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My disappointing dinner at RN74

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When RN74 opened last year, in San Francisco, it was to huge buzz — even in a town where restaurant buzz is as unavoidable as fog.

The magical names of Michael Mina, Rajat Parr and chef Jason Berthold drew in the Bay Area’s wealthiest, most discriminating foodies and winos. The San Francisco Chronicle’s powerhouse restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, called RN74 “All around great” and, this past April, put it on his coveted Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants list.

So it was with great anticipation that I took BART three stops into the city, and then walked a block south to Mission Street, where RN74 is located in the fancy-schmancy new Millennium Tower, an ugly highrise that’s distortingly out of place in its SOMA neighborhood.

lurid and bloated

I arrived early, and beelined straight to the bar. Parr’s by-the-glass wine list is eclectic, offering a wide range of things from around the world. It had been ages since I’d enjoyed a nice Sherry, so I had the Palmina Equipo Navazos La Bota de Fino #15 ($10), an excellent wine that made me wonder once again why Sherry doesn’t play a greater role in our national drinking life. After that, I had a second glass, a pretty Austrian Riesling, 2008 Hirtzberger Steinterrassen Federspirel, from the Wachtau ($21). Why two glasses bam bam in a row? Because the pours were so miserly. For $31, I had the equivalent of a decent glass of white wine. The two bottles together retail for about $90, which means RN74 probably paid half that at wholesale. If you figure at least six glasses per bottle, with those tiny pours, that’s a huge markup.

My dinner companions, the lovely Rebecca and her handsome husband, Jesse, arrived, jet-lagged after the long trip from Hong Kong, and starved. We ordered. I decided to start with the sauteed pork belly and stuffed squash blossom first course ($16), because I’d previously clipped out a recipe for pork belly (which I’ve never cooked before), and wanted to see how it performs on a Mina menu. But first, I asked our server what glass of wine he would pair it with. He thought for a while, then recommended the Chablis: 2005 Louis Michel Montmains ($16), a premier cru. I thought it was an odd choice. I knew the pork belly was an Asian sweet, spicy dish, and a tough, acidic young Chablis didn’t sound right. But my philosophy of ordering wines in restaurants, especially one so wine-friendly as a Michael Mina joint, is to happily put myself in the server’s or somm’s hands, since that person knows way more about the wine and food than I do.

Five minutes later, before anything had been brought to us, the server returned and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about that Chablis I recommended. Maybe a Riesling would be better.” He now wanted me to try the Selbach-Oster Bernkasteler Badstube Kabinett, from the Mosel ($12). I was grateful he was trying to take care of me.

“It’s funny,” I told him. “I thought the Chablis was a bizarre choice, but I didn’t want to say anything.”

“Want to try both?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Bring a half glass of each, and I’ll let you know what I think.”

The pork belly came. It was truly a great dish, the thick slabs of smoky meat seared perfectly, with sautéed bits of heirloom tomatoes, bacon, basil and lemongrass. I took a sip of the Chablis. Horrible! After the spicy rich sweetness of the pork belly, the Chablis was a minerally acid freak that tasted even harder than it would have on its own. I could barely drink it.

The Riesling was much better, but I wouldn’t call it a match made in heaven. It was too sweet for the food. I know they say a wine should be sweeter than the food with which it’s served. But the residual sugar in the Riesling was very pronounced, and so was the acidity, and the combination muted the pork’s opulence, made a dish that’s supposed to be flamboyant taste merely good. The by-the-glass list contained several other white wines and sparkling wines, and even a Russian River rosé. Any one of them might have been a better match for the pork belly, but I’ll never know. I thought it was surprising that our server should be so uncertain about an elemental wine-and-food pairing, and, after all, RN74′s menu is not particularly extensive. There are only 8 appetizers and 7 entrées. You’d think the waitstaff would have their perfect pairings down.

For the main course I had the sauteed Alaskan halibut ($28), which was served with gnocchi, cherry tomatoes, celery and ginger. A pretty dish to look at, the fish all toasty golden, with a flaky crust. But it was dry, dry, dry. Jesse had the same thing and agreed. “It tastes like they let it sit for too long,” he observed. Maybe they did. I’ve worked in restaurants and know how a chef will put a dish up on the waiter’s shelf, under red heat lights. If it’s really busy, that dish can sit there for a while, continuing to cook. But RN74 wasn’t particularly busy. It was a Sunday night; it was maybe half full, and there certainly seemed to be plenty of staff. So no excuses for a dried out piece of fish that tasted like defrosted Mrs. Pauls.

