Thursday, January 9, 2014

Year-End Dinners At the SPQR

I've established a personal holiday tradition that I now look forward to every year. Since it reopened in 2009 with a new chef, I've been coming to SPQR on Fillmore for a year-end dinner. Ostensibly, it's for the seasonal white truffle and to open great bottles of wine with friends, but mainly I believe Fall/Winter is when SPQR is at its best.

Last year--2013 that is--white truffle season started early and was reputed to be the best in recent years. I found time to book at SPQR only after Christmas and almost missed having the last of the season's white truffles entirely. Apparently Matthew Accarino has the best connections to Alba as he put tartufi bianchi on the menu that night when everyone seemed to have ran out of them. Though the white truffle is a draw, it is just icing for me. Matthew's fine cuisine, especially this time of the year, is why I come to SPQR. He is I think one of the most gifted chefs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The fact that you can have a individually plated, multi-course fine dining experience inside the tiny, cramped space of SPQR with its puny open kitchen is a small miracle. I sit on a high chair at the chef's counter, or "table", facing the stoves. Usually we do away with the printed menu and leave it to Matthew to design the dinner and to hit us with his best shot, so to speak.

SPQR's wine list is superb. I always try one or two wines to learn something new. This night it was Nino Negri's Sassella "Le Tense", a red from Lombardy's Valtellina region made of Chiavennasca, the local term for Nebbiolo. A lively, fruity, very pleasing wine that seems to go with everything.

Next thing I know a large espresso cup materialized filled with thick mushroom soup. It had good "crema", and the intense savory aromas and tastes of pan drippings.

Matthew's take on a potato salad was a deconstructed palette of jig-saw shapes and colors.

I brought a bottle of 1999 Brovia Barolo Villero, the estate's flagship cru notorious for staying close for a long period. It is still youthful but smooth and relaxed, 'twas the right foil for the dishes to follow, especially the white truffle.

A fallish-looking plate of guinea hen terrine, sweet-and-sour brioche, liver mousse was both gorgeous and delicious.

Here is a most interesting plate. Tempura hen-of-the-woods mushroom, shishito peppers, and sliced prosciutto from a fire-engine red, hand-cracked $5,000 machine slicer.  Everything works.

It was definitely an all Nebbiolo night. With the Brovia, two seamless 1996ers. Oddero's Barolo Mondoca di Bussia Soprana was juicy and fresh with a still youthful firmness. Giuseppe Rinaldi's Barolo Brunate-Le Coste was big but well-behaved, still tight though its gorgeous fruit was showing.

Perhaps my favorite dish of the night, meyer-lemon spaghetti with abalone. Simple and amazing.

Sunchoke-stuffed ravioli with shaved white truffles. I asked our server what was in the ravioli, her reply, "love."

Mustard capellini with bits of guinea hen, savoy cabbage, and grated mimolette cheese. Wait... isn't mimolette cheese banned?

Smoked wild duck, off menu, a treat from Matthew. Smoked on premise and the smoke aromas were all over the restaurant.

A sort of deconstructed take on apple pie a la mode. Refreshing on the palate.

A holiday treat, toasted panettone, quince caramel and black truffled gelato! Great finish.

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