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Twenty Five Lusk

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Twenty Five Lusk is located on Lusk Street, one of those ubiquitous little alleys that pepper San Francisco. It’s a half block off Townsend, within spitting distance of AT&T Park, in the city’s hippest, hottest district, South Beach.

As you round the corner at night, the restaurant is dramatically lit against the darkness, with young, good-looking valets standing sprightly at attention. The first impression on entering, which lasts, is of a modern space, all exposed brick and wood, vaguely postmodern, off-lit, clubby, hip. Soft jazzy music, not too loud, thrums in the background. It’s a big venue, 120 seats, but seems small and intimate, with table groupings clustered in galleries. There’s lots of happy conversation, but the place never seems noisy; the wood absorbs the ambient sound, and in fact the more crowded it gets–and Twenty Five Lusk gets crowded–the more intimate it feels.

The crowd is–what can I say?–young and pretty. The evening I went a table across from me was peopled by four, young, gorgeous women, in glittery, low-shouldered evening wear, sipping martinis and laughing. I (who was dining alone) made friends with the couples on either side of me, who overheard my banter with the servors and with wine director Cezar Kusik, and wanted to know who I was. (But there’s none of that awful, table-to-table ghetto closeness; the owners give you space.)

Yes, I was comped (although I paid my gratuity). Twenty Five Lusk opened only recently, and they’re looking for publicity. I asked their P.R. people (from Glodow Nead) why they invited a wine guy (I would have been happy if they’d said, Oops, we thought you were a food reporter, invitation yanked), but no, they said they wanted to get across to local winos as well as foodies and so, would I please come. It being the second anniversary of something in my life–something profoundly unhappy–that requires serious eating and drinking to combat, I accepted, and drove in across a Bay Bridge that was a parking lot until things eased up at T.I.

The repast:

I started with a glass of Champagne, Lenoble Cuvée Intense, while perusing the wine list, menu and just getting the feel of the place. A brut-style blend of 2/3 Chardonnay, with Pinots Noir and Meunier, the wine was dry, yeasty and minerally, very rich and fine in pin-pointed bubbles. With fresh warm rolls and butter, sprinkled with rock salt, it was a satisfying starter.

For apps, I went with the raw yellowfin tuna, sliced into quarter inch panels, served with olive conserva, lime avocado purée and a star anise cracker. The conserva is a darkish paste, sort of a creamed olive tapenade highlighted with orange and lemon zest. It was decadently rich and sweet. The avocado purée was like guacamole on acid, complexed with lime purée and ginger. Both sauces paired perfectly with the sweet, pure and generous slices of tuna. The star anise cracker was thin, crunchy and licoricey, providing a nice counter-texture to the dish’s soft, creamy ones.

With that, my waiter recommended a Sancerre, 2009 Laporte La Bouquet, a good, dry, minerally wine that matched well. I generally prefer to allow waitstaff or a somm to recommend my wines, as they know their menu and I don’t. The thing I liked about that Sancerre was that it was one of the driest, juiciest Sauvignon Blancs I’ve had for a while, with that fragrant gooseberry thing that stops–mercifully–just short of cat pee.

Cezar made his appearance at that point and, to be honest, he was a frequent return visitor, despite obviously being pulled in fifty directions at once. He told me he’d been hired only five weeks before the restaurant opened–an impossible situation for a wine director–due, apparently, to management problems with his predecessor. It wasn’t the first problem Twenty Five Lusk had; GM Chad Bourdon said they’d had to postpone opening for a year or two due to the sudden onset of the Recession. Cezar also apologized for not having the wine list online at the restaurant’s website, something I’d mentioned, rather absent-mindedly, to my servor. He must have immediately reported it.

The servor returned with an amuse bouche, a torchon of foie gras, in which the fatty meat is poached. I am not a foie gras lover, but this was irresistible, served in a sweet, creamy Sherry reduction sauce and topped with shiso, a slightly bitter, minty micro-green. With the remaining Champagne, perfect. I was beginning to feel good.

Not to be outdone, servor next delivered a second amuse bouche, braised oxtail ravioli, with caramelized onion, some sort of radish for bitter crunchiness, and two sauces (which seems to be a theme of Chef Matthew Dolan, whom I didn’t meet): one a dark brown purée of black garlic and Meyer lemon, the other a yellow sauce of veggie stock, cream and the oxtail braising liquid. The oxtail meat was wrapped into the sweet, tasty little raviolis.

This was an extraordinarily complex and delicious dish and, as it proved, difficult to match. Cezar brought me a Marsannay red Burgundy, 2006 Audoin Les Longeroles. To a California palate, this Pinot Noir was refreshingly dry and earthy, but it wasn’t the best match for the ravioli. When Cezar asked what I’d thought, I explained, apologetically, that I understood pairing with Pinot Noir, but that the Marsannay was too tannic and dry for such a dazzlingly sweet plate. I wondered, I said, if the Lincourt–

Cezar cut me off. He knew exactly where I was going. There was a Lincourt 2008 Pinot Noir on the list, a Santa Barbara wine I know well. He’d almost brought it out. I added that maybe the Lincourt’s soft fruitiness would have been a better pairing. Cezar said he’d actually thought the same, but had been so busy, he’d allowed his Burgundian instincts to prevail. I told him the Marsannay certainly wasn’t a deal breaker, like the awkwardly paired wines I’d been served at RN74. I mean, we’re talking inside-the-beltway, super-fussy wine geek stuff here! But Cezar was very moved, and the next thing I knew, there was a brand new plate of oxtail ravioli in front of me, with a glass of the Lincourt.

