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A change in philosophy between two visits to Frisson gives us a shiver

Wednesday, Oct 6 2004
Carl was in town on his annual visit from Tokyo, where he spends most of the year teaching and concertizing, and I wanted to take him someplace wonderful. Not just because he loves to eat and is a discerning companion, but also because the last time he was here, our attempt at gastronomic bliss was a miserable flop. We had a curious, dispiriting lunch, a tasting menu of many courses that left us doubting the reputation of both the restaurant and its newish chef (oh, OK, it was Campton Place). (I'll admit that lunch is not the ideal time to sample a chef's wares, since he may very well not be in the kitchen, but his philosophy and recipes are still on display. And dinner would have had to have been many, many times better than what we had to have impressed us.)

So it was with a little shiver of both anticipation and concern that I made our dinner reservation at Frisson (which means, yes, shiver) for a Tuesday night in August. I had never tasted chef Daniel Patterson's food before, though I had read and heard many good things about his previous restaurant, Elisabeth Daniel, which closed at the end of last year. I entered Frisson and shivered with excitement: It looked wonderful, sleek and modern and retro all at the same time. Carl was already there, sipping a glass of champagne in the stylish semicircular bar room, perhaps inspired by the huge photograph of champagne bubbles that is its backdrop.

We were led into the big round dining room, and I surprised the hostess by requesting to be seated within view of the theatrically bright kitchen, visible through glass windows as well as its wide doorway. I've always liked the kitchen ballet, and this one appeared even more appetizing because of the youth and attractiveness of its crew.

Both of us liked the décor, especially the dramatic domed ceiling with a floating-spaceship effect; flattering pink light streamed down on us through polka-dot cutouts. We were seated on the end of a sinuous banquette upholstered in burnt orange; dividers between the upper and lower levels of the room boasted modernistic, abstract assemblages of translucent pale-yellow resin squares and rectangles. The glossy dark-wood tables were bare, save for angular flatware. I mentioned Stanley Kubrick and his iconic designer, Ken Adam; Carl said it reminded him of cutting-edge places in Tokyo, "But they would be half or a third the size."

Everything on the orange-and-yellow menu, a fusion of global ingredients and French techniques, seemed enticing. On the left side were small plates, under the stark headings First (eight starters and salads), Second (eight starters and fish), and Third (a vegetarian dish and four meat dishes), all priced between $8 and $18; a server urged us to order two dishes from each. We deviated a bit from that instruction, since on the opposite page, titled Last, was a list of intriguing cheeses as well as desserts (simply called Desserts), and we knew that we would be trying both. So we chose two Firsts and two Seconds, and split a Third.

I was a bit taken aback by the dollhouse appearance of Carl's first course, three coinlike (and more like dimes than quarters) rounds of bone marrow topped by grains of California osetra caviar, elegantly lined up on a pristine white rectangular plate with a swirl of deep-red beet purée. But the one morsel I tried was an evanescent flash in the mouth of pure genius, the thinnest crispy layer surrounding lush unctuous fat, rhymed with the salty, crisp beads of the sea, and sweetened with a swipe through the beets. My palate was crying out for more. We also loved the similarly brilliant cornmeal-crusted foie gras, creamy within an infinitesimal layer of resistance, sided with lavender-scented onions and a touch of balsamic. "The portions remind me of Tokyo, too," Carl said.

The second course was equally amazing. We split a warm yellow corn-brioche pudding, glazed with white truffle butter and served with dabs of fragile corn meringue. I was stunned at how much true corn flavor came through in every airy bite, and how it was enhanced rather than obscured by the whiff of white truffle oil. We shared a bit of beautifully cooked black bass on a bed of braised lettuce, flavored with tiny dice of pork belly and enticingly perfumed with -- a new one on me -- litsea cubeba. (Our helpful and charming server, Jessica, attempted to describe its obscure source to us, and then said, "It's like lemongrass." When I got home, I consulted Patterson's impressive new cookbook, Aroma, co-written with Berkeley perfumer Mandy Aftel, and learned that litsea cubeba is an essential oil distilled from the fruit of the may chang tree, a Chinese member of the laurel family. Who knew?)

We were mildly disappointed with our meat course, two tiny, rare rib chops (not quite the "lamb rack" of the menu) rubbed with the Moroccan multispice mixture ras el hanout (which can contain more than a hundred spices), though we loved its accompaniments of rarely seen fresh chickpeas and slivers of preserved lemon. (It was the first time during the meal that I thought to myself that $18 was a lot for this little bit of food; the dazzling skill displayed in the earlier dishes seemed priceless.)

