The Moss Room was inaugurated as part of the ambitious Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. A groundbreaking architectural project featuring a living roof that was praised by design publications all around the globe. The restaurant occupies an underground space accessible through the building’s northwest corner. Make a note of that because at night, when the museum is closed, there’s little indication of where to go. With not a single person at sight, you may feel like in teenager horror movie, getting inside the deserted museum after hours when clearly something is about to go wrong. Cut to black.
Even inside, as you walk through the ground floor where the Academy Café unoccupied dining room rests quietly during closed hours, it makes you wonder if this is where you should be.
But keep walking and you’ll see the imposing living wall of stone, fern and moss that frames a sleek staircase leading one floor down.
Underneath it, a large pond refracts shimmering rays of light onto the room. A collection of beautiful Asian river fish swimming slowly.
As you walk downstairs, a modern dining room is revealed on your left. Handmade Douglas fir tables and diner booths well spaced under hand-blown glass pendants that appear to float in the air.
At the bar, a Carrara marble countertop is set over a red backlit frame. To its left, a glass-enclosed private dining room. The fish on the other side call it an aquarium for the human kind.
Lighting design is carefully laid out. Beyond the delicate pendants, spherical sconces pepper the walls in an organic sculpture that gives movement and depth to the space. The dimly lit room is intimate and warm. The atmosphere has an unfussy elegance only broken by the somewhat dysfunctional soundtrack–featuring anachronistic classics like Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Born to be Wild and California Dreaming.
The only two drawbacks are the office-like carpet and tall concrete columns that, despite adding a modern coolness to the space, dining at the small 2-top next to one of them makes you feel like eating in a parking garage. But overall, the interior design at The Moss Room is definitely something to be experienced and celebrated. Especially in San Francisco.
The Californian-Mediterranean fare is the work of Loretta Keller, the chef behind Coco500. By her side is Justin Simoneaux, a Louisiana-born chef who she brought with her from her SoMa restaurant. The seasonal menu is based on organic, sustainable ingredients and features about 22 items including starts (to share), appetizers, entrées and sides. Prices range from $8 to $14 for appetizers and $20 to $28 for main courses.
Sliced sourdough bread and soft butter kick off the meal. The small open kitchen works busily preparing all dishes but front of the house service still needs improvement.
To start, Crispy Squash Blossoms, salt cod, piquillo peppers, frisée. The salt cod brandade filling is tasty but the batter on the fried blossoms could be lighter and, honestly, crispier. You can barely notice the flower.
As an appetizer, Monterey Squid Spaghetti, squid ink, oven dried tomatoes, chilis, herbs. Without a doubt the best dish I had. Flavorful and lightly spicy, it has a nice balance of sweetness from the tomatoes and heat from the chilis. The presentation though is somewhat sloppy as the dish is covered in way too many parsley leaves.
Soup of the day: Potatoes and leeks. Lighter than a classic vichyssoise, the creamy soup is complemented with the two, diced vegetables for texture.
For entrée, Liberty Farms Duck Breast, “dirty” farro, pecans, cherries, balsamic. Tender, with a nice crispy skin, the duck outshines its accompaniment. Although the farro is done well, it does make you feel like eating something for its health benefits more than for its flavor. To be fair, farro is a popular Mediterranean ingredient that also happens to be good for your health.
Devil’s Gulch Rabbit Ravioli English peas, morel mushrooms, spring onions, pecorino. In this case, the accompaniments outshine the main ingredient. Morels and peas were great; the ravioli, okay at best.
To finish, Vacherin. Swiss meringue, coffee gelato, candied almonds, chocolate sauce. A rich dessert that despite the expected flavor combination is tasty and well made.
Chocolate Cherry Tart. Chocolate custard, brooks cherries, crème fraîche. Here, a must needed ice cream is absent. The tart is rich and tasty but is dry by itself. The crème fraîche refered on the name is nothing more than a ¼ of a teaspoon.
The Moss Room has, hands down, the most original interior design in San Francisco. Arguably the first one to be excited about. Service and food still need maturing; while the restaurant is on par with the best designs in NY and LA, its fare is not quite there with the best of San Francisco. Places like Range, Town Hall and Spruce that also use sustainable ingredients are far more satisfying when it comes to the food. I often complaint about the lack of originality in San Francisco’s restaurant designs. Finally, for once, I stand corrected.
The Moss Room is at 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park
(Also unlike most SF restaurants, parking is abundant).