This past holiday weekend found us playing Eternal Return with friends and family down in the lovely City by the Bay. While I may call Seattle home nowadays, I will always have a deep fondness for San Francisco and the surrounding environs where I grew up. There is an almost breathtaking nostalgia that I feel crossing the Bay Bridge and seeing the skyline heading into downtown. And not surprisingly, some of my best memories are connected to food. Our intent was to revisit at least one of our favorite haunts from so long ago, but first: something new!
We had tickets to a show in the heart of the scenic Tenderloin on Saturday night, which somewhat narrowed our restaurant options. Still, I had heard pretty good things about a Mediterranean / tapas restaurant called Cortez a few blocks away from the theater, so away we went. It was a sunny evening, and it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust as we ducked into the dark, cool lounge connected to the Adagio Hotel on Geary. Beautiful pink, blue and yellow pastel globes of light balanced whimsically on enormous wrought-iron Alexander Calder-style mobiles hung from the ceiling above the lengthy bar. They looked like giant J. Otto Christmas lights. More soft color suffused the dark restaurant via backlit Mondrian-patterned lightboxes set high above the tables. The requisite downtempo soundtrack was fitting background music for the positively chill atmosphere.
Cortez has a handful of tapas bites, and many more small plates and larger dishes. Chef Jenn Puccio locally sources her seasonal ingredients, and I found much of the cuisine to be far more innovative than I had anticipated. Starting with the cocktail menu – after reading the description, I had to order the Heirloom Madness, a drink made with sliced heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil leaves, Bombay Sapphire, Chartreuse, lemon bitters and a splash of Moscato. It was bright and sweet and sour and wonderful (the hint of tomato was brilliant). We were surprised with a complimentary amuse during our drinks – luscious Israeli couscous, lightly dressed with olive oil and toasted hazelnuts and served in an antique silver teaspoon.
To start, I ordered a small, seasonal plate of Market Radishes. I love radishes, I love fresh radishes, and I loved everything about this dish. The presentation and plating were outstanding – multiple varietals of radish scattered across the plate and served in every conceivable way: shaved, sliced, quartered, julienned, whole sprouts (from root to stalk). Around the edge of the plate were dollops of creamy Laura Chenel chèvre and tiny mounds of caraway crumble. It was all very earthy and colorful and totally stole the show.
By contrast, my main course was a pretty big letdown. I ordered the California Spring Lamb with parmesan dumplings and saffron braised gem lettuce. Unfortunately, the lamb chops were much, much too fatty for my taste. I don’t know if it’s because I ordered it medium rare or what, but I spent most of the time carving off huge chunks of fat to get at the meat (which was admittedly tender and flavorful, but still, not my favorite pastime). The “dumplings” were actually falafels baked with cheese – they were tough and dry and pretty unappealing. The lamb was also garnished with sweet snap peas, which honestly wound up being the most interesting thing on the plate.
My only other complaint was with the service, which at best was awkward, and at worst intrusive. I did appreciate their attention to our time constraints, but it felt like the waitstaff was constantly hovering, waiting to remove this or that plate or fill this or that water glass. Not very smooth, but hardly a dealbreaker either. We wound up having a couple of minutes to spare and decided to share a dessert. We all ordered milkshake shots (banana with roasted pistachios), and split a huge piece of molten chocolate truffle cake with cinnamon toast ice cream. I sipped on a glass of Rosé from Napa Valley that wasn’t particularly noteworthy (although I was generally impressed with the wine list).
Overall, I could definitely see Cortez being a great neighborhood place to drop by after work for a drink and a small bite. There were many creative sounding dishes on the menu that I would have loved to try, and the quality of the produce in particular was exceptional. It was a nice discovery, a new memory amidst the waves of remembrance.