We chose three from among the seven artisanal cheeses offered, listed with their makers' names: a tangy sheep's milk cheese called Flixer; a cow's milk blue cheese, Persille de Beaujolais; and an impeccable Gruyère. And finished, happily, with a tiny banana soufflé, pleasantly sandy with coconut and sophisticatedly flavored with curry spices and a dusting of bitter chocolate. This was an extraordinary meal, and I was once again back in Carl's good graces. It had totally erased the memory of that oddly clunky lunch. I felt as though the spaceship had transported us to another planet, with new flavors, new fragrances, new textures. We were thrilled.

So it was with more than just pleasant anticipation that I invited my East Bay Express colleague, Jonathan Kauffman, to join me for dinner at Frisson a little more than a month later. I was so eager to return, in fact, that I got there 20 minutes early, and spent most of that time wandering the aisles of the Safeway a block away, marveling at a giant subway sandwich meant to serve several people for $7.99, and huge unbaked pizzas, the biggest I'd ever seen, for $8.99. In another galaxy, down the street, I was hoping to sneak in a second round of those bone marrow-and-caviar thingies, for $14.

Jonathan, too, must have been in anticipatory mode: When I arrived he was already there, in the bar, sipping a $12 not-quite-the-Sazerac-you'd-expect-for-that-price, though prettily served in a tall, sloping glass with a long, thin curl of orange peel. We were led to the exact same table I'd sat in at my first visit and handed orange-and-yellow menus. But when I opened mine, I was surprised to see not the First, Second, and Third I was expecting, but 10 Small Plates, priced between $8 and $14, and eight Large Plates, between $17 and $24. "When did the menu change?" I asked our server, who thought I'd asked why and answered with some gobbledygook about "offering more choice." (It looked like less choice to me, 18 dishes rather than 21. The caviar coins were gone, as were the corn pudding and the seared foie gras; in their stead, corn soup and foie gras terrine. And no trace of litsea cubeba.) When I repeated the "when," he said, "A week ago," and brusquely changed the subject with an almost surly, "What do you want for dinner?"

We wanted a lot of things, but we settled on four: small plates of corn soup and Japanese cuttlefish to start, followed by large ones of pork shoulder confit and roasted saddle of monkfish. The starters came to the table in deep, white, covered soup bowls on square white plates. When the covers came off, I expected a pleasant aroma to waft up (consider the source), but my pale strands of sautéed cuttlefish, garnished with infinitesimal flecks of green chives, gave off absolutely nothing. They were sweet, chewy, mild, disappointing. Jonathan's soup was more what I'd been expecting: It seemed to have several layers of texture as well as flavor -- a bit of froth above a dark, smoky swirl of broth with a light, true corn soup below, the sugary corn kernels playing off against leeks, chewy chanterelles, and barely funky cuitlacoche (a corn fungus). Superb.

Our main courses were not as dazzling as those in my first meal. My initial bites of both the sturdy pork confit and the monkfish -- roasted on a bed of rosemary and served on a bed of collard greens and black-eyed peas studded with tiny, gamy bits of pigs' feet -- were scary salty. But subsequent tastes were better balanced. The confit came topped with crunchy fleur de sel, surrounded by a dust called "essence of black pepper," and accompanied by a refreshing salad of slivered cabbage, kohlrabi, and bright peppers. I would have been more intrigued by smaller portions: Neither of us felt compelled to finish our dishes.

We went on to three lovely cheeses (Epoisses, a goat-and-sheep cheese called Melange, and Roquefort), nicely served with nutty toasts and a sweet granola tuile, and ended with two desserts that exemplified my confusion. The little row of alternating spicy cooked black figs and raw green figs, with an egg-shaped ball of rosemary ice milk on a bed of granola and another tuile cookie, couldn't have been more flavorful, witty, and better contrasted in temperature and texture. But the strawberries with natural jus, strawberry sorbet, and fizzy champagne meringue, try as I might to understand the dish, were just a boring bowl of glop.

A month before, I'd thought Frisson was just about perfect. Tonight we were more irritated by the three drunken yahoos next to us (who spilled a full water glass across their table and later sent a wine bottle crashing to the floor) and the large party that took ages to be seated across from us (and who had stood around in cocktail party mode, and then took endless pictures of each other with a blinding digital flash) than we would have been if the food were as consistently brilliant as it had been before. The spaceship had landed with a thud.

About The Author

Meredith Brody


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