An Italian Gem

JC and CW had been raving  about what they considered to be one of the best Italian restaurants in San Francisco called 54 Mint, so Pdho and I have been extremely curious to check it out.  Being that it was one of these rare days in the city where the sun is out, the weather is pleasant, and all you want to do is be out and about walking all over the place, we were in a really good mood.

Earlier in the day, we had gone out with some friends to check out the Cherry Blossom Festival, so we had done a fair share of walking around.  Pdho, being Pdho, wanted to take advantage of the perfect day and decided to walk to dinner.  I agreed thinking it would be a good way to work up our appetite since we were having a relatively early dinner.

The funny thing about the location is that it is smack dab on the border of the Tenderloin, so although Mint Plaza is a newly redone area with high end restaurants like 54 Mint and Chez Papa and sexy lofts for the young and professional, the immediate surrounding area is teeming with homeless bums and questionable characters, either strung out from crack or looking for money to get high. Interestingly enough, the moment I walked into the restaurant, I felt a certain comfort and warmth that exuded from not only the ambiance but the owner as well. He was an amazingly friendly older Italian man who greeted everyone as if they were regular diners. For all I know, many of them might be, because it is that neighborhood-y feel that the restaurant seemed to be striving for.

Usually, Pdho and I try to keep our meals to one appetizer and two entrees, but the menu looked so delicious that we were uncontrollably enticed by numerous dishes and couldn’t help ourselves.

Both the french bread and focaccia bread were soft, hot and fresh. Usually, I like foccacia, but I think there was a little too much rosemary for my liking, and I preferred the french bread which I generously dipped in some very high quality extra virgin olive oil. Normally, I like to use a mix of balsamic and olive oil, but this olive oil was so good that it didn’t need anything else to taint its flavor.

We started off with the Arancina al Nero di Seppia and Parmigiano al Balsamico.  Arancina is a fried rice ball often filled with a variety of different ingredients like cheese, tomato sauce or meat. This version came in a square shape filled with a spicy shrimp mixture and topped with whole prawn. Not only did it come out hot and fresh, but it was absolutely delicious. The outside batter was made from bread crumbs or something similar and managed to be crunchy without being oily which was very nice. The rice inside was made with squid ink, so even though it makes me feel slightly uneasy every time I see something so gosh darn black, I’ve never been disappointed.  It was yummy.  I’m sure there was so sort of cheese mixed with squid-ink flavored rice, but it was not heavy at all, so I really enjoyed it.  The sauce inside was very flavorful.  It was a mix of tiny shrimps and tomatoes and had a slight spicy kick with a deep seafood-based flavor without being too strong. I would say it was the best arancini I’ve ever had, not that I’ve had many, but the flavors and the contrast in textures all really worked. Starting from the crispy outer layer to the creamy (but not too cheesy) rice filling and finally to the saucy center which balanced out the rest of the layers completely.  I really, really liked this dish. There is actually a meat and cheese version that I originally thought to order, but thanks to some Yelpers, we decided to go with this one instead. I can only imagine how the other one tasted.

The next appetizer was a plateful of aged parmigiano reggiano cheese pieces drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar. If youknow me, you know this obviously didn’t excite me as much as the Arancina al Nero di Seppia. However, it just shows that I shouldn’t be so quick to judge, because despite being the non-lover of cheeses, it was actually pretty good. I think it was mainly the sweetness of the aged balsamic vinegar that really made the dish. The cheese definitely had a sharper taste (more than I am used to), but the balsamic vinegar really helped add another layer of flavor. It made me curious about the balsamic vinegar, because I wondered if it was the specific type that made it a little sweeter and thicker in consistency or if it was the fact that it was aged that gave it the unexpected twist of flavor. Nevertheless, it was a solid dish and one I would recommend for any avid cheese connoisseur.

Now on to the entrees… We ordered the Pappardelle al Ragu d’ Anatra which is essentially a flat wide pasta served with a duck ragout and Ravioli di Ricotta e Spinaci which is a spinach and ricotta ravioli in a butter and sage sauce.

The pappardelle pasta was 100% house-made kamut pasta served with a duck ragout. I think kamut is a some sort of grain or wheat. It definitely had a freshly made quality to it. I’m not sure how to describe it. I don’t know if it’s the preparation or the fact that it is house-made, but the pappardelle had a firmness to it without being exactly al dente. I really liked it.   Anyways, the duck ragout was very tasty, but really set the ragout apart from other duck-based dishes was the fact that the duck meat was very well-cooked. The texture of the ragout reminded me a little bit of duck confit after you pull the meat off the duck leg so it’s kind of all shredded. Unlike the past couple of times when the duck confit turned out dry and bland, this duck in the ragout still retained a juiciness that made the overall ragout that much better.

I rarely order ravioli when I go out to Italian restaurants, because I feel cheated by the portions that they serve. What is it about ravioli that makes chefs feel people would want to eat less of it, because it never fails that every time I order a ravioli dish, I never get more than 5 maybe 6 actual ravioli’s. I realize it might be psychological and 5 or  6 ravioli’s might well be the equivalent of a full plate of linguini, but I can’t help but react the way I do to 5 chintzy ravioli’s. Nevertheless, the Yelpers seemed to rave about this dish, so Pdho insisted we try it. As I expected, there were 5 ravioli’s, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up liking this dish much to Pdho’s vocal indignation to why I never trust his taste buds. The butter and sage sauce was amazing, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I’m sure it probably wasn’t the healthiest of dishes, but somehow in spite of the cheese-filled pasta pieces and the extremely buttery sauce, it managed to taste relatively light. It sounds contradictory, but I’ve found that the best Italian (and French) food is one that manages to NOT taste heavy and make you feel like your tummy is about to explode at the end of the meal.

We felt really satisfied by the time we had cleaned our plates of every last bit of sauce, and although we normally forgo on dessert, we felt we had to try the panna cotta. It turned out to be more of a pudding than the firmer gelatinous dessert that I have come to expect. Another interesting twist was the dressing of balsamic vinegar on top of the panna cotta. It was sweet yet slightly tangy. It was a very good choice and not too sweet which is exactly how I like my desserts. I liked it and again, I found it to be light and yet still full of delicious flavor.

Overall, I really loved this restaurant. JC and CW were not wrong with their effusive compliments. In fact, it was funny, because midway through our meal, they ended up showing up for dinner as well. In addition to the food, I really like the fact that the restaurant strives to be a local neighborhood restaurant. Although, most of the patrons looked to be of an older, well-to-do, almost pretentious crowd, it really didn’t feel that way at all. It really felt intimate. The prices for appetizers and entrees didn’t seem very expensive compared to Pazzia, but the portions are definitely smaller so the total bill would probably put this restaurant on the more expensive end. However, it is very much worth it, and I would definitely come back sometime soon.

54 Mint
16 Mint Plaza
San Francisco, CA 94103

PAFO Ratings for 54 Mint:
Price 3 ½ stars
Ambiance 4 stars
Food 4 stars
Overall rating 4 stars

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