Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Baraka - San Francisco, Ca

Honestly? I was leaving campus at SFSU at right around 5PM, hungry, and rather than deal with annoying traffic decided to grab an early dinner at one of several Potrero Hill eateries that I'd been meaning to try for a while. I opted for Baraka because I'm a whore for Mediterranean food (the ownership's other Potrero Hill options--Chez Maman and Chez Papa are decidedly and firmly meat-heavy french cuisine and Aperto is, well, Italian and nobody likes Italian food).

Just me.

The Space:
Small (5o seats), dark, and richly accented. Beautiful candles and fixtures, high copper bar in the corner. All the tables are topped with copper. Dark red is the principle color theme. Very stylish but a little bit spooky, I think. The barstools are improbably high and very very heavy, but comfortable once you catapult into them.

The Wine:
I didn't take a close look at the wine list, option for the Kronenbourg 1664 lager from their drafts. No wine list available online for evaluation.

First Course:
I went with the soup of the day (carrot ginger) and an order of the "Spanish Fries with Harissa aioli." These were both mild disappointments. The soup had clear ginger and carrot flavors, but it lacked a textural depth (rather brothy) and a creaminess that I associate with carrots--I mean the natural creaminess of a puree-heavy carrot dish (like carrot juice), not just from the addition of cream (which this vegan soup did not have). I'm also a sucker for ginger and really like to punched in the face with it in dishes.

When the bartender explained the "Spanish Fries" to me, I was excited since thicker wedge-cut potatoes are my favorite sort of fry and I love harissa in general. The potatoes themselves were excellent (I believe they were Yukon Golds) but they were underseasoned and the "harissa aioli" had barely a whisper of this usually fiery Mediterranean hot sauce (compare to the hot sauce at Sophia Cafe in Albany, which I think is the best there is). I found it to be rather bland (though a generous portion for $4.50).

I love monkfish and it's relatively hard to find, so I ordered the prosciutto-wrapped monkfish with spinach, leak, and golden raisins, and a sherry beurre blanc. In hindsight this might've been a bad choice as I'm not the biggest fan of French cuisine outside of that from Provence and this might've been more French-y then I was looking for. The monkfish was nice and prepared well (though almost to the point of being overdone) with the prosciutto contrasting nicely with the delicate fish. It would've enjoyed an even stronger pork contrast from pancetta or even smoked bacon.

The vegetables were presented as a sort of succotash--the raisins were nice and plump but the leeks and the spinach were cooked to an almost flavorless mush. What I found the most distracting was the beurre blanc--it had the taste of cheap butter flavoring (like you'd find on movie theatre popcorn) and its richness I thought was unneccessary when there already was porky richness wrapped around the monkfish. Maybe a more vinegar-heavy sauce? Any suggestions, Scott?

With Mediterranean cuisine's general penchant for sweetness and my own tastes toward bittersweet chocolate I probably shouldn't've ordered the chocolate roulade with hazelnut crisps. But I did, because I hate myself. Actually, this was a pretty nice dish--with alternating layers of semisweet and milk chocolate cream and impossibly thin layers of cake rolled into a perfect swirl and the scattering of hazelnut crisps tasted exactly like Ferrero Rocher (I'm talking EXACTLY). It was just way too sweet for my tastebuds--sickeningly sweet, actually. It was also accompanied with a buttery sauce that had that same unwelcome buttered popcorn Jelly Belly taste. It was fucking beautiful and I don't doubt that someone who likes milk chocolate would find it quite delicious.

I did, however, have an excellent espresso. Aromatic, hints of cocoa, and not in the least bit sour. I also received a small taste of their muscat with my dessert that was delicious--not overly sweet with a distinctive apricot taste (probably a great match with their rice pudding or date desserts).

In Conclusion:
So this is a pretty mixed review. Nothing really clicked 100% for me in terms of either concept or execution on the food that I ordered and I'm usually a big Mediterranean fan. Perhaps the heavy French influence on the menu was its downfall for me. Still, this is a pretty highly regarded restaurant--if I do return I'll probably focus on ordering multiple tastes from their more eclectic small plates menu (which seems to have more straight-forward Mediterranean fare) and avoid the heavy-handed entrees. Service was friendly and attentive without being intrusive.

As a side note (not that I would've ordered it), but they offer a $29.95 early bird prix-fixe from 5:30-6:30PM on Sunday-Thursday, but I was never offered that menu (I ate right at 5:30).

Cuisine: (Heavily) French-Influenced Mediterranean
Entree price range: $16-$22 (small plates and sides $3-$16)
HFF's cost for one (one small plate, one entree, one side, one dessert, one beer, one espresso, tax, generous tip): $57
Reservations: 415-255-0387 or
288 Connecticut St. (at 18th St.)
San Francisco, Ca 94107

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