The server and I went through the dance again when I asked him to recommend a wine for the halibut. I still had that glass of the Montmains, so I kept it, hoping it would be happier with the fish than it had been during its brief and miserable liaison with the pork belly. I asked if there were any Sancerre by the glass. Negative on that. Any Pouilly-Fume? Sorry. What about a Sauvignon Blanc? He suggested the Chateau Bonnet 2008, which he described as “white Bordeaux.”

Well, I remembered the 1980s when I used to buy that mass-produced Bonnet for something like $4 a bottle. Even today, it’s a $12 or $13 wine at retail. I don’t think it’s right to tell a customer a wine is white Bordeaux when it’s Entre Deux Mers. You can call Domaine de Chevalier Blanc “white Bordeaux” but Entre Deux Mers? The server seemed to be saying, “I don’t think you have a clue about wine, so instead of taking the time to explain what Entre Deux Mers means, I’ll just call it white Bordeaux, because even a moron like you has heard of Bordeaux and has positive associations with it.” The glass went for $11 at RN74; the wine was okay, but it was still the same, elemental EDM it’s always been.

Too tired to talk about wine anymore, wanting only to relax and eat with Becs and Jesse, I green-lighted the Bonnet. Whatever. After a while, the server came back with a “complimentary” half-glass of a 2009 Russian River rosé, Soliste’s Soleil ($12). He said the bartender, whom I’d friended over my earlier Sherry, thought it might go well with the halibut.

So I had 3 glasses in front of me: the leftover Chablis, the Chateau Bonnet, and a fruity, simple Sonoma rosé, made from Pinot Noir. By that time, I’d given up all semblance of caring what went with what. Ultimately, a meal with convivial friends isn’t the place to anguish over pairings. Jesse, Becs and I are all intensely political, and we filled the hours talking about, not bouquet or finish (although there was a little of that), but Tea Parties, deficits, what an investment bank actually does (it turns out it’s rather like a used car dealer), and China’s North Korea policy. (And, yes, I’m afraid I got a little animated when the subject turned to Sarah Palin!)

Becs, who’s a vegetarian, had the grilled cobia ($28), a plate of roasted butter beans, pole beans, tomato and artichoke barigoule (a sort of spicy stew) that was amazing. Even Becs, a seasoned restaurant adventurer who’s dined in three-star places around the world, praised its simple deliciousness. What did the server recommend she drink with it? 2005 Branaire Ducru ($16), a Fourth Growth Bordeaux so leanly tannic that it was utterly useless with the cobia. Becs grimaced, then asked me why they would even sell such an unattractive wine at RN74.

“It’s not a bad wine,” I explained, “it’s just too young. It needs 8, 10 years to come around. At least.”

“Then why don’t they age it?” That led to a discussion of why it’s so hard for restaurants to sell properly aged wines: cost-prohibitive. If they’d sold ‘95 Branaire instead of 2005, the glass would probably cost $45.

Then Becs asked one of those “out of the mouths of babes” questions. “Aren’t there inexpensive wines that would taste better with this food that don’t have to be aged?” She told me about some Spanish reds she buys in Hong Kong for $25 a bottle that are soft and fruity.

I replied, “I’m sure there are. But I don’t think Michael Mina and Rajat Parr could get away with selling an inexpensive Spanish wine at RN74. The snobs would crush them.” And it’s too bad, really, when you think about it.

The bill for the three of us, with tip, was $300, which actually isn’t too bad for a red-hot San Francisco restaurant. But I was majorly disappointed with my dinner at RN74, which I think is the latest poster child for so many things that can go wrong, and do, in our celebrity-chef, cult restaurant-obsessed culture.

