Review of Sons & Daughters Restaurant in San Francisco
Sons & Daughters Restaurant Review – Sons & Daughters brings two quotes to mind.
The first is attributed to Jerry Garcia, who once said something to the effect that there are a lot of rock guitarists out there who have been woodshedding somewhere, practicing, and who have incredible talent and absolutely amazing licks, but in the end, don’t really have anything to say.
The second is from a recent Jaguar commercial I saw, one of the series about British villains. The line is this: “World domination begins with attention to detail.”
The food at Sons & Daughters Restaurant is absolutely incredible. It’s extremely expensive, it’s prepared by a group of top-notch chefs, and it’s beautiful on the plate. But it’s also a little ridiculous, the overall experience of dining there is not that great, and some details are just plain wrong, or kind of silly. I got the faint impression, really, that whether or not I enjoyed the experience wasn’t particularly important to them. What really mattered was what appeared on my plate, and the demonstration of expertise by the people who put it there.
In the end, this place seems like a hushed, dead-serious Church of Food. It’s not particularly relaxing, and when you finish your meal, you have the distinct sense that you were an unwitting participant in someone else’s very slow, very serious stage play. This is a restaurant where, from the beginning to the end, the chef is in charge, and you are being allowed to play, but never to influence the rules.
This place also, I might add, takes just about every liberty it can with its own customers before they even enter the restaurant, which is annoying. There is a hundred-dollar charge per person simply to make a reservation, and if you have to cancel it less than two days in advance, they keep it. In other words, they punish you for changing your plans. There is a fixed tasting menu, for $150. That is a lot of money, and absent some kind of food allergy, you are going to eat what they provide for you to eat, period. A certain set of dishes will appear in a certain sequence and you can either like it or eat somewhere else. There is a mandatory 15% service charge – tipping is not optional. Finally, the kitchen, which is very small, is in the center of what is a very small restaurant. From most of the place, you can clearly see, and are apparently expected to admire, the Altar of Food at the center.
Sons & Daughters Restaurant is on the corner of Bush and Powell, right next to the cable car line. This is a very touristy, very expensive, very busy area, and on-street parking is basically impossible. It’s also very safe. For parking, I would recommend either the Union Square garage or the garage at 330 Sutter, at the corner of Stockton.
Address: 708 Bush Street, San Francisco, California 94108, USA
Phone: (415) 391-8311
Wednesday- Sunday- 17:00 PM– 21:30 PM
The entire restaurant, as I said, is teeny. It seems to have originally been the lobby of a hotel or apartment building, perhaps, and still has the original parquet floors. The walls and tablecloths are a dark green, and there are big, tasteful black-and-white culinary-themed photos on the wall. The ceilings are black, and ornamented by big, showy old chandeliers, which I suspect are also original. The kitchen is in the center, and had five chefs, three of whom were bent over their work in the same posture I imagine eye surgeons use when working. The other two were not doing much.
The place was hushed, perhaps because it was a slow Thursday night. I would estimate that only ten people were dining there. Which brings us to the problem with the ambience.
If you are going to go for the ultra-serious, ultra high-end Church of Food experience, every detail has to be perfect. You’ve kind of trained and charged your customers to expect that, you’re directing the whole experience, and if you don’t deliver, it’s going to be glaringly obvious, and resonate pretty loudly. For a place like Sons & Daughters Restaurant, there were some oddities and omissions which put a dent in the overall effect. These may seem petty – in fact, they are petty – but remember, they made the rules, not me.
First, the music. The background music was really odd, and kind of disconcerting. It was some random Pandora channel, featuring everything from old Simon & Garfunkel to some moderately interesting techno-stuff to – I’m not making this up – Led Zeppelin powering though “Good Times, Bad Times.” It was completely out of place, somewhat distracting, and sent a pretty clear signal that someone had not really thought about it – just turned it on.
Second, the table settings. The food – and remember, we’re talking about seven courses, plus an amuse bouche, plus three different breads – arrived on a wildly different array of place settings, everything from simple, elegant white china to a slab of either soapstone or concrete. This was odd, too, distracting and in some cases, just silly. The plate that the second course arrived on was an immense, immensely-heavy stone dish that could have been a weapon. Please, pick one form of plate, and stick with it.
