Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Location 1550 Church Street, Noe Valley, San Francisco, CA
Review by Susu, MaceVindaloo, Diasala, Diana
We'd heard of Chris Cozentino through the Food Network's Next Iron Chef series; he'd beaten five other contestants toward acquiring the New Iron Chef position, and was bested by only two others. His food came across as innovative yet old-fashioned, a bit over the edge, and erudite. It was challenging to understand as well as to eat. We longed to try his creations, even though they often seemed so challenging as to be dangerous.
Cozentino heads an Italian-Californian restaurant in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. The restaurant is on the ground floor, and he makes salumi upstairs. The decor makes it look a bit like a monastery, and a bit like a cheese or wine cav. Samples of his salamis and hams (with pig's tail attached!) are in a glass case as you walk in. It's a bit shocking for some, too visceral.
The chef is known for his support of "sustainable agriculture," the practice and preaching of organic-ness, buying locally, supporting farmers, etc. He's also a big believer in what could be called the Chez Panisse ethos, to look after the earth and your people. So he offers still or sparkeling water without charge to his diners. And he charges a flat 5% on the check, explaining that it ensures the people in the back of the house have health insurance and are fairly compensated, too. He could have just upped his food costs by 5%, but instead decided to tell the diner where the money was going.
Cozentino is also known for advocating the use of all parts of an animal whether as salami or as less processed items. For some, these two concepts are intertwined and the same. This is more adventurous that some stomachs and minds can stand, especially when the innards are not hidden in a stuffing or smothered under onions.
Thus, ordering innards and scraps would not only test us the diners but also test the chef who prepared them. This is at the heart of adventurous dining experience. Do our philosophies mix and match? Does it taste good?
We started with antipasto, featuring house-created brown sugar salami, pistachio mortadella, two types of head cheese, paté de campagne with grainy mustard, pickled ramps and baby fennel, and fresh radishes with sea salt. All of it was surprisingly mild tasting. We were expecting more aggressive, bold spicing; the chef seems to do this during his television cooking stint, after all. It was as if avowing challenged us with head cheeses, he felt he needed to not blow his whole stack on this one dish. Or maybe, it was his way of leading us in, and not burning us out too early?
Some of the dishes seemed like the very best things you can make from superlative leftovers. I think it's because Cozentino does take the sustainability, waste-nothing ethos very seriously. And for most of us, it was simply good food; for at least two of us, it looked like stellar second-day assemblies. Not that that's a bad thing!
The meal was indeed challenging. At points, it was delicious and could almost be called revelational. At other times, the effort was too ambitious in that some cuts or techniques simply provided their inventors with good food with no resources, but in themselves, could never be more than they were.
Disappointment came with this revelation because we'd hoped that a practitioner of Cozentino's talent and passion could imbue a beef heart or scraps of pig meat into something transcendental. That is likely an unreasonable expectation, or does that mean he's not equal to the task? We didn't want to be "prove it me tourists" but ...
We saw Cozentino at the kitchen pass all night, expediting orders. This is traditional at dinnertime in most restaurants; the chef then judges and finished every dish. He's responsible for it all, including training his cooks to execute his dishes as he taught them to do. If you want the chef's cooking efforts, you'd probably do better to go to the restaurant at lunchtime.
Service was clumsy they couldn't do something as simple as recall who ordered what. We hate when a server shows up with plates in hand and says, "Who ordered the fois?" That's what the pad and paper are for! However, when asked to wrap up some food, they didn't bring it out again till the end of the meal, the table number neatly penned on the page.
Like Cozentino's food, the service was patchy. The intention was always clear, fortunately, and it didn't detract from the experience.
The great atmotphere, the very good food, the excellent wine made the $100 per person including wine, tip, crew service charge, etc. a decent deal, despite everything not firing on all cylindars all the time. Or maybe they were, and we still have some growing up to do? It was challenging and educational and we did learn a lot!
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