Try to make a reservation at Spruce and you’ll quickly find out that’s not something easy to get. Try for several weeks ahead and you may score a bookend slot, 5:30 or 9:30pm. Sorry, nothing in between.
In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t take either time. Except, this is Spruce, one of the most talked about restaurants in the city. The place all foodies say they want to try but it’s so hard to get in. I didn’t think twice.
Located in the coveted Presidio Heights neighborhood, Spruce’s façade is framed by a lineup of trees. Inside, as you walk towards the restaurant, a small café serving paninis, sweets and cheese is the first thing to temp your appetite.
Walk in and you’ll find a tastefully designed interior, carefully planned and put together in every detail. A glass wall divides the high-ceilings space between the well-stocked bar and a 70-people dining room. Above all, a long skylight floods the whole area with natural light.
Chocolate mohair walls feature oversized 1940s body paintings (think Big Lebowski) by Japanese artist Shiraga. On the other side of the room hangs the artwork of a less known artist called Bard, a Frenchman allegedly found by one of the owners working around Parisian food stalls. Bard’s charcoal drawings are very impressive, beautiful photorealistic renditions of contemporary slices of life. The story goes that after the press picked up on his work featured at Spruce, he was never again to be found.
Spruce’s dining room is a rare kind of casual posh. Well-spaced tables, faux ostrich leather chairs and welcoming sofa booths give the space a well-balanced mix of contemporary elegance and comfort. The kind of place you could (and probably will) spend the whole evening.
Service is graceful and well trained. Dishes are placed on the table in a well-rehearsed choreography that will take as many waiters as necessary to serve all guests in perfect synchrony. Our waiter was confident and eloquent in talking about the food and answering random questions we had about the place.
Above all, Spruce’s claim to fame lies on the food. Chef/Partner Mark Sullivan’s interpretation of contemporary American cuisine is appetizing and inventive. The menu is created around fresh organic ingredients carefully managed by the chef. There are about 20 options to choose from between appetizers and entrées. Most of the restaurant’s produce comes from their own private farm.
In my first visit to Spruce I had the opportunity to try a few different things. Between the seven of us, we covered a good part of the menu.
Dinner started with a simple yet tasty amuse bouche; freshly baked Cheese puffs sent by the chef.
Appetizers arrived. As I tasted each dish, my overall impression was of a very light beginning.
My favorite appetizer was the house-cured Charcuterie selection. Spruce has an extensive charcuterie program and produces everything from “Prosciutto di San Francisco” to a variety of sausages including a high-end version of bologna. Our two plates included paper-thin slices of tongue, pig’s ear, garlic and duck sausage, paté de campagne and a delicious duck liver mousse covered with Madera gelée. The impeccable preparation and delicate presentation was enough to convert even the most skeptical diners. I, for one, had no problems jumping in.
I also liked the Caramelized dayboat scallops, salt cod brandade, sweet peas. The scallops were beautifully seared and paired well with their accompaniments.
The Hot and cold artichokes, rucola, parmesan was a good example of a very light appetizer. Perfectly prepared but subtle in flavors.
Another one was the Fresh farfalle, roasted asparagus, wild ramps and greens.
As a special treat, we ordered French fries, remoulade. We couldn’t resist after spotting them leave the kitchen next to a bar bound burger.
Everything was impeccably prepared and served in delicate portions. What could have been perceived as almost too subtle, was in fact a carefully planed warm-up for what was to come. Like as if stretching our palates for a marathon of flavors. Enter the entrées.
I ordered the Honey lacquered duck breast, cinnamon spiced foie gras, poached rhubarb. Of everything I tried, this was the most flavorful entrée. Each ingredient was perfectly prepared and well deserved of a starring role. Together, they complemented each other in an enviable harmony of textures and flavors. The poached rhubarb and radicchio brought a sweet and bitter contrast to the decadent combination of seared duck skin and foie gras.
A close second was the Charred Berkshire pork tenderloin, crispy pork belly and shelling beans. Tender and juicy, probably the most flavorful pork tenderloin I ever had.
Also worth noting was the Slow roasted shortrib, harvest greens and torpedo onions, horseradish. Like the other meats, this one was delightfully tasty.
A curious surprise was the Harissa chicken, farro couscous, dates almonds. I wouldn’t have thought of ordering the chicken until the waiter suggested it as his favorite on the menu. I’m glad one of us got it so I could understand why the recommendation. It was simply delicious.
Lastly, the Mediterranean branzino, crispy panisse and favas, preserved lemon vinaigrette. Although this is a good option for a lighter main course, I would strongly recommend one of the above meats, even for vegetarians.
Curiously, very little or no starch is used in the composition of the dishes. As if no flavor opportunity was ever lost to ingredients of less noble taste.
As we approached the end of dinner, the ambience had changed dramatically with the bright natural light giving place to a moody, dimly lit room. It was time for the final act. Dessert.
Once again, I had the chance to try many different things. Overall, all desserts were creatively conceived and beautifully presented.
The table’s favorite turned out to be the simplest one we ordered. Beignets, preserves, crème anglaise. Served warm, dipping sauces on the side. To die for.
The Cocoa nib dacquoise, manjari chocolate mousse, cocoa caramel is a chocolate’s lover dessert. Very rich yet not too sweet. Just right.
The Espresso cake, peanut ice cream, whipped caramel is also very good.
Some at our table were disappointed with Ezra’s carrot cake, ginger ice cream, walnut praline. That’s the risk of reinterpreting traditional comfort food. To me, it was a refreshing rendition of the classic.
Lastly, Spruce sundae, classic accompaniments. A DIY sundae that comes with great-quality chocolate and caramel sauces as well as toasted almonds.
It was about 9:30pm when we left our table. Just in time for the next party to be seated. There they were, exactly as I was, standing by the entrance, anxiously awaiting their chance to try Spruce. Even if that meant dining at 9:30pm.
With less than a year, Spruce is already one the best restaurants in the bay area. The tastefully designed interior is a much-needed addition to the city’s dining scene. The food is respectful to the ingredients yet infused with great flavor. An orgy for your palate. No wonder is so hard to get in.
Spruce is at 3640 Sacramento St