Quince

In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee describes the quince as offering “a taste of what apples and pears might have been like in their primitive form.” (357)

In raw form, it is gritty and astringent, with no obvious bearing on the cuisine at the lauded San Francisco of the same name. However, cooking domesticates the quince: stone cell walls break down with heat and the taste softens. When cooked slowly with sugar, the off-white flesh even transforms into a gem-like translucent ruby. With this in mind, the name begins to make sense: Chef Michael Tusk’s Quince is all about the revealing the innate wonder in each pristine ingredient.The converted 19th century apothecary, I can only imagine, has undergone a transformation similar to the slow-simmered quince. The white shelves and drawers are still there, but now bear elegant wine stems, white pottery, urns holding dramatic flowers and fruit-laden branches, and compact collections of Italian food and art books that tempt you to quietly pull one down for a peek. The creamy walls and four matching Murano glass chandeliers meet soft ruby banquettes and a dark wood floor. The trio of bright quince paintings along one wall adds a touch of electricity. The pleasant melody of conversation is loud enough to build energy without overwhelming our own dialogue or drowning the escaping "mmmm"s murmured with eyes-half-closed. The wine list offers a nice selection of half bottles, including the 2001 Jean-Marc Morey Chassagne-Montrachet Les Chevenottes 1er Cru, of which only 20 cases were imported. The wine is an excellent Burgundy in archetypical Chassagne-Montrachet style with cool fruit and mineral notes, though the nose was still somewhat closed.With our waiter's claim of no misses on the daily changing menu, I was surprised to see so many dishes listed: 13 first courses, 12 seconds, and 7 thirds. I happily would have tried anything and everything on the menu. Oren turned a deaf ear to my pleas that we order a third first or second course to taste more dishes, but reassured of reasonable portion sizes, we settled on four plates each, beginning with:Fried & stuffed squash blossomsCherry tomato salad with burrata cheese crostiniI have rarely seen such perfect-looking squash blossoms. Moving away from the stem end, the open blossoms picked up a translucent, crispy golden coating. I have no idea how they did this--it seems like the mix of mozzarella, smoky scamorzza, and a touch of ricotta should have fallen out when dipping the blossom ends into the fry pan--but whatever magic they used, the effect was fantastic. The crisp petals, tender stem ends, and salty, gooey-chewey filling came together with explosively juicy tomato slices for a perfect beginning.The cherry tomato salad was simple but lovely for the ripeness and character in each of the little hemispheres, freshness of the cheese, and crispness of the crostini.The bread plate was remarkable for the 4 1 inch "rolls," which gave solid form to a mix of olive oil, herbs, and salt that seeped out with every bite. Utterly delicious dipped into the juice left by our tomatoes.Tusk's focus on ingredients, salt, pepper, and olive oil were already loud and clear.Olive pappardelle with braised artichokesShortnight Farm chickpea ravioli with dry-farmed tomatoQuince is rightfully known for extraordinary pasta. The silky olive pappardelle was subtly briney, without any distinct olive taste, and the artichokes had wonderfully concentrated flavor. While the dish was short on both visual and textural contrast (I might have preferred the artichokes cooked slightly less) the initial flavors were good, with a strong, enduring black pepper spice. The ravioli had the same glorious texture and smooth, flavorful chickpea puree centers. The light sauce had hints of saffron and enough hot pepper to qualify this dish as outright spicy. Though not perfect, both pastas were top notch and certainly among the best I have ever had in the States.To accompany our third courses, we chose a half bottle of the Domaine Serene Evenstad Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, 2002, another regionally correct, well-balanced, and utterly delicious wine.Black sea bass with celery root puree & red wine sauceCattail Creek lamb three ways with tomato-filled faro & costata romanesco squash gratinThe bass was deeply satisfying: the charred skin cracked to reveal flaky white flesh was arresting; the celeriac puree was intoxicatingly smooth and complex; the red wine sauce with chanterelles was unbelievably rich. My appetite quickly tipped from voracious to sated.In learning to eat meat, I would be happy to tackle Tusk's braised lamb shoulder every day. The meat was falling-part tender and rich, without a strong lamb flavor. Oren protectively thwarted my sneaky maneuvers for a second bite.Pear & huckleberry croccantino with crème fraîche mousse & huckleberry compoteDark chocolate, pistachio & vanilla ice cream bombe with Middleton Farm raspberriesWhen it comes to ice cream, my bar is set very high. Our waiter assured us that the bombe is one of his favorites and should be put to the test. Though good, it mad me miss Howler. The croccantino, on the other hand, though a little sweeter than I would have liked, was excellent and it even had came with a paper-thin candied quine slice. The slightly bitter cappuccino cut the sweetness and brought us back to earth for the drive home with ease.The service was attentive and professional, though we both would have appreciated more than sixty seconds' pause between the clearing of one course and arrival of the next. Oren's jovial remark on the speed spurred a rather uncomfortably serious and lengthy expression of concern from our waiter.Though a regularly changing menu means you may not encounter anything that we tried on this visit, every dish was a testament to Chef Tusk's reverence for ingredients. Just as sugar and slow cooking unlock the quince fruit, the food at Quince is full of wonders. Tusk's Chez Panisse background, coupled with his wife Lindsay's excellent management of the dining room, make it no wonder that it's so hard to get a table. It won’t be long before I try my luck again.Quince Restaurant1701 Octavia Street (at Bush)San Francisco, CA 94109415.775.8500info@quincerestaurant.comOpen Tuesday through Sunday, 5:30 to 10:00 PM, open until 10:30 on Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations an absolute must, several weeks in advance.Street parking in the neighborhood is relatively easy and there is a valet service for $8.