Even before its early June opening, Farallon was destined to become a major San Francisco restaurant, with its Union Square location and star-studded -- or Stars-studded -- cast. By its one-month birthday, the place was so packed to its last glittering inch that already you had to reserve a week ahead for a prime-time dinner.
The co-owners are restaurateur/designer Pat Kuleto and chef Mark Franz. Kuleto's visible sense of restaurant-as-theater has been manifested at Kuleto's, McCormick & Kuleto, Postrio, Fog City, and the conversion of the rakish old Audiffred Building's ground floor into Boulevard. Franz, in turn, was at Stars from its opening, running the kitchen for a decade while celeb-chef Jeremiah Tower was often off opening new branches from Palo Alto to Hong Kong to fabled far-off Fluoristan. By the turn of the '90s, Franz was widely recognized as the restaurant's mainstay and a chef to keep an eye on.
For his own starring venture, he's recruited several other ex-Stars luminaries, including dessert-chef (and more lately cookbook author) Emily Lucchetti and house manager Lori Theiss (most recently at Boulevard). Having lost such important staffers, Jeremiah ought to rename the mother ship "The Next Generation."
At Farallon's opening-night gala, where the Beautiful People bumped oysters with the ink-stained wretches of the press, we enjoyed a panoramic preview of the menu (although several items -- e.g., white truffle fritters, roast pheasant breast -- were apparently one-night stands). TJ and I returned for dinner some five weeks later, disguised as ordinary people.
Ordinary people entering Farallon ought to be struck first by Kuleto's splashy oceanic decor. But smell is a more intimate, immediate sense than vision, and as you step inside, you're immediately kayoed by the pervasive, exuberantly funky aroma of the white truffles so freely employed in the cooking here. Unlike the self-effacing black truffles of France (which slyly sneak up on your taste buds like fungal MSG, making all their pals taste better), Italian white truffles bare their heavy breasts, swirl their skirts, and leap on the tabletop to dance the tarantella.
Once you're inured to the scent, you start gawking at what Kuleto (a Pisces himself) has wrought with the Italianate structure built as a private club in 1924. On the one-time site of the club's swim tank is Sea World reframed as a restaurant -- a witty, extravagant grown-up theme park to eat in. The bar area functions as a wading pool (before your plunge into the main dining room), with fish nets above the door, octopoid barstools, and handblown hanging lights shaped like jellyfish with tentacles dangling down. Shells encrust walls, intermittently overlaid with paintings of San Francisco as a young fishing port. A cockleshell's coil of a staircase (leading to a balcony) has railings of satiny wood with the trompe l'oeil texture of dried sea kelp. The 90-seat main dining room evokes Neptune's cave, with humongous bulbous ceiling lamps shaped like sea-urchin shells, and an open serving station embossed with metal fish scales and lighted by blue squids. At one side, a cozier sub-dining room on a low-walled rounded platform seats diners on the half-shell.
As your eyes are wowed, your ears may be overwhelmed. Despite upholstered dining chairs, the decor follows Stars' sonic design of bouncing ambient noise against echoic hard surfaces; add swingy pop-jazz (Sinatra and pals) on the sound system and diners bellowing to hear each other, and it sounds like a giant permanent party. When full, the dining room's clamor escalates from bash to riot; the half-shell adjunct is a little quieter.
We lucked into dinner seating on the balcony, where the din is diminished. Its decor is quieter too: a midnight-blue ceiling, low lighting from shell-shaped sconces and candleholders, small tables for two along the railing (we forbore to pelt the downstairs with oyster shells), and, in the darkest recesses, red velvet booths seating three or four. The awesome menu (which will change seasonally) would take a dozen dinners to explore thoroughly. You can choose from eight raw-bar appetizers ranging from one oyster ($2) to a shellfish extravaganza ($16 per person); six salads ($8-13), half of them maritime; or nine warm appetizers ($7.25-15.50), mainly ocean-based. The 10 entrees ($18-29.50) embrace seven swimmers, but the nine desserts ($6.50 each) include not one fish. The wine list is 300 bottles long ($18-350), with 24 choices available by the glass ($4.50-11.75), though the low end is shallow. Markups are steep, about triple retail.
