If I were to close my eyes and recall the meals I've had at April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman's restaurants in New York, a few flavor themes surface: pungent garlic, rich, gamey meats, anchovies, herbs, butter, and salt. I was hoping to find those flavors in Bloomfield's newest project—at the iconic Tosca Café in San Francisco's North Beach—and I did.
The crowded bar retains the old murals on the wall, and there are still red booths to sit in, but Friedman and Bloomfield added a kitchen with open windows into the back space, which has been converted into a full dining room. Tosca is still a neighborhood meeting place with folks of all ages, and it's still a place to drink. Drinks on the Isaac Shumway-curated cocktail list are $12 and include a deliciously tart Trouble in Paradise (made with bourbon, Campari, basil, lemon, grapefruit, and black pepper tincture) and a silky and bittersweet Choke Hold (starring Cynar and resposado tequila, along with rich Carpano Antica vermouth and maraschino). Ceri Smith is running the wine program with Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm, and wines are offered by the bottle, glass, or three-ounce taste.
The restaurant is still getting its footing: it's odd that the old jukebox at the host's stand is lit up but not connected to anything, and waiters paused by our table but didn't refill the empty water pitcher (or glasses) or take away empty serving plates. Bread and drink orders aren't quick. But any new restaurant has its hiccups, and the reason we waited (an hour and a half on a weeknight, time that's happily spent at Comstock Saloon across the street) was not for the service, but for the food.
It might make sense to order several slabs of housemade Foccacia ($4), perched on a pool of olive oil and topped with garlic and herbs. It's crisp-edged and as pillowy as the dreamy pull-apart rolls at The John Dory.
The Crispy Pig Tails ($9) are essentially chicharrónes on the bone, and eating them requires a bit of gnawing. They're rubbed with bay leaf powder and served with tangy agrodolce, though a garnish of not-really-edible fried bay leaves seemed a little odd. There's not a ton of meat on these bones, it's just a fatty bite to tide you over.
The pasta section is worth exploring. The Gemelli ($16) is essentially mac and cheese for grownups, with a generous portion of coarse black pepper and a rich sauce of funky Pecorino Toscano. Eat it while it's hot: the sauce separates rather quickly.
Perhaps my favorite dish of the night was the Bucatini ($18), a spin on Amatriciana that has a pleasant chili burn, nice tomato sweetness slicked on just-tender ropes of pasta, and slices of salty, funky guanciale throughout. It's a pasta I'll crave, and return for soon.
Everyone likes a 'secret' dish and I'd heard rumors of 'secret meatballs,' but the balls were announced as a nightly special quite matter-of-factly. Secrets aside, the meatballs ($15) are tasty, made with a combination of beef, pork, and that earthy guanciale. They're on the firm side, and pretty flavorful, but the sauce (made with tomatoes and garlic, wine, marjoram, and chilies) seems to have soaked up more than its fair share of meatiness from the meatballs. It's incredible stuff; with an intensity that suggests that it's stirred with demiglace (I checked, it's not).
But as good as that sauce was, I'm not sure I'd order the dish again: the meatballs were somewhere between 2 and 2.5 inches across, three to a dish for $15. If they served it on polenta or pasta and charged a few dollars more, it might feel like a better value.
The Grilled Short Rib ($26) is a luscious piece of meat; rich and mellow, and definitely not requiring the caveman-style knives provided. It's served with a bright gremolata, grilled lemon, and cicerchie (wild chickpea) purée, which tastes a bit like a blend of mashed potatoes and hummus.
A side of Crispy Potatoes ($7) cooked in pork fat offered shatteringly crunchy exteriors and creamy interiors, though next time I'll likely go with the roasted cauliflower, which is served with coriander and capers.
The new Tosca is not cheap: our bill ended up around $50 per person including tip and one round of drinks, and the serving sizes are on the small side. But I'm still excited to have the restaurant in San Francisco; the bold, earthy flavors of the food offer a taste of the signature style of one of my favorite New York chefs. I'll just have to put my name in earlier next time.