Essencia's upscale peruvian fare is hit-and-miss
Sunday, July 29, 2007
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After my third visit to Essencia, this question stuck in my mind: Why did Anne Gingrass-Paik choose to open a Peruvian restaurant?
Gingrass-Paik and her former husband, David Gingrass, were the original chefs at Postrio. They left to go out on their own to open Hawthorne Lane, which garnered glowing reviews. David Gingrass generally handled the front, while she was in charge of the kitchen, creating innovative East-West dishes. She even installed an aquarium with live prawns in the dining room. After the two divorced, she opened Desiree Cafe in the Presidio, which has since closed.
Now she's lending her name to Essencia in Hayes Valley at Hayes and Gough streets. The restaurant's Web site proclaims, "Essencia is a new and exciting Peruvian restaurant with an organic California twist," which sounds as innovative as her previous ventures. Yet the niggling question remains: Why?
The food, while pleasant, isn't particularly distinctive, especially for the price. I'd just as soon go to Limon or Destino, where the tab is lower and the food more interesting.
While I love the idea of giving cuisines an interpretive twist, in this case the twists take a wrong turn, beginning with the bread. The three or four irregular chunks of baguette tossed on a saucer look like leftovers. I first thought it was a mistake and cut the kitchen some slack, but after the third visit, I realized that was the way it was supposed to be. Why?
And why is the kampachi ceviche ($12) doused with so much mustard-yellow hot pepper sauce that it destroys everything but the texture? Dish after dish, I wondered why.
The interior has a modest, upscale look, using the same large plate-glass windows as when the space was the Pendragon bakery-cafe. The dozen or so tables are made of wood slabs with irregular edges; their small size might be the reason many main courses are served on rectangular plates that look as if they were last used in United's first-class cabin.
The brown color scheme helps warm the space, and the amoeba-shaped lights with printed fabric shades add interest to the ceiling. It's pleasant, but I'm not sure the cramped interior and somewhat disjointed service support the $26.75 price tag for lomo saltado, the classic Peruvian beef dish Gingrass-Paik updates with yucca fries and a sauce with too much vinegar.
The staff seems better suited to the casual interior than to the upscale prices. They place the flatware on the table helter-skelter, and often don't bother to put the right dish in front of the person who ordered it.
They also aren't well versed on the menu. When we had a question about the wine, the waiter couldn't answer it, although he offered us a taste of two other wines. When we were confused about why barbecued octopus with celery heart salad with black olive sauce ($11) was listed under the ceviche section, the waiter gave a convoluted explanation of how the sauce was put in the pan until crusty and then the seafood was added, but really wasn't cooked. He came back later and offered another unintelligible explanation.
The dish consisted of a few pieces of tentacles briefly sauteed and served over frisee and celery. It tasted fine, but it was more of a salad than anything else. Another one of the three selections in the category was the shrimp, sea bass and mussel ceviche with cucumbers ($11.50), which had too much acid to do the seafood justice.
With the chef having such a seemingly assertive seasoning hand, I was surprised by the lack of flavor of the sea bass ($12), served chilled on paprika onions, practically raw green beans, slices of avocado and cherry tomato halves. The flavors never integrated, and when I wanted to perk things up with salt, there was none on the table.
One of the best ways to counterbalance the assertive items is with the golf ball-size potato fritters and crisp yucca fries ($8.50); or the composed salad ($12). The salad includes artichoke hearts sliced and fanned around a lemon parsley sauce, and a quinoa salad in which each bead was separate, slightly firm and topped with strands of smoky marinated peppers.
My favorite appetizer was grilled beef hearts ($7), which has chunks of chewy meat marinated in Cabernet vinegar and served on a small plate of marinated bell peppers.
I also liked some of the riffs on the main courses, such as adding whole fried chickpeas to baked halibut nestled on garbanzo puree and accented with shrimp and clam sauce ($23.50). The best part of the lamb ($25) - chunks of leg meat simmered in a cilantro sauce studded with peas and green beans - was the accompanying bowl of saffron-yellow risotto with what looked like an egg on top. It was a tad mushy, but the flavors were so good, it didn't matter.
A side of rice came with the "chicken with pecans, Parmesan and hot yellow pepper sauce" ($23.50), although I wasn't sure because the waiter placed the bowl in the middle of the table between that dish and the chupe, a shrimp, sea bass and rice chowder ($21) with a harsh, one-dimensional broth. The chicken - a Latin version of creamed chicken without the toast - was nothing like what I had expected. Shreds of meat were blended with a brownish creamy sauce topped with toasted pecans. It was good in a homey, 1950s way, but the price was clearly planted in 2007.
The green risotto-like bamboo rice ($24) also had a homey appeal. It was mounded on the plate with garlicky shrimp and scallops flanked by knobs of spinach.
I was mildly disappointed with the dessert offerings. The moist vanilla cake with white chocolate and cherry sauce ($6.50) was the best. The lucuma fruit flan ($6.50) tasted more of condensed milk than anything else; the whipped cream on top was overprocessed and the papaya was underripe.
The flavor of the guanabana (soursop) mousse ($6) with strawberries was pleasant, but the texture was a bit grainy. Orange pisco madeleines ($7) were too sweet with orange syrup, and the alfajores ($4.50) - butter cookies with various fillings - were slightly soggy.
Still confused about what was going on at Essencia, I called Gingrass-Paik for an explanation. Turns out that Peruvian food is a newfound interest. The family of one of her former employees wanted to open the place and lacked the experience. She became the go-to person in helping Juan and Carmen Cespedes design and staff the place, plan the menu and cook. Eventually, she said, she plans to open another restaurant, but she's now spending most of her time getting Essencia in order.
Unfortunately, the Cespedes' passion and Gingrass-Paik's talent haven't translated very well to the place. I still wonder why.
New: For a 360-degree view of the restaurant, visit sfgate.com/food.
The Wine List
The high food prices are consistent with the wine prices at Essencia, where the 15-item list concentrates on international wines.
Most wines come from Spain, with a few from Argentina and France. There are no California wines, which is strange since part of the gestalt of the restaurant is to offer an organic, local (read California) twist to the menu.
Most people probably won't recognize many of the wine producers, and from our visits, it appears the staff isn't well versed in the selections. They did offer us tastes when we asked about two Tempranillos on the list; both are offered by the glass. In fact, nine of the 15 wines are offered by the glass, priced between $7 and $9.
The list also includes two sherries by the glass, a Port and one beer: Cristal ($4), from Peru.
If you bring wine, corkage is $15. - M.B.
401 Gough St. (at Hayes), San Francisco; (415) 552-8485 or www.essenciarestaurant.com . Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Beer and wine. Reservations and credit cards accepted. Difficult street parking.
Overall: Rating: ONE AND A HALF STARS
Food: Rating: ONE AND A HALF STARS
Service: Rating: ONE AND A HALF STARS
Atmosphere: Rating: TWO STARS
Noise rating: THREE BELLS
Pluses: Some Peruvian combinations have interesting twists. Try the fritters, grilled beef hearts, baked halibut.
Minuses: Food, service and decor often don't justify the prices.
Michael Bauer is The Chronicle's restaurant critic. E-mail him at mbauer@sf chronicle.com. Read his Between Meals blog on SFGate.com and visit sfgate.com/food for comprehensive Bay Area restaurant reviews and listings.
Labels: 401 Gough St, Essencia, San Francisco, sf restaurants