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Apps Only: Fried Lamb Brains and More at Locanda in San Francisco
As we've learned from Ben Fishner's 'Apps Only' journey in New York, one of the best ways to have an interesting (and affordable) meal is to focus on appetizers, snacks, and sides. So we're following his lead and exploring San Francisco the Apps Only way: making a meal of the introductory plates on a menu, and trying to do it for $15 a head. Will we get full? Will we eat well? Only time will tell, but we'll be able to check out all the San Francisco spots we've been hearing about in the meantime on a reasonable budget.
Our first stop of the San Francisco Apps Only journey was at Locanda, a Roman-inspired osteria on Valencia Street opened by Craig and Annie Stoll of Delfina. We opted to share a handful of antipasti and a 'piccolo' sized dish from the 'quinto quarto' section, then finished off with a pasta. Our conclusion: there are gems in those small plates, and vivid flavors; the pasta dish was the weakest of the bunch.
A paper cone of fried Castelvetrano olives ($6) is the perfect place to start, especially if you're opting for a glass of sherry or the Negroni flight (sometimes made with a series of different styles of gin, sometimes with different bitters). The olives are meaty and not too salty, and thyme leaves scattered throughout the crumb coating add savory flavor (as does a gooey filling of Fontina cheese.)
The highlight of our meal was a $12 plate of fried lamb brains and artichokes, each nugget delicately battered and well seasoned. Our waitress described the dish as offal-y and slightly gamey, but we found the brains to be mild and creamy with a shattering-crisp shell, perfectly approachable for innards-beginners. The sweet hearts of the artichokes nicely echoed the creaminess of the brains, as well as offering a few bites for the offal-averse. Salty fried capers, parsley, and sage are a pretty addictive addition—why season when you can add crispy fried seasoning?
If you yearn to take a break from the crispy-fried richness of all these bites, the fresh porcini ($12) with grilled romaine is an excellent choice. The earthy flavor of the mushrooms is accentuated by some serious char on the lettuce, and the shaved parmesan adds richness and umami. It's a deeply savory salad that doesn't feel the least bit like rabbit food.
Egg dishes must be perfectly prepared to work, and Locanda's duck egg ($14) manages to ace the oozing center (though the outside was a bit more firm than we expected.) It's served with yellow and green squash, squash blossoms, and a shower of crispy toasted breadcrumbs and bottarga. Loads of olive oil make this fresh dish richer than expected.
The pizza bianca topped with crushed figs and prosciutto ($10) suffered from a bit of imbalance; while the sweet fig topping on this crostini was tasty, the prosciutto didn't have quite enough meaty flavor or salt to bring this dish into focus.
The texture of the pasta itself was close to ideal, but the Rigatoni alla Carbonara ($15) was more like an Alfredo, weighed down a bit from the cream in the sauce. Bites with parmesan and guanciale were excellent, but those without veered toward blandness; the flavors of the meat and cheese didn't permeate the dish completely.
How'd we fare overall? Our party of four filled up for a bit over $17 per person, but it was the starters that really stood out. With interesting amaro-tinged cocktails and lots of appealing wines by the glass, we will return for a drink and exploration of the rest of the antipasti and offal options.