Perbacco: No Time For Love, Dr. Jones

My visit to Perbacco was a test. I have a hypothesis, you see. A theory. And it goes something like this: Contrary to what you might think, it’s really not a lot of fun to be a vegetarian in an Italian restaurant. Why? Cuz all you can order is pasta and risotto. Which gets to be carb-tastically old after a while.

However, until last night, I’d never bothered to ask if any of the chefs could whip up a vegetarian entrée for me. After all, pasta’s not really a main course, so don’t I deserve a little secondi love?

Apparently the answer is “no”. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

To be fair, I was feeling cranky long before arriving at Perbacco for our 9:15 reservation. We were supposed to meet an out of town friend at District, the new wine bar on Townsend, but when we arrived, the place was packed to the rafters. One of the owners was actually playing bouncer outside, telling people they couldn’t come in until the bar cleared out a bit. I’m happy for their success, I suppose, but I doubt I’ll be going back any time soon to give it a try. My reason, mind you, is wrong, wrong, wrong—but I’ll admit it to you, dear reader, so that I might spare you some pain. You know when you walk up to a place, and you see the crowd inside, and you think, “Shit, there’s no way I’m going in there.” (I’d call out the bar at Americano as an example, but I’ve already made fun of them recently, so it wouldn’t be fair.) Well, it was like that. Plus, most of the patrons seemed way too hammered for 6:30 after work. It’s supposed to be a wine bar, not a Bennigans. Feel free to leave a nasty comment and call me a Mission-loving lefty freak girl. Just be warned that I’ll take it as the ultimate compliment.

Anyway, back to Perbacco. I’ve read lots of nasty things about long waits, but we were seated promptly by a very kind host. Our waiter was perfectly nice, too, though something seemed “off” about him. After a bit of discussion on the subject, we decided that he was just kind of cold. He was prompt and knowledgeable, but he had all the warmth and charm of a robot. (Not you, C3PO. The other kind of robot.) His service was such a contrast to our recent service at Andina in Portland, it really stood out as a big negative.

I knew going into it that there wasn’t going to be a whole hell of a lot for me to order prêt à porter, so to speak. I wanted to see what would happen if I asked for a vegetarian entrée. Which I did. Captain Robotron pointed me to the pasta and risotto. “Oh, and they could make a plate of sides for you, too.” (Hurrah! I’m at Boston Market again!)

I don’t know. Maybe I’m being unfair. Still, I’d rather have him lie to me and say that the chef would be glad to honor my request, then just have him throw some sides together anyway. That way, I would have felt included in the experience. (Sad face goes here.)

So we ordered. My partner started with the Salame Valdostano, with Juniper and Alpine Thyme, and I got the Mozzarella di Bufala with Meyer Lemon.

This would be a great point for me to pause and tell you straight up. If you’re vegan, don’t even bother. The only veg stuff is cheese to the Nth degree. Personally, I don’t want to live in a world without cheese, so I’m okay with it. (Yes, my conscience bothers me in that regard. Life without cheese, though…I…I…just can’t talk about it.)

The Mozzarella arrived looking like two giant scoops of vanilla ice cream, all melty at the edges, with tasty bits of meyer lemon zest suspended in disbelief of their good fortune. The cheese was fantastic. For the first ten bites. And then something horrible happened. I got to the point where I simply couldn’t eat any more freakin’ cheese. I’m not actually sure if I’ve EVER been at that point in my life, previous to last night.

And so, here is my primer on the wonders of “small”.

There are times in life when small is good. Small is precious. Small is special. Small is just short of satisfying and leaves you longing for one bite more, that delicious, lip-smacking want that overlaps with something primal, something sexy.

Two giant softballs of mozzarella just ain’t sexy.

I’d have gladly paid more for less. (A16 serves the perfect amount, and it’s divine, by the way.) Instead, we gorged ourselves, feeling some weird dustbowl era guilt over leaving that beautiful cheese on the plate. Thankfully, I had my partner to help bat clean up. Because her eight paper-thin slices of salame, at a dollar a slice, had demonstrated the opposite effect. She was just frustrated and hungry.

I also ordered the Pear and Endive Salad with Gorgonzola, Chestnut Honey Vinaigrette and Hazelnuts. I think I would have enjoyed it more if my stomach wasn’t begging for mercy. “No more cheese!” it cried. I didn’t listen. Alas, I never do. The salad was solid. I’ll give it that. Solid, but not stellar.

While we waited for our final course, we started to remark on the interior. It was very downtown. Or rather, very out of town. You know? Like, everyone there was in San Francisco for the weekend. Plus, it has a foot-tall stripe of mirror that runs all along the wall, just above the back of the bench seating. Which reminded me of some kind of “Old Kountry Buffet” or something. I guess they wanted to make the space seem bigger, which struck me as totally unnecessary. From where we were seated in the back, the room seemed cavernous and impersonal. Who knows? Maybe that’s what they were going for.

My pasta—the Butternut Squash Mezzelune with Sage and Brown Butter—was perfectly cooked and just the right thickness. Dusty crumbles of Castelmango cheese, salty and sharp, kept the sweetness from becoming insipid. Still, I couldn’t keep from getting jealous of my partner’s entrée. It looked so…complete. (She had the Yellowfin Tuna. I stole a Corona Bean off her plate and it was really tasty. She claims the beans were truly the best part of the dish.) My pasta, though wonderful, felt like a kiddie dish. I wanted to follow it with something savory and complex. Sigh. I suppose it’s easier to come up with a suitable vegetarian entrée if you’re cooking California cuisine. Or Middle Eastern. Or Asian. Or French…oh, man, I’ve had some great success asking the chef for something at Boulevard. And then, of course, there’s the vegetarian tasting menu at Fleur de Lys.