Third, the servers called me “Peter.” I hate this. If you don’t know me, do not call me by my first name. The menu is personalized, and has my name on it, but that does not mean that the servers, who are perfect strangers, can call me “Peter”. That was a grating little bit of mandatory intimacy that set my teeth on edge.
Fourth, properly print the menu. This is a tiny, anal-retentive details, but the menu was printed on a printer that was either cheap, or needed a new toner cartridge, or both. Part of the content was in a grey, or half-tone, and it was sort of faded and washed-out and looked lousy. Use heavier paper, a higher-quality printer or both.
Fifth, if you’re going to promote the fact that most of the ingredients used are from your farm, know something about it. Near the end of the meal, one of the servers mentioned that the ingredient’s came from a restaurant-owned farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Well, guess what? I live in Santa Cruz, I drive through those mountains every single day and know them well, and as far as I’m aware, there aren’t any farms up there. The Santa Cruz Mountains are steep, isolated, and mostly redwood forest, which is terrible for farming. There are a lot of terrific produce farms and ranches, like Dirty Girl Produce and Route One Farms, but they’re on the coast, not up in the mountains. Well, none of the servers seemed to know exactly where their farm was. I don’t think this was deception, but it might have been a little bit of ignorance.
One other detail that I found kind of jarring was the way water was served. I ordered a bottle of sparkling water, which they just plonked on the table. In the middle of all this studied elegance was a plastic bottle with a very ugly label. However, I have done some research, and learned that this is how you’re supposed to do it. According to the San Pellegrino website “The water should be presented in the original glass container and not decanted into a carafe, as this would lead it to lose some of its organoleptic properties.” Of course, there’s no reason the bottle itself cannot be presented inside a more elegant-looking ceramic or glass container, but a Sons & Daughters, they did not do this.
The overall ambience, then, was hyperformal and kind of uncomfortable. More on this:
Service at Sons & Daughters Restaurant is Super-formal and kind of stiff. The Episcopal Church’s Great Thanksgiving has more warmth. The staff all wear black – aprons, shirts, pants. The women all have their hair in buns, and move in the instant you need a fork replaced, your water glass filled, whatever. For a tiny restaurant – the place has, the website says, 28 seats – there are a LOT of staff, and they switch in and out, so you never know who’s going to appear at your table.
They also tend to behave and talk in this stilted, hyperrespectful, clearly scripted and dead serious tableside manner that’s all part of the Church of Food approach. It’s sort of like police officers who say “Exit the vehicle” instead of “get out of the car.” I was so amazed by the way they spoke that I eventually wrote down a couple of examples.
When a server came up to the table, which is, of course, why they are there and what they should do, one of them said “Pardon the intrusion” before putting down a fork or something. By the way, since I was dining alone, I’m not sure what he was intruding on. My Olympian deliberations, maybe? The second was another server who wanted to know if I’d like a cup of coffee said “As you move towards dessert, would you care for some coffee?” “Move towards dessert?” What? With one exception, all of the service, while flawless and fast, also had this odd gravity that made it sort of like being served by Hal, the murderous computer from 2001. Over the course, of the meal, it got somewhat trying. It’s very possible to combine elegance and warmth, and on that night, Sons & Daughters didn’t quite manage it.
Very expensive. Dinner for one person, including a cup of mediocre coffee at the end, was around $148, which included a mandatory 15% service charge.
Right off the bat, I have to say that I am not qualified to properly evaluate food like this. This is major, big-time, high-end cuisine. When each of the courses appears, the server would tell me what I was about to eat, and there were a lot of ingredients I didn’t recognize, and so on. Therefore, in this review I am not going to go into the merits of everything that was served. If I did, this would be a fifteen-page review, and by now, I think you get the idea. The food was incredible. It was absolutely amazing.
It was also, by the way, extremely small portions. One of the course, the first one, was literally a single scallop, served with quinoa and limequat. It was exquisite – a mouthful of brine, of the ocean, of something a lot richer and deeper and almost more oyster-y than any scallop I’ve ever had. And then, in one bite, it was gone.
