There's been a lot of chatter on the Internet lately about the so-called "tyranny of tasting menus," and whether the elaborate multi-course meals are a pleasure or a burden for the diner. I'm of the opinion that it largely depends on the restaurant: I've experienced a few such dinners that brought me to a nearly drugged state of ecstasy; I've also spent too many evenings counting the courses until I could go home.
The 10-course prix fixe meal at Roxy's Cafe, the new home of chef Manny Torres Gimenez, reminded me of both the good and bad of the tasting menu form. There were glimmers of something interesting going on — most notably in his Latin American-influenced pastas — but it never fully materialized. When a chef is at the height of his talent and powers, his tasting menu is like a musical movement, all the disparate elements coming together to tell one soaring story. Gimenez strikes me as an ambitious young chef just warming up his instrument.
Gimenez is not a new student of tasting menus. He's known locally for his four-course, $20 menu at Mr. Pollo, which he acrimoniously parted from last December, after which he took up residence a few doors down at Roxy's Cafe. He started doing four-course pasta pop-ups at night, then graduated to four- and 10-course menus at lunch and dinner highlighting his Venezuelan upbringing, with elements from French, Italian, and Japanese cuisines thrown in.
The high point of the meal is still the handmade pastas. They are European in provenance but most are strikingly made over with South American ingredients. I loved the Andean gnocchi, little pillows of yucca (instead of the traditional potato) that dissolved in your mouth like cotton candy, topped with tender sauteed wild mushrooms and fresh, nutty shaved Oregon white truffle.
Another compelling tweak on an Italian classic was Gimenez's take on carbonara: linguine-like sweet plantain noodles paired with Mexican chorizo and an egg sauce, with a dollop of light and lemony egg foam next to it that had the consistency of whipped cream. The richness of the dish was insane but the portion wasn't, and the chewy cured sausage played off the soft, yielding pasta in every bite.
I wanted to see more of his fusion ingenuity in the butternut zlikrofi — ravioli-like squash pillows set atop a pool of sage brown butter and garnished with pancetta. The dish was well composed, even if the pasta was a touch too al dente, but it's a flavor combination that's become almost as predictable as marinara and meatballs.
It might have been easier to forgive a lack of creativity if the atmosphere had more to offer. Roxy's was formerly a fro-yo/smoothie/coffeeshop and not much has changed since Gimenez took over; the room feels more like a temporary stop-in than a place you want to spend a few hours. The silverware is mismatched and well-used. The service can be awkward. Some of the brightly colored serveware is chipped.
On one hand, this is San Francisco, where critically lauded restaurants pop up in the unlikeliest of places, and the lack of pomposity around the meal is refreshing. On the other, the 10-course meal at Roxy's costs $75, which is a deal in one sense (Michael Mina's tasting menu is $245, for example) but a splurge in the world most of us live in. Paying that much for a single meal, I want to be impressed with every course.
And many of the appetizer courses weren't especially affecting. To start, a Kumamoto oyster was laden with ginger and pickled onions on a bed of seaweed salad — a nice palate-whetter, but no new territory. Creamy sea urchin was served with poached cauliflower, a spicy tomato water, and a dusting of fish eggs and finger lime — the highlight was the uni, and the rest of the dish conspired to mask its flavor instead of elevating it. Then was an elaborate crab hand-roll with chile-garlic mayo that reminded me of mediocre Americanized sushi. It went on.
But a few things showed promise. The soup that day was a thick arugula-potato slurry whose woodsy, sour, spicy taste built as you ate more of it. The plate of desserts was a success: a passionfruit purée that was almost — but not quite — too tart to eat, paired with a fragrant lavender-rose-petal-lemongrass ice cream and a cheese arepa.
Throughout the meal, Gimenez's classical training shone through; before Mr. Pollo, he worked in kitchens like SPQR, Quince, and Coi. At Roxy's, he's working in a narrow, exposed kitchen with a few induction burners and without a proper range — putting out four-star cuisine is difficult, if not impossible, under those conditions, especially when you're on a bootstrapped budget.
And it's not that diners aren't willing to pay for interesting mistakes. I think about a chicken lasagna bizarrely topped with buttered popcorn I had a few months back at Rich Table (which has an $80 tasting menu as well as à la carte), or a rubbery smoked octopus and pickled turnip dish at a recent Liholiho Yacht Club pop-up ($55 for 13 dishes) — the difference being that both those meals were otherwise flawless, and even the missteps gave me insight into the soul of the chef behind it. Gimenez is undoubtedly talented and onto something with his South America/Italian fusion, but in this case his ambition might have exceeded his ability to execute.