  1. TomHill says:

    Steve,
    I always thought EntreDeauxMers was a sub-appellation of the Bordeaux region. To me, calling the Bonnet a white Bdx seems a reasonable way to describe the wine, not as esoteric as EntreDeauxMers. Seems a bit of a quibble to me.
    Sorry the meal was such a disappointment. In places like that where they have (usually) rather interesting wine lists, I usually pick a few different wines I’d like to try and think would work w/ the dish and ask the somm’s thoughts before deciding.
    And then other times, if there’s a wine so compelling interesting that I have to try it, I will, no matter what the dish. Like the white Nebbiolo I had at Perbacco a few yrs back. I offered a glass, blind, to the table next to us where a very famous wine critic was sitting. I was crushed…crushed I tell you… that Charlie was unable to identify it as Nebbiolo!!! :-)
    TomHill

  2. Tom, I think at a restaurant with the reputation of RN74, the server should strive for as detailed and educational a description as possible. I suspect that if my server knew his customer was an MW or a wine expert, he would have explained the Bonnet was EDM not white Bordeaux.

  3. I bet Becs and Jesse were ready to get out of there, and end their dinner with a pretentious wine snob whaling about Sarah Palin.

  4. Tim: lol!

  5. To me it sounds like a classic staff training issue. They are simply not seeing the experience from the customers eyes and how important a confident server can be to a great meal. It’s funny how good service is now a luxury and not standard in the business world.

    While the BDX EDM issue is a bit semantic I agree that at this caliber restaurant detail and accuracy is what you are paying for. A couple steps down the restaurant tier and I think it would not be a issue.

    Dry fish. No excuse, except for the fact that so few chefs know what to do with fish anymore. It’s either ceviche or cooked to death. The only fish that chefs seem to understand how to cook is Tuna and Salmon tuna seared salmon medium everything else hockey puck!

  6. Phil: so true and sad what U say about fish!

  7. You want fish prepared properly you’ll have to dine in Seattle or Vancouver. And yes, EDM is a white Bordeaux. Clearcut. No quibbles allowed. It’s the right generic appellation. Were you drinking something better, it should be id’ed by the sub-appellation. Next time, pay corkage and bring your own wine.

  8. I know EDM is white Bordeaux. I just expected more from RN74.

  9. Just back from Seattle, so missed this thread when it first appeared, but I want to echo the comments about RN 74 and wine choices.

    RN 74, at which I at last month, was every bit as disappointing as you have described. It may be a Mina restaurant, but clearly, it is way down on his priority list. And, as much as I usually admire Raj Parr’s lists, this one was way to precious.

    The room has a cold look (I guess some would call it sleek), but the atmosphere is also cold. Better to go a block down the street to Ame.

  10. Steve- First, the Halibut-no excuse for dry fish. Next- yes, I agree, the server did seem lacking in his wine knowledge. Unfortunately, this is common, especially with restaurants and critics demanding wine lists contain every wine known to man on them. The more is better “American Way” has created monsters out of diners. If an establishment does not carry one person’s favorite wine, then their list is considered horribly stunted. Why can’t we go back to carrying the wines that pair best with the foods served? Why, also, does dining out have to be so pretentious? It’s food and wine. That’s it. If you knew your wines better than the server, why didn’t you just look at the list and choose a pairing that seemed appropriate? As for your semantics on white brdx, I am not French and absolutely not pretentious. I will use the English translation of most common foreign words as it is assuming to think that everybody is familiar with these. Next time, maybe utilize the fact that the wine list is there as a tool for you to choose your own wine. I am sure your dining companions would much rather hear your witty banter about politics and such rather than your complaints about how awful the wine pairing is… especially since you could have prevented the latter.

  11. I’m with Steve on this – I go to a place like RN74 to try new things – maybe even be challenged. The wine choices were odd, the pairings were weak, and the “White Bordeaux” by whatever name, was lame. At a restaurant of this caliber, disappointing indeed.

  12. Jay Miller says:

    That Chablis was pretty darn good with some Pacific Coast oysters on the half shell. I didn’t require a server to pair those up.

  13. Steve – I just posted a wine list review for RN74 to my mobile site (http://m.vinoservant.com) and blog (http://vinoservant.com). RN74 has some good deals under $100 a bottle. In my humble opinion, the wine and food pairing conundrum is a problem at a lot of restaurants, and that is why I tell people to order the bottle of wine they want to drink, and then match the food to that wine. I have followed you for the last couple of months, and would love to chat about wine.

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