TN: I’d like to bi another valve, Pat (California, pt. 6)

(The original version, with more photos and better formatting, is here.)

[tree]24 April 2006 –San Francisco, California

Hog Island Oyster Co. – Is it pigging out when a single person devours three dozen oysters? Oh, who cares…they’re terrific, especially the succulent Effingham Inlet oysters from British Columbia, which are so enticing on this day that my third dozen is 100% Effingham. And kudos to Hog Island for continuing to present a thoughtfully-conceived short list of oyster-friendly wine, beer and sake.

Uvaggio 2005 Vermentino (Lodi) – California vermentino? From Lodi? Well, sure, I’ll try anything once. Or twice, as it turns out, because this is eminently pleasant, alive with intense green fruit and flowers bolstered by reasonably fair acidity. Somehow, it reminds me more of sauvignon blanc than any Sardinian or Corsican vermentino I’ve tasted, but the flavors are just different enough to set it apart. It’s no Tayerle, but it’s a clean, juicy accompaniment to briny oysters.

Caffè Greco – Yes, that’s the accenting they use. This busy North Beach café serves up one of the biggest lattes I’ve ever seen, though I’m not sure as to the value of such a size, as the end of the drink is considerably cooler than most people prefer their coffee. As for the contents themselves: the weight is right, but they’re texturally gritty and very slightly overroasted (not to the typical Starbucks extreme, though). Plus, the milk could be a bit fresher. Despite the great location and authentic ambiance, this is a bit of a downer.

San Francisco Brewing Company – We join some of Theresa’s conference-mates (and, though most with us are unaware, her soon-to-be employer) at this sticky…anyone ever heard of cleaning fluid?…pub/restaurant with tons of slightly dodgy atmosphere. It’s trying for the perfect English pub feel, but it’s not quite spot on. There’s food, but we’re meeting friends later, so we stick to the brewed offerings.

San Francisco Brewing Company Shanghai IPA – Sweet and hoppy, with a coriander-scented froth. It’s long and properly biter, but a little odd; what’s with the sweetness?

San Francisco Brewing Company Andromeda Wheat – Seriously, what is with the sweetness? This is light, with particulate wheat grain and a soft finish. But the sugar stands out, and can’t even be knocked back with lemon. (On the bar’s menu board, this is listed as Andromeda Hefeweizen.)

A16 – In the wealthy Marina District, and packed to the gills from stem to stern and opening to closing, there’s little reason to expect continued high quality here…and yet, the quality remains, even with changes in the kitchen. The most common food-related complaint is that the pizza isn’t perfectly crispy, but the restaurant counters that the thin, fully-crispy crust people expect is Roman, not authentically Neapolitan…and that it’s the latter style that the restaurant is trying to emulate. In any case, their signature pizzas are excellent, with simply-presented toppings that feature both themselves and their foundation.

But there’s a lot more to this menu than pizza. An appetizer of tuna and artichoke is perfect in its simplicity and the interplay between the diffident greenness of the artichokes and the oily brine of the tuna, with the fishy elements of both binding the dish together. Asparagus with a walnut crema is deepened by a faint truffle note, and again works together to bring out the quality of the individual ingredients. And grilled calamari with ceci beans, tomato and fennel tastes as if it had been flung directly from the sea to the fire. Moving on to bigger plates, a heavenly, light-but-heavy gnocchi dish with peas and chili flakes sneaks up on the palate with its simple and pure appeal.

The only complaint I have about A16 is the din, which rises to conversation-obscuring levels for most of any dining period. But since this phenomenon is hardly uncommon in the restaurant world, it’s probably not worth complaining about.

A16’s wine list is very, very heavy on Southern Italian offerings, which means the majority of it will be completely opaque to Americans, who are rarely familiar with anything south of Tuscany. I have no problem identifying a few dozen wines I know and like, but on a list of this breadth I like to expand my horizons…and thus I enlist the help of Skye LaTorre, one of the three young wine specialists that assist A16’s wine director, Shelley Lindgren. (Of that quartet, three are women, which is both unusual and commendable in the often-conservative world of restaurant wine.) I give her my criteria: acid required, lighter on the wood, no goopy 2003-style wines, unusual is just fine, and anything earthy or mineral-driven is a plus. She literally hops with excitement, and scurries away to find something intriguing.

Dettori “Badde Nigolosu” 2004 Romangia Bianco (Sardinia) – 100% vermentino from a noted sub-region of the island, and Skye has definitely taken my encouragement towards the unusual literally. This wine is slightly cloudy, showing fat, spicy white melon and a powdery complexity on the palate that turns silky on the long finish. Like many Old World wines, it rises and falls in intensity proportional to the demands placed upon it by the accompanying food. Really, really interesting.

Marcassin 2002 Chardonnay Zio Tony Ranch (Russian River Valley) – Needless to say, this is not one of Skye’s suggestions, but rather a kind gift from a nearby table who notes the extent to which we’re geeking out over the wines. It’s extremely thick, showing wave upon wave of yellow fig – it’s more than a little monotonal – with a hint of peach, plenty of syrupy wood, and absolutely no finish. I suspect that people who like this style of oil wine would greet this with adoration, but I do not number among those people.

Viticoltori de Concillis 2003 Paestum “Naima” (Campania) – Also a gift from a neighboring table, and 100% aglianico. Dense, thick, and slightly woody, showing slow-braised blackberry, boysenberry and blackberry that turn to chocolate-covered jam on the finish. Again, probably yummy to some, but it tastes like a caricature to me. And where’s the aglianico? For that matter, where’s the Campania?

Argiolas 2002 Isola dei Nuraghi “Korem” (Sardinia) – A wine I know fairly well…but while Skye offers to exchange it for something else, no one else at the table is familiar with it, so we forge ahead. A blend of bovale sardo, carignano (carignane) and cannonau (grenache), showing roasted walnuts, roasted berries, red cherry and some earthy/loamy undertones. The wine is unquestionably thick, but balanced and nicely softened on the finish. It’s a bit internationalized, to be sure, but not in an offputting way.

Gaetano Pichierre “Vinicola Savese” 1994 Primitivo di Manduria (Apulia) – Bizarrely authentic and untouched by modern convention, this is dark red cherry and strawberry syrup with a gorgeous Mediterranean sweat character (better than it sounds, I suppose). It’s sweet, alcoholic and thick, with a short finish, but is fascinating enough in its uniqueness that other faults can be overlooked. Or not; it’s not particularly popular among my dining companions.

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