I think I love Orson.
Perhaps this love of mine is truer than most. Because I’ve still got a lot of criticism. It’s a lot like loving a family member, really. One feels compelled to put in a good word for family, fuck-ups and all.
Orson’s space is awesome, if noisy. Very cool, very stylish, simultaneously spare and ornate, as swirling design motifs decorate a loft-like, concrete cathedral of cuisine. In a few years, it’s going to look tres 2008—just like all of our be-doodled hoodies and distress-printed Ts—but for the moment, it’s just what SOMA needs.
With such hipness abounding, you’d think the staff would be too cool for school. But our waitress, our bussers, and our wine steward were all as sweet as punch. Helpful, welcoming, and genuinely interested in our feedback. Elizabeth Falkner worked the room, checking on each table. And even though she’s a friend of a friend and all that jazz, I couldn’t help feeling a tiny bit star struck in such a glammed-out atmosphere. I mean, here’s a women who might actually know what Padma Lakshmi smells like. That makes her a bonafide star in my book.
But on to the food.
Orson’s menu is a Choose Your Own Adventure novel in three pages, with small plates starting light and working toward maximum gravity. We began with two soup shots, both of which were vegetarian and truly delicious. (Joy!) One, squash and ginger. The other, cucumber and radish. The pair were creamy, which was surprising when it came to the cucumber. The squash soup teetered on the precipice of too sweet without going over the edge—in fact, it tasted a bit like savory pumpkin pie filling. It was actually pretty wonderful, but I remember thinking, “Hmmm. Pumpkin pie soup… World-renowned pastry chef… I think I see where this is going.”
The kitchen sent out an order of their Papadams and Way Nice Rice, which was crispy-licious with a dusting of tangy yum, but challenging to eat with any sort of grace.
We also had the Light Fry Tofu and House Kimchee. Tofu on a mainstream menu? I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The dish delivered, too. It was a tiny bowl of comfort.
Next came the Parmaggiano Pudding, with Piquillo Pepper Jam and Cocao Nib Explosion—a dish that sparked a mighty debate at my table. Personally, I loved it. The Parmaggiano Pudding was like a vegetarian foie gras, a sweet and savory melt in your mouth wonder. And the exploding cocoa nibs—chocolate Pop Rocks, basically—blew me away. (Pun fully intended. Cuz I’m a geek like that.) It took the old “balancing of textures” thing to an extreme, and I dug it. I actually said “Wow!” out loud. My partner, however, thought the Pop Rocks were gratuitous. Whatevs. She can get her own blog.
The night’s “Something Hot From the Market” turned out to be Asparagus with Fava Shoots and a Black Garlic Sabayon. (Or, Black Garlic Whipped Cream, if you please.) Delicious, for sure. But there we were, tromping through the same territory again. The sabayon was exquisitely rendered, but a little too similar to the pudding. I was beginning to long for something savory. The Greens, Beets, Horseradish and Fennel salad was nice, but I wish the horseradish would have stepped forward a bit more to announce its presence.
After AOC’s amazing Farro and Black Rice, I had to try Orson’s Farro, Cabbage, Meyer Lemon and Crescenza. It turned out to be the evening’s biggest disappointment. It reminded me of a light, lemony mac and cheese, but the texture of the cooked cabbage made for an oddly disconcerting dish that looked like a mess on the plate. It just didn’t fit in with the rest of the menu’s sophistication.
I finished with the Carrot Dumpling, Blood Orange and Ricotta Salata, while my partner had the Pork Buns with Fresno Chili and Cilantro. The dumplings had an amazingly smooth texture, but the flavor was “meh” at best. And again with the sweet. Maybe I should have seen it coming. Maybe it was the result of my vegetarian choices. Or maybe it’s just a sweet-leaning restaurant. Who knows?
Speaking of sweet, we had to have dessert. Although my partner claimed that we’d actually been having dessert all night long. Orson’s two-page pastry menu is completely off the hook… but possibly a little too inspired for its own good. (Uh-oh, here comes the blasphemy.)
We opted for the “Invisible”: Almond, Bergamot and Truffle. And the “Are You Chocolate Experienced”: Chocolate French Toast, Candy Cap Tuile, and Hazelnut.
The Invisible is an all white dessert, which challenges you to taste without visual expectation. The problem was, I just didn’t get enough of flavor out of it. Nothing “messed with my mind.” (Though its crisp little puffs of mystery were so light, they nearly defied gravity.) And the Chocolate French Toast? I dunno. I think I just expected more.
Am I a bitch or what?
Still, on the whole, I really enjoyed my meal. Orson has a point of view and I appreciate that. We’ve got enough middle of the road California Cuisine in San Francisco already. When boundaries get pushed, the occasional failure is inevitable.
I’ve read reviews where people have complained about the portions (Yelpers, I’m looking at you). But I walked away stuffed. If you’re not down with the small plates thing, go back to Applebee’s. And I adore Elizabeth for offering vegetarian options all throughout the menu. I never felt deprived. Well, maybe I felt a little deprived when the neighboring table got their order of matchstick-thin Duck Fat French Fries. But life is full of bummers.
So yeah, I heart Orson. Keep shakin’ shit up, Ms. Falkner. I love a girl who’s not afraid to take chances.
For another opinion, check out Becks & Posh .