They say that asking a chef to choose favorites among his dishes is like asking him to choose between his children, but when I'm staring at a menu, I always wonder what the chef would tell me to order.
We recently sat down with Chef Michael Tusk of Cotogna in San Francisco (and its upscale sister restaurant, Quince) to ask for tips: which dishes is he loving right now? Which dishes are so beloved they'll never leave the menu? What items are absolutely not to be missed?
He started us off with a simple plate of figs and prosciutto, arranged with white peaches and red sorrel. They're growing finishing herbs, lettuces, radishes, and fennel on the roof of the restaurant these days, and keeping bees as well, but Tusk is inspired by his trips to the market. He rattles of his favorite farms like they're rock bands he thinks you should follow: he loves the corn from Full Belly Farm in Guinda, and zucchini from La Tercera Farm in Petaluma. He's wild about fava beans from Free Wheelin' Farm in Santa Cruz and cheese from Barinaga Ranch in Marshall. He's happy he can introduce others to great producers: "I love to see people who used to work for me still supporting those farms," he says.
"One of my first jobs was upstairs at Chez Panisse," he says, crediting the restaurant for getting him comfortable working with a wood oven and ordering produce from small farms. His time at Chez Panisse "influenced me from a seasonality standpoint, certainly," he says. "You have to have enough respect for great products, and just enhance them with great technique. You don't want to make anything distracting," says Tusk, "but you also want to add twists that are a little unexpected, a little mystery ingredient that keeps people's attention."
The menu at Cotogna is inspired by the tradition of Italian trattorias, "but it was always about California," says Tusk. "I want it to be friendly food that you can eat on a daily basis—market inspired and constantly changing. I can get a bite to eat here, and that's a good feeling, eating in your own restaurant with a lot of neighborhood people, younger folks, families...a lot of familiar faces."
So what should we eat when we eat at Cotogna?