Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Restaurant Review: The Presidio Social Club

While recuperating from this never-healing knee injury has certainly put a damper on my social life, the hubby & I still managed to find a way to get out & try one of the new eateries in town: The Presidio Social Club. It definitely involved some strategic maneuvers: such as dropping me off in front while he parks the car so that I could try to hobble up to the restaurant without being subjected for too long to my undignified efforts.

The name, Presidio Social Club, conjures up in my mind the image of relaxed conviviality.
In many respects, the restaurant certainly lived up to that expectation.
It's park-like setting in the Presidio; it's handsome, stand-alone rustic structure still evocative of the military barracks that it once was, the more than ample parking spaces comfortably surrounding the restaurant which spares you the parking lot angst that comes in a city where parking is always at a premium, all give you a presentiment of good things to come.

Entrance to the Presidio Social Club from the parking lot

The clubby, country club vibe continues as you walk up the stairs onto the large porch where family & friends gather to greet each other before entering the restaurant; exchanging bits of news & gossip just as they would if they were at their own home or clubhouse.
As you enter, you see an old 40's style snare drum set in the front corner across from the hostess stand, a whimsical touch that alerts you to the classic American mid-twentieth century retro atmosphere & menu, though thankfully more Glenn Miller than Elvis; we've all had enough of those "American Graffiti" meets "Happy Days" Mel's Diner epicurean experiences, haven't we? Two very polite, smiling hostesses greet us & one of them seats us immediately for our 6:30pm reservation.

The room is cavernous and window-lined with presidio views, hardwood floors, exposed beams, and bare wooden picnic tables; yet, despite the fact that it was already crammed with a large cross-section of happy chattering San Franciscans, the noise level was remarkably tolerable unlike other popular Marina hot spots where you have to shout to hear your fellow table mates.
We were comfortably seated in a stand alone picnic table for two, set with dish towels for napkins & the kind of flatware & glassware you'd find in the bargain bin of Ace Hardware store, but I, somehow, find it more charming & practical than off putting; that's how successful the restaurant's management is in creating a casual, comfortable atmosphere. Kudos to them because I am usually a girl who likes her Cristofle settings & her Frette linens when she dines out on the town and is not happy when she doesn't get them.

Notice, I haven't yet mentioned the food.
The truth is the menu is a clever homage to classic, homespun American foods from the pleasantly mustardy gruyere toasts made from brioche with fondue tomato dip, a riff on the old tomato soup & grilled cheese sandwich to the classic macaroni & cheese and the not-your-old-grade-school-cafeteria's sloppy joe sandwich of kobe beef brisket. These items while somewhat grotesquely portioned (reminding me why 40% of Americans are now overweight or obese, moi included) are solidly executed according to other reviews but are not enough to keep you coming back unless you are a well-to-do gen-x'er who never cooks at home. Last Sunday, we ordered the fish plate special appetizer, the gruyere cheese toast, the Sunday night special which was roast suckling pig as well as the pork chop which our server told us she preferred to the flat iron steak. The hot prepared food section at Whole Foods serves almost comparable meals, but you'd still have to clean dishes at if you ate at home which may be why P.S.C. is such a sensation with the youngin's; it's hearty comfort food with no dishwashing required.

The fish plate appetizer was described to me as belly of tuna served over a carpaccio of cucumber with heirloom tomatoes & a baby arugula salad atop the fish. While calling the three thin slices of cucumber a carpaccio is stretching the definition of that technique, I had no quibble with it or the elegantly dressed arugula & the colorful sweet grape tomatoes that garnished the tuna. The tuna itself, however, gave me pause.
When I am told I am about to be served that most unctuous, delicately fatty, moist & flavorful flesh that is called tuna belly, I almost swoon imagining the sensuous silken texture of the fish gliding over my tastebuds sending shivers of delight through my body. I think of o-toro, chu-toro, hell any toro, naked, pristine and glistening; unsullied by excessive handling & heavy condiments. If you were about to have carnal knowledge of Brad Pitt, you wouldn't want him covered in a suit of armor!!!
Yet this is what the chef did to that beautiful tuna belly; he mashed it and masked it in a coating of mayonnaise so heavy, it looked and tasted like a Bumble Bee tuna salad made by a third grader who was left home alone for lunch.
Needless to say, after one bite, I left the rest of the tuna untouched but I did eat the veggies. When our server who was pleasant, competent & attentive asked if we were enjoying our starters, I was honest. I told her that I was a little puzzled by the preparation of the tuna belly; having mistakenly assumed that it would have been served as a carpaccio or possibly as a tartare not as a mayonnaise-based tuna salad. She looked concerned, but I told her it was my mistaken assumption, and I was enjoying the vegetables; so she moved on to her next table.
To her and the restaurant's management's credit, this item was very graciously removed from the check without our request. A fact that our server made us aware of when she brought us the check at the end of the night. She said that she noticed I had left the tuna untouched & felt I shouldn't pay for it. This is hospitality at its very best. It is also good business because, despite its culinary missteps, this restaurant has now won my trust which would make me far more likely to give it further chances to redeem itself in the future.

