Ordering Badly at Chez Spencer

by foodhoe on December 28, 2008

82 14th St, San Francisco, CA 94103 | 415.864.2191 | website

Near the end of November, my festivity meter took a nosedive and my good friend TK brightly suggested that we come here to celebrate the holidays.  Snap out of it for gods sakes wad (her nickname for me)…  The restaurant is pretty far south of Market, south of Van Ness, around the corner from Rainbow Grocery and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out which buses would get me here from work, so decided to walk from Van Ness.  Son of a biscuit, wouldn’t you know that it was pouring rain so I splashed my way around dark blocks, under an overpass (ah shelter from the rain), crossing a freeway onramp… until I was on 14th Street and South Van Ness.  Aha! I could see Rainbow Grocery and there was Nihon Whiskey Bar on the corner.  I turned down 14th Street past a dodgy auto repair yard and at last saw the whimsical worked iron entry gate and illuminated signs for Chez Spencer.  Peeking through the gate I could see brightly lit candles and then suddenly there was my friend TK walking towards me, smiling broadly and shaking the rain from her umbrella…


We entered the restaurant which has high ceilings and soft romantic lighting that creates mysterious silhouettes of the nearby diners, faces bathed with a warm glow from the candlelight on the tables.  The gleaming bottles on the shelf behind the bar were interspersed with shiny candles that illuminated the vague shapes of topiary, taxidermy and orchids. Everyone looks enigmatic and idealized in this light, but my camera refused to focus on the food.  Since we were early and no one was seated nearby, I tortured my poor friend TK by using the flash which enthusiastically rebounded off the bright white tablecloth and dinnerware, blunting our night vision.  TK gamely suggested we were practicing for one day having to face the glare of the paparazzi…


I’ve never been to France, but dining at Chez Spencer certainly provides the springboard for being transported for the evening.  The servers all have charming accents and the kitchen area is dominated by a glowing wood burning stove complete with well polished copper pots and jazz music plays in the background…  The chef Laurent Katgely was at Foreign Cinema when it opened and has since moved on to open his own restaurant, serving a classic French menu that showcases local, organic ingredients.  I admit to being illiterate in French and when faced with a wine list where I could barely distinguish red from white, I panicked and ended up with a glass of beer.  TK asked the server for a recommendation and was very pleased with her fine glass of wine.  And so starts the evening…


They have a tasting menu, but we opted to order from the a la carte menu.  I soon came to regret this decision.  TK started with Steamed Green Asparagus Shaved Parmesan and Truffle Emulsion (11).  Hmmm, that thick slice of parmesan didn’t exactly fit my idea of shaved, but it balanced the overall visual presentation.  I was unable to contain myself and reached over to swipe up a fingerful of the drizzled truffle emulsion, which was earthy and fragrant and zesty with vinaigrette.


I ordered the Red & Gold Beet Salad ($10), which was a pile of thickly sliced beet with a small section of roughly chopped Point Reyes Blue cheese sandwiched in between the red and gold layers.  It was ringed by exactly four pieces of Candied Walnut, and drizzled with Port/Cabernet Vinaigrette.  I personally would have liked less beets and more cheese in the dish…  it was overwhelmingly beety.


I was feeling carnivorous and TK had mentioned that her hubby Matt had ranted at great length about the fantastic filet mignon he had enjoyed here recently, I recklessly ordered the Syrah-Braised Lamb Shank, Smoked Pork Belly, Coco Beans and Tomato Confit ($27).  In my mind I was expecting delicate lollipop lamb chops, what I had ordered was a cro-magnon weapon of flintstonian proportion that reeked with gamey abandon.  Where I had pictured succulent tender tidbits, the reality on my plate was massive and dense, gelatinous and pungent and served over slightly chalky beans.  Notice the shriveled knob of carrot in the center top… it was thick and dry and I gently smashed it into the gravy which added nothing to its appeal.  The best thing on the plate was the pork belly, the small little rectangular bit topped with thyme in the top right.  A strange combination, but that little nugget was bursting with vigorously rich bright and vivid flavors and I was so glad that it was a part of that otherwise unfortunate plate…  must remember there is quite a difference between chop and shank!


And there was my friend TK who ordered well and smugly enjoyed her Forest Mushroom Risotto & Shaved Parmesan ($22).  It was a smallish serving but gloriously rich and decadent.    She tried a nibble from the monstrosity on my plate but waved away the gamy fumes, taking solace in her delicious creamy dish to erase the insult to her senses…  Admittedly, her plate looked so elegant and refined in comparison to mine.


She continued on with her winning streak by ordering the Warm Chocolate Pudding Cake, that she was reluctant to share, as I had earlier proclaimed that I had been overdosed on holiday chocolate…  I eyed her jealously as she ebulliantly exclaimed that her dish was orgasmic, an adjective that seems to be reserved for describing desserts, and more specifically, chocolate.


As for moi, I continued with my series of unfortunate decisions and had the Lemon Panna Cotta, Spiced Syrup with Orange Segments ($8) which huddled in a spinsterly fashion, hiding under the orange segments, refusing to be photographed.  The panna cotta was creamy and rich and I liked how it combined with the juicy flesh of the orange, but sadly nothing earthshaking happened between me and that dish…


And so we exchanged gifts and hugs and warm holiday wishes to our respective families and I walked out feeling a bit wistful thinking about TK and her dessert…  I should have ordered what she ordered!


Chez Spencer on Urbanspoon

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Single Guy Chef December 28, 2008 at 10:49 pm

Oh, I’ve heard so many good things about Chez Spencer but have yet to get there. It does sound hidden in the myriad of highway onramps. Too bad it sounds like you had an off night with the ordering! (Although I love all lamb, even gamey.) Maybe the tasting menu might have been the better, stress-free way to go? Well, I’m sure it was a nice setting, despite the rain outside.

Single Guy Chefs last blog post..Dish on Dining: Miss Pearl’s Jam House


Rosa December 29, 2008 at 12:19 pm

Seems like a great place! Nice atmosphere!

Cheers and best wishes for the New Year!




Kirk December 29, 2008 at 12:57 pm

Hi FH – I hope you’ve had some wonderful meals since then…. too bad about the lamb shank, and combining that with pork belly seems like overkill.

Kirks last blog post..Thuan Phat Market, and Yum Cha Cafe coming to San Diego


grace December 29, 2008 at 3:14 pm

i think it’s an unwritten rule that whatever my dining partner orders be superior to what i pick. it always seems to work out that way. 🙂


foodhoe December 29, 2008 at 4:27 pm

Single Guy, the restaurant is very nice, the service was great, and they do have some delicious food on the menu… I think it would be great to dine outside on the patio on a nice night!
Rosa, yes it was and happy new years to you too.
Kirk,yes many nice meals since then… and I am glad for that little bit of pork belly although that definitely was one of the weirdest combinations I’ve seen.
Grace, Based on those rules, I wonder what would happen if we dined out together?


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