Yes, it was better, but still…good as the Lincourt was (and I was right, its soft fruitiness was compatible with the ravioli’s creamy sweetness), there remained a problem: the Lincourt simply wasn’t complex enough to stand up to that elaborate plate. Cezar came back to inquire a second time. By now, we’d bonded, and I wasn’t afraid he would think I was some kind of nut. He disappeared, and came back with a third glass of wine, a Riesling Halbtrocken Rosch Leiwener Klosergarten, 2009, from the Mosel. I smiled, and told him I’d actually been tempted to order it. Cezar said, try it with the ravioli. I did. So much better than either of the two Pinot Noirs, but once again, something slightly askew, or, not so much askew, as missing; it was as if a gorgeous garden needed just one more additional flower to complete it.

Cezar eyed me. What might it be?

Well, I said, you cannot change the wine–

Exactly, Cezar said.

–But you can change the dish, to make it marry the wine better.

I work with Chef all the time doing that, Cezar allowed.

I thought. The Riesling was so pretty, so polished, so complete in itself. But there was a gap between it and the oxtail ravioli. What could bridge that gap?

“Green apples,” I told Cezar. “Just a few little chopped pieces, in the sauces.”

“Granny Smiths,” Cezar said, promising to take it up with Chef.

Are such exchanges warranted or even excusable between a customer and a wine director? They are when sincerely requested.

The main entree was grilled diver scallops with carrot, microgreens, roasted oyster mushrooms and, again, two sauces, puréed cauliflower and a lobster sauce. It was among the greatest scallop dishes I’ve ever had, the succulent little bivalves large, buttery sweet and perfectly seared. Cezar had paired it with a white Burgundy, Lucien Le Moine 2006, which I was less enamored of. It was acidic and minerally, which I like, but for me, a little one-dimensional and hard. This was nearing the end of the meal, and when Cezar asked what I’d thought of the Lucien and I told him, he said, simply, “I disagree.” That was fine. I didn’t expect another plate of scallops to appear before me, with 3 or 4 more wine choices! But Cezar did explain something I’d never really thought of: how limited a wine director is when dealing with wines by the glass. Had he been able to select something from the restaurant’s extensive bottle list–an impressive international selection, thoughtfully assembled–he would have been able to rise to the occasion. But Twenty Five Lusk’s philosophy is to give San Franciscans affordable luxury (most glass prices are under $20), and the risk of a by-the-glass list is that every glass has to do double or triple or quadruple duty. This is not to say that there’s any excuse for an off-pairing, but the Lucien was not an off-pairing. It was simply not to my taste.

No dessert for me, just a perfect double cappuccino, and then, pleasantly buzzed, back into the (for December, tropically mild) San Francisco night, which was still young, with many possibilities to explore.

I highly recommend Twenty Five Lusk and, as I told Cezar, if I lived in South Beach (and I wish I did), I’d be there all the time.

Twenty Five Lusk
25 Lusk Street
San Francisco CA 94107
415.495.LUSK (5875)

  1. Steve – I cringe at this post. First, I’m sure you’ve read it, but Matt Kramer’s recent post (http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/44178) is pretty much contrary to what you write here.

    Second, I recently had a notable sommelier try to coach me on how I should make my wines differently to meet his commercial expectations. I found that very bizarre and a disservice to the industry. I wonder if the chef at Twenty Five Lusk thought the same thing when you and coach Cezar were sending in signals from the sideline?

  2. Scott, I did read Matt’s column, and I largely agreed with it. I mean, who wouldn’t agree that we shouldn’t get all worked up and neurotic about our wine and food pairings? But look, what happened at 25 Lusk between me and Cezar was an enjoyable, if somewhat precious, discussion between two wine-loving professionals. It was harmless, it was fun for both of us (I hope it was for him, anyway) and it might have been of some interest to Chef. Now, if I ate all my meals with that same level of pretension, I’d be insufferable, even to myself! But I don’t. Ninety nine percent of the time I don’t really care what I drink with my food, as long as it falls somewhere on the appropriate spectrum (e.g. I don’t think I’d enjoy a Zinfandel with my bagels and lox, although you never know!)

  3. This is gonna be a little old fashioned but here it goes, I think the main attraction at a restaurant it the food primarily, and the wine list should attempt to compliment that food.

    I do think a Chef or proprietor should be wine knowledable and have a philosophy or an overall approach to both his food creations and all that compliments the establishment.

    It is going to happen that whoever does the wine purchasing is going to have his/her favorite wines and have some inside knowledge of what is available in that market, this is very important. That Marsanny might not have been a perfect match for one dish may be perfect for next weeks specials from the Chef.

    It does happen that both Chefs and wineries create consumables with no thought to what goes with them. This leave room for creativity on the part of the servers and wine stewards. What a fantastic opportunity and subject for discussion!!

    Good Topic.

  4. To all,
    My encounter with Steve was as constructive as it was entertaining. And that’s what wine should be at least for its professionals: enjoyable and educational. I can only hope for more customers like you Steve. Wine is often like art; where opinions differ without being false. Faulkner isn’t more of a writer than Becket. Even though some may claim so.
    Steve, it was great to meet you and hope to see you again. We slightly changed the ravioli dish by adding some acidity from green apples and chef was happy to do so. The Rosh Riesling rocks with it. Come try it.

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