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Restaurants: Farallon, San Francisco

What happened?

That’s all our table could say at the conclusion of a recent dinner, shrugging our shoulders and staring into the marine fantasy world that is San Francisco’s ever popular Farallon Restaurant. The powerhouse trio of architect Pat Kuleto, chef Mark Franz, and pastry chef Emily Luchetti opened Farallon in 1997, and despite more recently opening a duo of sleeker restaurants along the Embarcadero (Waterbar and Epic Roasthouse) and undulating waves of critical praise then pans then praise (how fitting for such an oceanic minded restaurant…), Farallon is still performing to a packed house night after night.

And what a house it is. Kuleto’s stunning, whimsical setting steals the show no matter how impressive Franz’s creations can sometimes be. Those plates from Franz can actually be spectacular–the chef could teach the definitive course on caramelized scallop perfection, as soft as the finest silk scarf.

But wow, what happened? I’m talking about that key component to a restaurant that diners and restaurateurs sometimes look the other way at, even if this is the hospitality industry after all.

That of course would be the service. Perhaps the other fish at the other tables of this sea were far more influential or attractive, but our table must have been the big, bad Great White Shark. There were no mis-orders with the vegetarian receiving the steak or plates being spilled on diners’ laps. It’s that everything started so promising. Everything was so crisp and professional. The main waiter was so helpful and convincing about his choices for best enjoying Franz’s menu.

The first sign of concern is when we realized how horribly designed our 5/8 of an oval (a conch shell design?) our table was, forcing one diner to be off in the abyss, completely removed from conversation. As awkward as it would be to bring in a chair to a booth setting, it is always nice to be included in the party. The chair was promised then never arrived. Then after another request we were told by a manager that a chair would hinder the service by blocking the slot servers could approach the table at. Agreed. Then the main waiter arrived again, oblivious to the prior statement by the manager, and said that there were no extra chairs left in the restaurant. By that time, we had already taken matters into our own hands and scrunched into one end of the booth. The best solution would be to eliminate the horribly designed booth altogether. As brilliant as Kuleto’s decor is, sometimes form defeats comfort. Here would be the perfect example.

The opening appetizers took some time to arrive, though it only raised an initial eyebrow. The main courses must have arrived an hour after the starters were cleared. Strangely, the open kitchen never looked overworked, never exuding that we’re in the weeds danger appearance to the public. In fact, it’s the servers who presented the hectic state of the evening. At one point, a team of ten servers were huddled by the kitchen, either planning the post-service activity, or anxiously awaiting to deliver plates. Yet, for essentially the entire final two hours of this Yankees-Red Sox epic nearly 3 1/2 hour, 3 course dinner, I had to act as sommelier pouring the wine for the table. Water at least was always filled. Wine? Never. Sluggish pace between courses? Absolutely. Our helpful server who had been so helpful initially went M.I.A. until briefly making a cameo for desserts and to pour some wine, not realizing nearly the entire bottle was gone without his aid.

Then there was the bus boy who had a quicker trigger than John Wayne. By the end of the meal we were playing a game of let’s see how aggressive he gets by wiping plates with bread or slowly eating a last chocolate truffle. Every time he arrived and tried to yank the plates and silverware away, long before being done. Not to keep listing complaint after complaint, but when the dessert menu or opening breads are presented with the pride and enthusiasm of studying for an SAT exam, the energy of a table deflates.

A Single Pan Seared Maine Diver Scallop with Oxtail Ragout, Red Wine Jus, and Heirloom Tomatoes

Fortunately, Franz with the aide of chef de cuisine Ryan Simas, and their kitchen crew can help momentarily lift the spirits from the hospitality woes. Franz’s preparations veer toward the heavily sauced side, more French with several global influences instead of rustic, simpler Californian style.

Farallon is one of the city’s prime addresses to partake in a shellfish platter, or enjoy the salt water filled Marin Miyagi oysters on the half shell. I have no idea why Franz’s menu divides starters into first and second courses. The only difference is the first ones are cold and the second courses are warm. The one must have would be that (warm) single scallop, ridiculously over priced at $18 for the scallop (not plural for a reason), in a pool of red wine jus, with oxtail ragu and heirloom tomatoes. It’s unusual to serve scallop(s) in a hearty, meaty preparation, but it works. A terrific dish. Just add another scallop.