We started with six assorted raw oysters ($8.95) with champagne mignonette sauce. (Major mollusk-maven Bill Marinelli is the bivalve-buyer.) Since our local oysters go all soft and squishy during summer mating season, these came from cold Atlantic waters. Two Long Island Bluepoints tasted merely generic. Paired Diamonds from Nova Scotia were more piquant, and the standout duo were rich, velvety Malpeques, also Nova Scotian. (These put to shame the skinny Malpeques we had at the Ritz Carlton's seafood fling.) The refined mignonette was so apt, it turned me off ketchup-based sauce forever. (Well -- except with Louisiana's big roughneck Apalachicolas.) At the opening gala, we'd enjoyed the oysters indig'eau ($2 each), which dressed up the Malpeques in pickled seaweed shreds and pearls of house-made flounder caviar. (Indig'eau was to be Farallon's name, but another new restaurant had prior dibs on the un-Frenchified version of the word.)
We also loved the gala's deliciously clever Spanish mackerel tartare ($12.95), which looks like corned beef hash but mingles rich raw red fish, minidiced new potatoes, Osetra caviar, and a tangy sauce ravigote. This time, we had an asparagus and morel salad ($8.75) with tender spears and fat, earthy mushrooms dressed in citrusy vinaigrette and strewn with tiny, sweet currant-tomatoes. A "black truffled dungeness crab and sea urchin gratin" ($9.75) arrived in an urchin shell the size of a tangerine. Inside it, a bed of smooth mashed potatoes had specks of black truffles and the aroma of white ones. Atop the mash, and essentially just serving as its dressing, was a too-thin blanket of thrillingly strange globules of orange brininess, mixed with sweet crab meat.
We went on to "ginger steamed wild salmon pillows" ($18.75), a pair of salmon hunks wrapped (like a pheasant chartreuse) in butter-soaked Napa cabbage, which kept the fish tender during cooking. The pillows were strewn with crispy shreds of fried ginger and came with a wee dollop of mild shrimp mousse and an invisible "foie gras coulis." (What's that -- liver juice?) Alongside was a salad of tiny-diced carrots and celery in a tart dressing. As with the aforegoing urchin, the "treats" -- mousse and foie gras -- were mere teases. Relegated to a minor role, their flavors were barely perceptible here under the powerful onslaughts of salmon, ginger, and vinaigrette. This must be a calculated effect in Franz's cooking. However, it seems awfully "fin de siecle" to banish the most precious ingredients to the chorus. (Where's the lark's-tongue garnish?)
Roast skate with lobster boudin ($19.95) wasted the crustacean on a bland, rubbery boudin that resembled a supermarket seafood sausage. The skate, slightly undercooked, was sweet and succulent but had horizontal spears of cartilage to hassle with. "Skate is a trash fish -- even here it's still a trash fish," said TJ, watching my struggle to extract some morsel of flesh from the ray's stringent corset. Its "green cardamom shellfish sauce" was a yummy beurre blanc variation that made us wish the bread basket held a light bread for sopping, along with its fill'er-up mixture of hearty whole wheat and sourdough. The licorice flavors of fresh sweet cicely and tarragon intensified the anise notes of the accompanying fennel and artichoke slices, taking them to the edge of harshness.
After these complex and uneven compilations, you want a sweet that's focused and unchallenging -- albeit more elaborate than anything you'd likely cook at home. This is exactly what dessert chef Emily Lucchetti and co-patissiere Darcy Tizio are about. The gala concluded with a luscious passion-fruit cake with ginger sabayon and fresh fruit, and with "small endings," amusing little cookies and confections. Both are on the regular dessert menu, but wanting something even lighter, we chose "frozen rainbow fruit terrine," assorted fruit sorbets with raspberry coulis. The terrine was a square painted by Mark Rothko on speed, consisting of about a dozen narrow stripes, each of a different color and origin: raspberry, grapefruit, boysenberry, girlsenberry -- we gave up trying to identify them all. Each flavor was the intensest essence of its fruit, and best of all were their juxtapositions in our mouths.
We'd enjoyed the balcony's romantic lighting, but its darkness ultimately spread to our bill. Our waitress, who'd been attentive and pleasant, was evidently unused to the "wave your hand" computerized cash register, or perhaps couldn't see her entries. We certainly couldn't read our tab until we reached the lights of home, where we discovered that we'd paid $11 of another table's bill. Luxury is luxury, but I guess we'd let ourselves float too serenely on the tide, until we ended up floating our neighbors' cognac, too.