You know you have come across a one-of-a-kind restaurant when you and your dining companions speak of the uniqueness of the experience from the moment you sit down and drape the napkin across your lap until the moment you leave, then continue the conversation on the way home and in bed that night. The Palace, the work of chef Manny Torres Gimenez and his wife, Katerina de Torres, is a restaurant unlike any other I have experienced since I began writing about Bay Area restaurants in 2011.
Formerly known as The Palace Steakhouse (confusingly, the Steakhouse awning still hangs outside), The Palace sits at the outer edge of the Mission. It is quiet here, the chaos of Mission Street a few blocks away in the neighborhood’s pumping heart. Inside, the scene is a mash-up of modern minimalism and haute diner. Overhead, Italianate chandeliers cast bright light on red banquettes and tall vases of dried flowers. Tables, napped in white linen, hold heavy, cut crystal stemware. Empty picture frames hang on the wall, suggesting opportunity and an openness to ideas. Behind the long bar, chefs work studiously, every dish an opportunity to surprise.
Chef and owner Gimenez, who cooked at New York’s NOBU and San Francisco’s COI, among others, gives each diner the opportunity to design their own meal. Simply inform de Torres of your likes, dislikes and limitations and the day’s selection of proteins and vegetables will arrive at the table, each dish graced with the style of the chef yet customized to meet each diner’s needs. A five-course tasting menu, shockingly priced at $50 (this is San Francisco, after all), offers glimpses of Gimenez’s fine dining past and encompasses flavors from his native Venezuela, California, Japan and beyond.
The meal began with a flurry of oceanic delights. Local oyster dolloped with a fresh herb mignonette was followed promptly by two gorgeous slices of ahi topped with orange segments and sprouts. Fresh, simple, delicious.
Sold by hawkers on Venezuela’s beaches, rompecolchón (mattress breaker) was interpreted by Gimenez with Dungeness crab, Worcestershire and a bit of pickled onion. Fried langoustine with habanero sauce and pickled onion moved north to Mexico for its inspiration yet the bold flavors worked nicely with the sturdy meat of the shellfish. (Ours were a bit too large to devour in their entirety as the shells were too stiff.)
The often over-cooked scallop was handled with care at The Palace. Swaddled in a bed of creamy Jerusalem artichoke velouté and topped with fresh shavings of white Alba truffle, the scallop’s gentle texture was matched forkful to forkful with its genial plate mates. Nice. Gimenez spanned the Americas in Lobster Three Ways. Lobster ceviche with avocado (Mexico), lobster tail w aji amarillo (Peru) and lobster bisque with coconut milk (Maine and Florida). Clearly comfortable with the subtleties of fish and seafood, Gimenez left memorable impressions with each dish that featured gifts of the sea.
After roasted quail with a poached egg, bok choy, and pickled carrot, pause for the much-need palate cleanser of bracing Maracuya “snow” before delving into the somewhat less memorable pork and beef dishes, and, finally dessert. If you choose the wine pairing, simply allow de Torres to pour at the start of each dish or whenever you are ready.
As we reached the dessert course, I noticed that the volume of conversation in the small restaurant maintained a steady level throughout the evening. Few guests had left while new tables were seated. When asked about this, de Torres said that the table is yours for the evening. To run a restaurant on zero turns (translation: one seating) at a fifty dollar price point feels akin to madness in over-priced San Francisco. (The last time I sat down for a meal for the entirety of an evening was at a restaurant in Zurich where the minimum wage is 22 francs or about $22.)
And it is then, at that moment, that you locate The Palace’s heart. This is a family restaurant, run by a couple of dreamers who believe in the power of the community to help them build their dream, one dish at a time. Gimenez might come to the table to tell you himself how he and his crew prepared your feast. (When he does, be sure and ask who is cooking with him that evening.) De Torres might sit down and share a glass of wine and a bit of news. Call it old school if you must, but the unpretentiousness runs deep here.
Perched on the edge of the Mission, The Palace would be similarly right at home in Milan’s “second ring,” away from the tourist-trap restaurants and the cult of downtown yet comfortably surrounded by small businesses and apartment complexes. It would be where kitsch meets avant garde. A friend of a friend would have to tell you about it. You would be glad they did.
The Palace // 3047 Mission Street at Cesar Chavez, San Francisco // http://www.thepalacesf.com/ // 415-666-5218