The roasted beets were fantastic, also. These showed up dressed with mustard seeds and spices, and were almost a kind of beet sampler. When I was growing up, beets were almost an afterthought – a simple, sweet root vegetable that was nutritious and simple to eat. This is turning something as workmanlike as that into a work of art.
The first entree course was another incredible experience. This was pork prepared three different ways, with minced apples and an apple puree (I think). Absolutely incredible – pork is a very subtle, very simple meat, and this was absolutely done to perfection.
The second entrée was squab, with chestnuts and quince. Squab is a kind of young pigeon, and the meat is an intense, flavorful hybrid of what tasted like a combination of duck and dark chicken. The dish arrived with the meat on a circle of chestnut puree, which provided a kind of background for the meat, which was accented by the intense, citrusy flavor of the quince. Also completely amazing. Also gone in an instant.
This level of quality, and of precision, extended, by the way, to the bread. During the meal, three separate kinds of bread were provided – one small slice of each. A cornbread. An onion-poppyseed sourdough. And, ironically, a pretzel roll. I lived for many years in Philadelphia, where actual pretzels are from and were arguably invented, and the exquisite, round roll that appeared at my table was as much a pretzel as I am Barack Obama.
Writing this review has been a really thought-provoking exercise. In the end, the idea behind Sons & Daughters Restaurant is not a new one. I’ve done some research, and learned that Thomas Keller, of the French Laundry, Charlie Trotter and a lot of less well-known chefs all have done some variation on the basic concept of a tightly controlled environment in which the chef absolutely rules, and the diner’s role is to experience what’s delivered rather than control or influence it.
And what the chef is interested in delivering, usually, is at least partially art. The idea is to create dishes that demonstrate something new, or push the boundaries of flavors, ingredients, contrasts. Among the ingredients are surprise, delight, irony, fun, creativity. The classic example of this was the “ice cream cone” that used to be the first course of the French Laundry’s tasting menu. You don’t eat food like this because you’re hungry, and you don’t expect to leave full. You, instead, experience it, and the chef. How the dishes looked is also critical, and at Sons & Daughters, the plating and presentation are mind-bending. Each dish is a little sculpture.
Which is all fine as far as it goes, but if you’re going to completely control the entire experience, it had better be completely flawless. And from where I literally sat, Sons & Daughters Restaurant simply stumbled a few times. The final example of this was the coffee. Again, I am not qualified to write about much of what was served to me. I’m basically an amateur, and a lot of the ingredients that were used in what I ate, for example, were things I had never heard of. I had no idea what purslane is or agastache.
However, I have made thousands of pots of coffee in my life, in every conceivable contrivance, from a French press to a percolator to you name it. I know what really good coffee is, and should taste like, and I know how to make it and how not to. And at the conclusion of this meal, when the server came out and ceremoniously poured one cup of coffee, the liquid in the cup was … bitter. As I’m writing this, there’s a lukewarm cup of coffee sitting on the table next to my keyboard that I made a couple of hours ago and never quite got around to. And it is not bitter. It’s better than what I had Thursday night.
What Sons & Daughters Restaurant really is is a kind of historic statement, a snapshot in time. San Francisco is right in the middle of a technology boom. There are obscene amounts of money swimming around. The economy is thriving, and there is a huge amount of disposable income available to spend on things like expensive restaurants. In Philadelphia, or Denver or Miami, this place wouldn’t last fifteen minutes. But here, and now, there’s a market for this kind of place, a place where eating is an experience, and food is an art form, where the idea is not to enter hungry and leave full, but to be experience a performance. Restaurants used to be places where the idea was to be a guest, as you would in someone’s home. Places like this are instead, places where you’re more like someone watching a movie – you sit passively and let the experience wash over you.
The bottom line here, I guess, is that if you’re going to have dinner here, be prepared for this kind of experience. Your role is to sit and let the restaurant run the show. Mostly, the performance will be fantastic, with a very few slightly wrong notes. But it will be a performance, and you will be the audience.
Note: Prices may vary
Website : https://www.sonsanddaughterssf.com
Phone : +1 415-391-8311
Published On: Thursday, February 2nd, 2017