WAIT A TICK. How come everyone else on the planet can do it but the Italians? My people, no less!

By the time dessert rolled around, I couldn’t eat another bite of gooey or sweet. I was stuffed, but not satisfied, and that’s a horrible feeling.

Maybe if I ate meat, I would have loved it. There was nothing technically wrong, but there were a few things that simply weren’t right. Our robot server, Escape from Mozzarella Mountain, the creepy Vegas buffet mirror, the fact that they couldn’t be bothered to pretend to make me a vegetarian entrée (What, pasta ain’t good enough for ya?). It all added up to a disappointment that could have easily been avoided.

Now will someone please tell me where to go to disprove my theory?

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8 Comments

Filed under Mid-range Meals, Rants, Reviews

8 responses to “Perbacco: No Time For Love, Dr. Jones

  1. Oh, dear. And the great irony in my mind is that the Italians do wonderful, respectful things with vegetables. They just do it with the help of some meat. My first trip to Italy was the first chink in the armor of my vegetarianism several years ago. As you say, there’s just so much cheese and starch you can consume in one dish.

    And I didn’t realize you were Eye-talian. Power to the paisani!

  2. sam

    I have a tip for you.
    Ok – it’s not a proper restaurant, but you might be pleasantly surprised at Yield wine bar on 3rd at 22nd where you can get a vegetable pizza flatbread with NO cheese that is absolutely delicious. The manager Chris used to work at Millennium – he knows his veggies.

    All the wines are organic, sustainable or biodynamic too.

    I like perbacco but can see it does not have much for a vegetarian who doesn’t want too much cheese.
    (I am an ex-vegan so I can appreciate that)

    I decided the other day that SF is such a meaty town because it is full of failed vegetarians who appreciate the fact that that they can buy more ‘humanely’ raised meat and do so without destroying their consciences.

  3. Just curious: what would a vegetarian Italian entree/main look like? Tofu or portobello steaks seem overdone. Eggplant Parmigiano? Some kind of vegetable strata without pasta? Or would pasta be cool if it was more “mained-up”? What’s your fantasy Italian menu item?

  4. there can be no more excuses for not having decent vegetarian entrees and main dishes. do not think in terms of ingredients. think in terms of texture, flavour and taste. meat is really only a ‘side’ component to any dish. i don’t know when it started playing a main role. fish/shellfish, on the other hand, is a different ball game. they are indeed more distinct….

    having said that, it is difficult pulling off *great* ‘substitute’ veggie dishes from a restaurant kitchen. it takes hours to prep/plan and get the mise-en-place ready for everything and if you go looking for a substitute in a restaurant that doesnt actively welcome vegetarian punters, you will be disappointed.

    polenta…farro…semolina are all excellent substitutes for pasta. stuffed pastas can be absolutely brilliant. mix and match with beans/lentils, mushrooms(i’ll let you count the ways!)..and walnuts!..let me tell you…walnuts has such an awesome ‘umami’/meaty flavour that anything made with it will tickle your tastebuds..in a good way. and until now, we are still in vegan territory. dairy, eggs and esp cheese can take italian vegetarian dishes to an entirely different level. right now, there is artichokes, fennel, tomatoes, leeks, root vegetables and mushrooms in the market. it is too late for chestnuts, but they can be purchased..and they go very well with mushrooms. throw in lemon, saffron, anise, cumin, herbs…a world of culinary combinations will open up. and then there are beans

    i will no longer accept that one has to sacrifice a stellar eating experience because one has embraced vegetarianism.

  5. Maria

    Hi,
    I am coming to SF at the end of the month. I have never been to the city, any recommendations for veggie friendly places? I am staying at the Courtyard on 2nd Street, anywhere close by or some place I can find without getting too lost?? 🙂 Thanks for your help! I have read your reviews, great tips! Thanks!

  6. That’s a really great question, Kris, and I’m not sure I know the answer. It seems so far from the norm right now. Personally, I like veggie entrees that mimic some of the more complex flavors associated with meat-based entrees, as well as something that delivers multiple textures. (ie: Not just mushy.) I think using mushrooms is a great place to start– they already figure prominently in Italian food. And bring more vegetables to the center of the plate, you know?

    I like your suggestions, though. I’d love to have some of those options in a restaurant.

  7. I just realized that I responded via email to Maria, and I should really repeat my response here, in case anyone else was wondering. So here it goes…

    Totally.

    Well, for an all around great meal, check out Canteen. You’ll need to make reservations as soon as possible, because it’s crazy small. They have set seatings at certain times. Well worth it, though. Their site is under construction, but you can check out the details here: http://www.yelp.com/biz/Yc0qnc6qRIlnbQFtVOwC0w

    Another great place that I haven’t reviewed on the site yet is called Medicine Eat Station. Weird name, great food. It’s Japanese. All vegan monk food. It’s sort of in a mall downtown, but once you get inside, it’s very modern/stylish. I’ve heard they recently modified the menu, but it used to be fantstic:
    http://www.medicinerestaurant.com/

    If you want to go super high end, try Fleur de Lys. Order the vegetarian tasting menu. I don’t think they have much that’s veg on the normal menu, but the chef’s tasting menu is great. It’s old school fancy, like something out of an episode of Dynasty:
    http://www.fleurdelyssf.com/

    Osha Thai Noodle has great Thai food with a ton of veggie options. Their Geary location is the most SF of all of them. It used to be kind of divey inside, but now it’s nice. It’s also open late for late night post party munchies.
    http://www.oshathai.com

    Good luck and enjoy your visit!

  8. Pingback: District, I Stand Corrected « A Few Reservations

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