I’ve been a restaurant writer and food journalist for eight years now. During that time, I’ve been invited to experience countless restaurants – the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. I’ve sat around the table with great conversationalists and lousy food and savored great food while suffering lousy conversationalists. I’ve endured blaring music and supremely uncomfortable seats and drunk enough mediocre wine to last a lifetime. This I do in the name of bringing the experience of food to you, dear reader.
Poor me, right? True, it doesn’t suck, but every job gets a bit repetitive (like the millionth deviled egg someone insists is the best at this particular restaurant) and sometimes the noise coming from the restaurant scene is just that: noise (like the restaurateurs who jump on a trend with no greater thought to the guest or the dining experience).
What Makes an Excellent Restaurant?
And yet, every now and again, I experience a meal that reminds me why I got into this business: for the love of food and of a fantastic dining experience. Sometimes you meet a chef who clearly loves his craft and puts that energy out there on each plate (and hopefully trains his crew to love the food, too). Those meals leave their mark, an imprint on my memory. And when the front of the house experience matches the kitchen’s culinary excellent, the meal transcends the ordinary.
I’ve had a few of these extraordinary meals in my life. One of them, recently, was at Poggio.
Located in Sausalito, a few miles from my home, Poggio is a well-established Italian trattoria with a dedicated following. Locals such as myself like to come here to experience a bit of old-school restaurant grandeur. Yes, the seats are comfortable no matter where in the restaurant your table is located and yes, the tables are draped in white linen. (In the current Bay Area restaurant climate, these features are becoming more rare and unique.) The staff will almost always remember returning guests as well as their favorite drink. It is friendly here. Inviting. Bespoke yet familiar. You can imagine Cliff and Norm, attired in Wilkes-Bashford and Ralph Lauren, sharing a laugh at the bar and drinking Negronis.
Stefan and I were seated at a small table facing Bridgeway, Sausalito’s main drag. The windows were bedecked in holiday greens. A small candle cast a glow large enough to ensare the two of us. The meal we came to experience, the Amalfi Coast Italian Dinner, was a celebration of Italy’s storied southern seaboard and, this being late fall, truffles.
Executive Chef Ben Balesteri put on a show for each of the meal’s six courses. Big eye tuna crudo was in perfect balance with white truffles (shaved tableside) and a petite quail egg. Hashtag: #insane. Dungeness crab, so easily overwhelmed, was amplified with the herbaceous crunch of purslane and smooth burrata made earlier in the day. Balesteri’s gift for letting the delicate flavors of sea bound proteins shine came through again with seared scallop and white truffle, a dish where a beautiful unison emerged on the palate between the cauliflower cream and sturdy broccoli.
Clearly inspired by his recent trip to the Amalfi region, Balesteri next delivered a tortellini stuffed with short rib ragú and topped with black truffle. It was a dish of al dente perfection that went on Instagram with the hashtag #heaven. Seared rare, spit roasted veal loin anc charred chanterelle mushrooms contrasted stunningly with citrus and arugula salad. Our server, present but not hovering, ably answered questions and poured wine, enhanced the meal with personality and grace. Dessert of pumpkin cheesecake and local buffalo milk gelato hit the right note but could not compare to the grace of the five previous courses. (Sorry about that, cheesecake!)
After dinner, we sat discussing our experience over a glass of dessert wine. Grateful that the check must be asked for and not automatically presented, that we had a few extra moments to savor this singular evening, Stefan and I kept coming back to the completeness of the experience. Service, surroundings, the food on the plate – all of these synthesized to make this dinner at Poggio a culinary stand-out.
Poggio is living proof that a restaurant is not just about the food or the décor or the people – it’s the spirit or juju of the place, something that people don’t quite understand but can feel throughout the experience. There is something more to Poggio than the basic elements that define excellence in restaurants. Poggio is a place where you are sheltered, where your worries are temporarily cast aside, where you feel at home. It has to do with what you feel when you sit down. And that is a beautiful and quite extraordinary thing.