Note: I visited Acquerello again in Sep. 2004, read the review.
I had wanted to go to Acquerello for a long time, ever since my friend created the first version of their website and had me look at their wonderful-sounding menu. I had also seen some very good reviews of the restaurant, and it appeared in the Chronicle's list of best Bay Area restaurants for this year. Still, for one reason or another, we had not yet made our way there.
Finally, yesterday we had some great news that merited a celebration. I called Acquerello at about 3:30 and was able to secure a reservation for that same night. I wasn't too surprised, given the current economic climate and the fact that it was a weekday, but the restaurant was actually about two-thirds full that night.
I have made and canceled several reservations at Acquerello, and the process is always very pleasant and painless. If you leave a message, they will invariably call you back and they are very nice on the phone. The good service continues in the restaurant. We were immediately seated when we got there (even though we were terribly underdressed, this is really a jacket and tie, or at least jacket or tie type of place), and our waiters were very gracious and friendly (without being overly so). For those who hate the practice, the maitre d' does try to put the napkin on your lap, though he can be easily dissuaded. They seemed to be understaffed that night; I think they only had two main waiters, yet service was always good and did not seemed rushed. We never lacked for bread or water, and we were asked if we wanted refills on our drinks several times. A new set of tableware was brought with every dish, and the table was cleaned between courses (I'm a messy eater, what can I say). All in all, we were very happy with the service.
Acquerello's ambiance is also pretty nice. You can get an idea of their dining room by looking at the picture in their website. It's medium- sized, with tall A-shaped ceilings and light yellow walls. The room has soft lighting, though it's not as dim as I like. Each table has a candle with a shade. I have seen Acquerello described as romantic, but I didn't really find it so. It's one big room, which takes away from a feeling of intimacy; the lights are too bright and the place is rather loud. In other words, you don't feel like it's just the two of you being spoiled. Still, the place was pleasant enough.
The real reason why we went to Acquerello, though, was the food and it was certainly the star of the evening. I have heard it described as haute Italian cuisine and I think the description is appropriate. The dishes we had tasted both homey and sophisticated and were in general delicious.
Acquerello offers the choice of a 5 course Menu' Degustazione with paired wines ($95) or a la carte dishes for three different courses (plus dessert). First course selections include dishes of the appetizer, soup and salad type ($9-$14), second courses are pastas or risottos ($15-17) and third courses are meat main dishes ($27-$31). This is definitely not a vegetarian-friendly type of place. Most of the dishes available that night were those on their online menu, but they also had a couple of white truffle dishes (one was a risotto, I don't remember the other) as first courses, which were somewhere around $45. A three-course menu might seem too much, but in reality the dishes are well-balanced in size so that they will fill you without overbearing you. They are also well spaced, giving you time to become hungry again as you wait for your next course. Be careful, though, to not fill up on the bread (which is OK, though not as good as we would have wished).
As my first course I had a mashed potato tart on a flaky crust topped by mushrooms. I really liked it, it was a very homey and satisfying dish with a hearty flavor. I enjoyed the contrasts in the textures of the flaky pastry and the smooth puree and would order it again. Mike had the breast of quail filled with spinach and rolled in pancetta with fava beans. He loved it. I tasted it and I thought it was pretty good, but I liked my appetizer more.
For my second course, I had the "Ridged pasta with foie gras, scented with black truffles." The sauce of this dish was simply divine. It was hearty, fragrant, the type of thing that invites you to relish it. I could have eaten it with a spoon if one had been provided. I did not think that it went well with the ridged pasta, however. I don't particularly like ridged pasta anyway, and I didn't think it was a good medium for delivering the sauce. The pasta was too al dente to soak in much of the sauce, and while some of it found its way into its inner tube, it was difficult to not have it drop before reaching my mouth. The pasta was also too hard to actually pinch it with a fork, so I had to use my fork as a spoon which made the maneuver more difficult. I think the sauce would be much better on another type of pasta (ravioli, for example), or even chicken or game birds. I would love to get the recipe!
Mike had the "Veal and artichoke filled ravioli in a natural veal glaze with lemon and parsley." He liked the unusual taste of the dish, I had one ravioli and I thought it was pretty good as well though I liked my dish better.
As a main course, I had duck breast slices with a cherry sauce, accompanied by some green vegetable (possibly spinach). The duck is usually served very pinkish, but I asked that it be cooked more (I was glad the waiter warned me when I ordered the dish). It was pretty good, though I think it would have been better if it was rarer. The seared skin was delicious, and the meat went very well with the thick and sweet cherry sauce. I would also order this again. Mike had the "Rolled veal filled with prosciutto, Parmesan cheese and chives wrapped in phyllo dough and accented with arugula" and he said he really liked it. It just didn't look good to me, so I didn't try it.
I was ready to fall asleep by now (I had woken up really early that morning) but I couldn't leave without having dessert first. The dessert list looked very interesting because it featured items and combinations that I had never had before, and yet referred back to traditional desserts (the desserts were all different from those listed in their website, all are about $10 though). Mike and I settled on the "Mont Blanc", which was some orange spongy cake with cream and small meringues. It was very good, light and not too sweet. Mike particularly liked the meringue and as usual I liked the contrast in textures between the meringue and the cake.
I've read that Acquerello has a wonderful wine list, but we did not order a bottle of wine that night. I had a coke and Mike had a glass of the chianti ($12). I had a small sip and I thought it was good, oakier than I'd have expected, but still too light (I don't usually like chiantis). Still, he liked it.
All in all we had a wonderful dinner and a wonderful evening. The whole meal came to about $160 before tip. I have not yet decided if this is too much in relative terms (in absolute terms, of course it's too much, but that can be said about any upscale restaurant). I think that perhaps it is, but I still would definitely go back for special occasion.
1722 Sacramento Street