Dungeness Crab Salad, English Pea Puree, Crisp Shallots, Lemon Vinaigrette

Franz pairs cornmeal crusted Monterey Bay squid with gnocchi and a piquillo pepper beurre blanc, and has both warm and cold renditions of rare ahi tuna. Take your pick: with roasted apricot puree and tempura squash blossoms or with lemon crème fraîche to spread on grilled levain bread. Lately summer produce have been making appearances as one would expect, whether it’s a tasting of heirloom tomatoes in various forms or a summer melon salad with fig reduction and duck prosciutto. I don’t mind the Dungeness crab tower next to an English pea puree. The dish is uninspired though, not showing the imagination many other dishes showcase.

Ordering the rack of lamb at Farallon would be like having mahi mahi at The House of Prime Rib. I’m sure it is a worthwhile dish, but seriously, when in Rome…

Pan Roasted Alaskan Halibut with Heirloom Tomato Ravioli, Blue Lake Beans, and Lobster Brodo

Splurge on the Maine lobster with champagne fondue and fava bean crepes, or better yet, a wonderful pan roasted halibut in a bold lobster brodo that should be the base for every seafood stew. The heirloom tomato raviolis and halved cherry tomatoes with the fish lift the dish even further. More tomatoes? Yes, as the coulis for seared Petrale sole. However, best of all would be Hawaiian ono, seared to perfection, accompanied by summer squash, daikon salad, and a black bean sauce. The dish is refreshing, while also dancing with the vibrantly invigorating flare you’ll get in Honolulu with ono from Alan Wong or Roy Yamaguchi (when Roy’s is firing on all cylinders).

Pan Seared Hawaiian Ono, Summer Squash, Daikon Salad, Black Bean Sauce

Only the grilled spearfish (hebi, similar to swordfish) drew mixed reviews. Grilling the steak-like fish rendered it on the dry side of medium. It reminded me of one meal I had in Kauai where a friend said dead-seriously that the hebi was actually heavy. Mussels must have been over-cooked too with the spearfish, too stringy so you could never cleanly remove the mussel from its shell.

Grilled Pacific Spearfish with Prince Edward Island Mussels, Roasted Hen of the Wood Mushrooms, and Garlic-Coconut Sauce

Fortunately, the rest of the preparation was a work of art with the garlic-coconut sauce and roasted hen of the wood mushrooms.

Chocolate Bites: Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Pavé, Bittersweet Chocolate Truffle, Petite S’more, Chocolate Covered Caramel Popcorn

Luchetti and Terri Wu’s desserts often receive the most attention at Farallon, other than the room itself. Right now cherries are everywhere in a dessert of fried cherry pies, sour cherry curd, sour cherry-oak compote, and even a Kriek, yes as in the Belgian sour cherry beer, ice cream. Don’t even think of passing up the chocolate bites. You won’t pick a favorite among the group (it’s a draw between the milk chocolate peanut butter fudge and the bittersweet chocolate truffle.) Just get one of these chocolate bites per diner instead of sharing the Samoas bar, an unexciting, too dry flourless chocolate cake with barely noticeable caramel mousse swirls and a weak coconut ice cream spread over the cake.

Samoas Bar: Flourless Chocolate Cake, Caramel Mousse, Coconut Ice Cream

Somehow the Santa Rosa plum sorbet with orgeat granita (supposed to be similar to almond…) fell the way of the samoas bar and the service, tasting mostly of nothing, only vaguely of Coca Cola. Nobody was sure where the plum went. Snow cones are usually more exciting and have a finer texture than this sorbet.

Santa Rosa Plum Sorbet, Orgeat Granita

Yet all eyes consistently each evening are on the jellyfish lanterns in the front bar, the caviar beads on the balcony railing, and the grand “pool” dining room with its mosaic dome formerly serving as the Elks Club’s pool’s ceiling and prominent mermaid mural by early 20th century designer Anthony Heinsberger. If the underwater royal palace had a dining room, this would be it.

Fifteen years is at least a century in restaurant years. Farallon continues to give the Union Square mix of tourists and fashionable locals some of the city’s premier seafood in arguably the city’s premier dining atmosphere.

But in the end, what happened with the service?

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