If you live in San Francisco you probably heard of Delfina, but chances are you haven’t been there yet. Truth is, the Mission district restaurant is hard to get in. Blame the great food and spot-on service that attract habitués and first-time diners from all over the bay. The dining room is packed every day of the week, even on a Monday night, when I walked in without a reservation.
I asked the hostess if I could get a seat at the bar. She was quick to say it would be about forty five minutes to one hour. All seats were taken but I couldn’t see anyone standing. I said it was fine, I’d wait. She seemed surprised. I leaned against the wall, pulled my iPhone and started to read emails. One minute later, in perhaps her last attempt to test my perseverance, she approached me with a clipboard in hand and said "it looks like it's going to be really 45 minutes to 1 hour”. But I was determined.
In the next several minutes, I watched groups of people walk in and leave with the hostess apologetic smile. “They don’t know what they’re missing”, I thought to myself trying to justify my already hurting legs.
I never wait this long for a table but even in the most popular places, it rarely takes as long as they say. Thirty minutes in, I still thought that way. Thirty-five, still standing. Thirty-six, it was ready. So was I.
I sat at the counter facing the small dining room, packed with bistro-spaced zinc tables and bent wood chairs. The atmosphere is of a warm, informal trattoria with a trendy flair; this is the Mission after all. The young waiters skillfully walk the narrow corridors wearing white aprons over street clothes. Service is stellar. Understated but sharp.
At Delfina, daily menu really means daily menu. Every day, up to half of the items change based on the Chef’s perusing of local producers. The menu is small but it can be hard to make up your mind as everything sounds fresh and appetizing. Appetizers, salads and side dishes are as good –and worth trying– as the mouth-watering pastas and meat entrées.
It is no coincidence the bread at Delfina is so good; Tartine, the best bakery in town, is only a couple of stores away. That’s how the meal begins.
As an appetizer, I had the Grilled fresh calamari with warm white bean salad. A perfect combination yet every flavor can be appreciated individually, the char grilled smokiness on the calamari, the lemon, the olive oil. Flawlessly cooked and wonderfully flavorful. Sophisticated yet comfy.
As a main course, I ordered the Mint tagliatelle with artichokes and mascarpone. The well-cooked home-made pasta was tasty and balanced. The mint, that could have easily been overpowering, brought a subtle freshness to the rich creamy sauce.
Desserts were tempting but somehow I was already full. Maybe it was all the waiting and anticipation, maybe it was all the bread I ate. In any event, it would have to be for another time. So next day, I came back.
The meal, part two
I arrived early and got a seat at the bar. To my left, the busy small kitchen and its maestro, masterfully running the show with the calm and confidence of who could do it with his eyes closed. Yet no dish seemed to leave the kitchen without his close inspection.
My waiter was kind and sharp. She actually recognized me from the previous night. It felt like home. To pick things up where I left off, I ordered an entrée and dessert.
The Pozzi Farm spring lamb with fresh fava beans and Anson Mills polenta is a lamb-lover’s lamb. Served in four different cuts and preparations. Varying not just in flavor but also in texture. The dish is not light by any means, there are generous portions of fat to be appreciated – or trimmed off if you’re not a fan. It was very well cooked and tasty.
Ordering the dessert wasn’t an easy task; there were a few I wanted to try. But I went with the Buttermilk panna cotta with caramel and kumquats. I had heard it was the best panna cotta in town so expectations were high. Tasting it made me wonder how something so creamy could possibly stand in the shape of a flan. It was absolutely delicious.
In a recent visit to Delfina (third this month) I tried a couple more things that were worth a review.
There was a time in my life that I was determined to find the best linguini with clams. I tried it in dozens of restaurants. I’m not quite sure why I did it but since this was always one of my favorite pasta dishes, I figured it was worth it. Most restaurants that serve this dish seem to economize on the mollusk; either placing scattered shells over the pasta like a cherry on the cake, or requiring some serious mining skills to find them in the noodles. Delfina’s Linguine with double clam sauce is true to the name. The perfectly cooked pasta comes with a generous portion of clams, loose and on the shelf. The light reduced white wine sauce is incredibly flavorful. It’s a simple dish, very well prepared.
For dessert, Warm Scharffenberger chocolate budino with Murcott mandarin, house-made mascarpone and hazelnut croccante. If you love chocolate (I do), this dessert is for you. The budino is rich and moist, with a consistency between a flourless cake and dense mousse. The mascarpone, mandarin sauce and croccante offer the perfect complement in textures and flavors.
It’s no wonder Delfina is one of the most popular restaurants in San Francisco. The informal atmosphere, stellar service and delicious food are a perfect combination for a house full. It’s absolutely worth going and going back. But be patient, try a reservation or walk in early to beat the crowds. No matter what, you’ll find it’s worth the wait.