As it happened, we had a great meal and a delightful evening, due in no small part to chef Jan Birnbaum's expansive and indulgent menu. Disciple of New Orleans legend Paul Prudhomme and veteran of such fine-dining establishments as New York's Quilted Giraffe, Denver's Rattlesnake Club, and S.F.'s own Campton Place, Birnbaum also put Calistoga on the culinary map with his Louisiana-inspired Catahoula.
His Epic menu is just that: epic. Covering three big pages (with another devoted to the restaurant's philosophy and purveyors), it includes everything from soup — clam chowder or deeply flavored onion soup — to nuts, which were strewn over a deconstructed Rocky Road sundae (more on that later). On Birnbaum's menu, you'll find an embarrassment of riches: oysters, crudo, salumi, salads cold and hot, appetizers ditto, seafood, birds, steaks, other beef dishes, veal, lamb, pork, housemade sausages, five potato sides, and ten other sides titled "Things You Just Want in a Steakhouse," including rethought classics such as mac and cheese made with orecchiette pasta, and sautéed spinach with garlic confit.
Our starters included a shared small platter of house-cured meats. It was disappointing that the night's selection — Epic salami, chorizo, and pheasant terrine — didn't include the more unusual items of the dozen offered as possibilities, such as porchetta, smoky ham hock, and hog headcheese. And the scant servings (three thin slices each of the sausages, and three small chunks of the terrine), though nicely garnished with mustards and house-made pickles, seemed a bit stingy for $25. But the highly seasoned salumi was very good indeed, and the superb, frequently replenished bread offerings, including cheesy gougères and cornbread madeleines, felt more lavish.
The hearts of romaine with an intensely lemony mortar-and-pestle anchovy dressing ($10), draped with silvery anchovies, was one of the best Caesars ever, though it didn't bear the name. The beef tartare ($15), prepared tableside, was not one of the best ever. Despite responding in the affirmative when asked if we wanted Tabasco, the resulting mixture was too bland, needing more kick from its additions of parsley, aioli, and minced red onions.
With the main courses, everything kicked into high gear. What I look for first in a restaurant is a dish that makes me want to order it again, and everything else we had that night fell into that hallowed category. At lunch, I'd really only been quite as enthralled with two dishes: a hanger steak ($25) with a red heart under a tasty grilled crust, swimming in béarnaise, and an almond brown-butter cake ($10) with toffee sauce and fresh cherry compote. In fact, the wood-oven-roasted sand dabs ($21 at lunch) were distressingly bland and mushy.
But tonight I was in love: with the luscious full-flavored prime rib (10-ounce $33, 14-ounce $44, available until 8 p.m. nightly), still juicy though requested medium well, and with a divine fresh horseradish sauce made with crème fraîche. And I really liked the Ultimate 3/4 pound Roasthouse Burger ($25, with Gruyère or cheddar), which, when chosen over the long-bone beef short rib with whipped truffle potatoes, seemed madness. But the mammoth beauty that arrived on a plate heaped with greens, ripe tomato, house-made pickles, and huge wedges of potatoes steamy under their golden crust, sided with a tray bearing little cups of bacon bits, fresh corn relish, grain mustard, sautéed mushrooms, and aioli, changed my mind. It was aptly named. The smaller version of the beef tenderloin (8-ounce $36, 12-ounce $44) was succulent indeed: a great steakhouse steak. The aged lamb T-bone chop ($28), coated with a delicate arugula pesto, had that rarely encountered real lamb flavor, ever-so-slightly funky. A server offered to pour rich, winey bordelaise sauce on each of the meat plates; I tried mine on the side, wisely, for it would have overpowered the lamb. Everything was enhanced by the fruity Pierre-Bise Cabernet Franc ($50) chosen from the impressive 20-page wine list.
Although we were told the mains came à la carte, the tenderloin arrived with a crown of baby squash and sautéed carrots on the side, and the lamb chop was garnished with a medley of whole baby carrots, sliced asparagus, and artichoke hearts. But the three sides we ordered were so fabulous that we didn't regret a one: unbelievably cheesily and creamily decadent scalloped potatoes au gratin ($10); exquisitely fried onion rings ($9), impossible to duplicate in a home deep fryer — you need a huge restaurant one so that the oil stays hot enough to crisp them up; and the surprise hit, truffled cauliflower ($9), in a unique presentation: a thick slice cut from the whole cauliflower, florets intact. The inexpensive pungent vegetable was gloriously enhanced by the expensive pungent fungus.
We could have stopped right there: Big prices here are matched by big portions, and only the tenderloin orderer cleaned her plate. But we had to try the beignets — four big powder-dusted ones, served in a brown paper bag, with a glass of luscious New Orleans coffee enriched with soft meringue alongside for dipping purposes. This was a combination richer and more fun than the famous duo served at N'Awlins' Cafe du Monde. The Epic Rocky Road sundae was also very seductive: buttery chocolate ice cream topped with house-made marshmallows, candied walnuts, brownie chunks, and caramel sauce.
What I like about New Orleans cooking is that it's about good eating, pure and simple, and unafraid of richness. Only the sundae was "deconstructed." We're not talking molecular gastronomy, or wacky combinations of flavors, or pitting unfamiliar and unexpected textures against each other. It's deliciousness. It's gourmandise. It's gluttony. And, at the right table, with a view of the bridge rather than the kitchen brigade, it approaches divinity.