Unfortunately, gracious hospitality couldn't save the roast suckling pig. Huge hunks of it were strewn on an enormous plain white platter over a bed of nicely flavored braised red cabbage with an immense side of creamy, vanilla-scented mashed sweet potatoes. The potatoes were by far the hit of the night; a completely surprising combination ( I winced when I heard vanilla & potato in the same sentence) of restrained inspiration. Sweet without being overpowering or cloying, the vanilla accent complemented sweet potatoes that were creamy, fluffy clouds of heaven yet somehow still managed to retain a certain earthiness in their essence and density in their texture. The taste of those potatoes haunt me still. Truly masterfully done, it shows that someone in this kitchen has great attention to detail.

Too bad he wasn't at the protein station! That poor pig either suffered a hard life or a stressful death because that meat was dry, flavorless and without any merit. Perhaps, a drizzling of Cuban-style mojo sauce would have helped it; but, there was none to be found. Roasting large meats of this kind is almost always fraught with disaster. It is very difficult to control the moisture content, particularly since the meat must be evenly cooked to a medium doneness and somehow survive being served all through the night. Large roasts of beef which you can cook and offer rare hold up somewhat better; but, I think a restaurant would better serve itself as well as its customers if they stuck to smaller cuts of pork, served their large pork roasts carnitas-style, or served it as a braise which, through virtue of resting in its warm cooking liquid, stays moist as long as you need it to.
The pork cracking served on top of the meat, however, was spectacular. They are crisped morsels of fatty pig skin that Latin & Asian cultures truly prize but are not easily attained during the normal roasting process without other means like deep frying it after the initial roasting. Thankfully, the chef at P.S.C. didn't have to deep-fry his rind afterward because the initial roasting of the pork rind was well-executed and brought it to crackling perfection.

My husband's pork chop with a side of mashed potatoes & broccolini were overdone but edible, if uninspiring. His only real bone of contention (pardon the pun) was that no server in any restaurant ever seems to know the difference between a pork rib chop (long bone on the side) or a pork loin chop (small T-shaped bone in the middle).
My husband likes only the more flavorful rib chop when eating chops. He always asks the server what kind of chop it is, explains the difference, tells the server his preference letting the server know that his order is predicated on receipt of the correct cut of pork, is assured that the bone is on the side, orders said chop, and receives the wrong cut. Always. Every time. Last Sunday was no exception. You gotta love him though! He never utters a word to the servers about the mishap and he's always willing to try and order his rib chop again. He's such an optimist full of hope for a future filled with servers who can identify a cut of meat when they see it. Oh happy day...oh happy day...

We skipped desserts though the chocolate beignets caught my eye, but I couldn't stand another disappointment. So, we passed.

Drinks here are known to be very creative concoctions that are quite popular with younger set which is a good thing because the wine list is limited and leaves much to be desired. That being said, I ordered a nice little cremant, a sparkling wine from the Loire Valley for $8.00 a glass. Reasonable & serviceable like everything else in the restaurant. It was served in a very retro champagne glass, you know the kind your mother or grandmother used; said to be modeled after the pre-guillotine legendary breasts of Marie Antoinette in the good old days of the 18th century French Court. The hubby eschewed vino or any alcohol preferring instead to drink copious quantities of Panna spring water.

The bottom line is......the Presidio Social Club is an excellent place to take children or run to after work if you live in or happen to be in the neighborhood, like a good bar scene and can get a table on short notice. Otherwise, forget it. It's your friendly neighborhood joint or your slightly better than average golf clubhouse meal. Stick to basic grub, stay away from specials when ordering and you'll get mounds of decent, sometimes surprisingly tasty homey food with great service and a fun, casual ambiance. There are many casual places in the city that serve this level of food; they just don't happen to be in such a unique setting. It is not a destination restaurant, a special occasion place or a food temple to seek epicurean nirvana. It doesn't have to be, and more importantly, it doesn't try to be.

Appetizers are $3.25 to $11.95
Entrees are $14.95 to $ 27.95
Side Dishes are $4.95
Desserts are $5.00 to $10.00
Corkage is $15 per bottle

Presidio Social Club
Building 563 Ruger Street
The Presidio of San Francisco, Ca. 94129
(415) 885-1888

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