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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

George Morrone and His "Timeless" Tuna Tartare Have Arrived In San Carlos

Posted By on Wed, Feb 12, 2014 at 11:15 AM

Gusto's self-described "timeless" tuna tartare. - FACEBOOK/GUSTO

When San Carlos restauranteur Enzo Rosano announced last fall that he was transforming his casual Limone into the more upscale Gusto, helmed by acclaimed chef George Morrone, the entire Bay Area restaurant scene noticed. Morrone is the most heavyweight chef to arrive on the Peninsula since Wolfgang Puck closed his Spago in Palo Alto back in 2007 -- and even then you'd be lucky to see Puck there more than a handful of days each year.

Morrone's visage won't be on any supermarket aisle soup cans soon, but he did in fact write an entire book in 2004 devoted to the humble concept of soup. That should be a cue to order soup. Go for the thick cream of mushroom that couldn't be more expressive of the fungi.

But Morrone is best known for his "timeless tuna tartare." It inspired Michael Mina's famous, nearly identical version after Morrone served as Mina's mentor while opening the now-closed Aqua in S.F. (coincidentally home to Mina's flagship restaurant today). In a recent taste-off between the two versions, the one at Gusto was the slightly more riveting winner.

Is there a more tired, over-seasoned and sauced dish than tuna tartare? You'll be a believer again after visiting Gusto. No soy-wasabi sauce or won ton crisps here.

The dish ($22) arrives tableside with each ingredient separate, ready to be mixed in old-fashioned dramatic tableside style. Before you is the glowing, ruby-hued tuna finely diced into precise cubes. Michelin-level discipline is on display with the knife skills. A small quail's egg crowns the tartare, set to be broken and used as the binding sauce. Let the tartare tossing begin.

Pine nuts add a needed textural jolt, while chili powder lifts the tartare with a carefully calibrated spice level that adds to the pine nuts' rustic theme. A drizzle of sesame oil amplifies the tuna's steak-like flavor notes even further. The crowning piece of the aquatic puzzle are the diced Asian pears, lending sweetness and a lovely freshness. That's six different components that all effortlessly compliment each other. It's more complex with a higher degree of difficulty but just as graceful as a gold medal winning pairs figure skating duo.

Frankly, the only knock on the dish is the fact that Gusto actually refers to the dish as "timeless" which causes as many diners to order the dish as diners who roll their eyes at the pomp and circumstance. Casablanca and "Hey, Jude" are timeless. The tuna tartare's brilliant textures and deft spicing speak for themselves without the advertising.

Entrees work just as well as the tartare. Salmon from Scotland's Loch Duart is roasted to a spot-on medium rare center. A mandarin marmalade is restrained in portion and sweetness, its mellowness contrasting with the crunch and brightness of paprika braised red cabbage. Perhaps even more impressive is the beef tenderloin, as soft and tender as a braised short rib but with a far stronger beefy profile. An almost fruity Barolo butter and smattering of parsnip puree keeps the potential hefty dish lighter and keeps the focus on the deservedly starring beef.

The Peninsula needs to take note of Gusto. Here is a rare (pun not intended) dish that lives up to its lofty reputation.

619 Laurel St., San Carlos; (650) 591-5700.

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Trevor Felch


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