I’ve been trying to make a trip to SPQR from the moment I discovered it on my stroll down Fillmore street a few years back. Long waits and few open reservation availability always held me back, but I finally had my chance early this Monday after a plane right from New York and a long day at work. Small plate Italian Mediterranean food in a cozy modern space is exactly what I wanted to calm my email-cluttered mind and plane-food filled belly. Wine is a priority here, as proven by the ceiling-high rack behind the bar that reveals the restaurant’s copious selection of Italian wine. Food does not pale in comparison – sharing is a must because there’s just too much good stuff to bypass.
Fortunately, I was with people who embraced tasting and exploration, which was a blessing considering the three additional specials that made me even more unsettled about narrowing down my options. Sitting at the chef’s table didn’t help the situation either – every dish they fired became my new order just because it looked so irresistible. From start to finish we scored homeruns, starting with the beautifully composed chicory lettuce, almond, goat cheddar and pear butter salad - a plate of greens so beyond the boring, I actually considered it one of the best parts of the meal. The crab-quinoa salad was just as special; the quinoa was cooked to a crisp, rolled and connected two generous heaps of beautiful lump crab meat dressed in a light, tangy vinaigrette. The pastas stole the show as I expected given the sheer uniqueness of every option; the parsnip tortelli with espresso-aged cheese and mushrooms unleashed a heart-warming brown buttery scent that was almost as decadent as its rich and earthy taste, and the smokiness of the swordfish mezzaluna with dill made it one of the most interesting pastas I’ve tried. We rounded our meal off with a perfectly seared arctic char and mushroom budino, essentially a dense compilation of buttery mushrooms and breadcrumbs, otherwise known as my heaven.
Dessert at places with beautifully composed food could always use more ice cream, but I still remember it being tasty. Sadly, not remarkable enough for me to remember what exactly it was..but that may have just been a result of devouring my tiny glass of marsala wine.
The experience of tasting food prepared by such highly skilled chefs cooking right in front of me is definitely an undervalued one; I would have paid a premium just for the entertainment value. It’s like tasting the wine when you’re at the vineyard – it’s so much more memorable and delicious when you can see where and how exactly it’s prepared. It’s as if you’re involved in the process. Next time I’m in San Francisco, I’m definitely coming back to SPQR, and I’m no doubt requesting the same seat. Tables are for grown-ups seeking focused conversation!
Location: 1911 Fillmore Street between Bush and Pine
*top photo from starchefs.com