Keeping up with the San Francisco restaurant scene is not as easy as it used to be before we had a child. But, we try to get out and try as many new places as we can, as well as return to old favorites. So for Jennifer’s birthday last week, we decided to try out the Moss Room at the new Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Restaurants in parks, if done right (for example, North Pond in Chicago’s Lincoln Park), are a great escape from everyday urban life.
Adding to the appeal the Moss Room for us, was its association with San Francisco chef Loretta Keller of COCO500 (her partner in the restaurants at the Academy of Sciences, Charles Phan of Slanted Door, oversees the AcademyCafe). While finding the front door to the restaurant at 7:30pm on a Friday night was a slight challenge, after some circumnavigation (including a trip on a freight elevator with other lost guests), we descended into the spacious cavern underneath the museum. I won’t go into attempts at architectural descriptions, but suffice it to say, the place is pretty cool. The one thing I noticed about it is that it is not that large of a restaurant and that you feel a certain intimacy within the room, despite the high ceilings and the aquarium lining one side. Jennifer couldn’t stop staring at the illuminated “living wall,” covered with fern, moss, and stone and accented by reflections from the water beneath it.
Okay, so let’s talk food and wine. The first thing that we noticed about the menu, was the wine list. The by-the-glass selections were broken down into 3 categories that might seem unusual: Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic. We thought this was an interesting way to both emphasize their organic leanings (even when it comes to wine) and also get customers thinking about broader categories of wine beyond just the standard white or red.
We both began with Champagne: the Gonet-Medeville “Brut”, Bisseuil, France, NV for Jennifer and the Roger Pouillon “Brut Rosé”, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, France, NV for me. Both paired very well with our starters. We shared the beer-battered squash blossoms and the Star Route Farms baby beet salad. The Champagnes cut through the richness of the squash dish and complimented the crispness of the beet, chicory and hazelnut combination in the salad. The highlight of the salad was a caramelized goat cheese: a thin layer of goat cheese goodness whimsically placed atop the salad. It doesn’t look like goat cheese, but the taste is undeniable. I believe the refrain from all at our table, including our server, was “you can’t go wrong with melted cheese.”
For the entree, Jennifer enjoyed the Bellwether Farms Ricotta Cavatelli with a poached farm egg, local asparagus, wild mushrooms, and pecorino pepato, while I savored the Liberty Farms duck breast with green garlic risotto, crispy artichokes, and ver jus. Choosing a wine varietal that would sing with both of these dishes was not a challenge: Pinot Noir was the clear choice. Selecting the bottle, though, is not always easy. Part of the fun of going out to dinner is to try different wines. While we could have taken a stab at one of the many Pinot Noirs on the list, we often like to get the guidance of a wine director or sommelier and discover something new. We quickly overlooked the Burgundy page because of the prices (I love Burgundy wines, but they’re too expensive to “try out,” especially with the restaurant markup) and inquired about California Pinots. Failla Sonoma Coast was tempting, as was the Lynmar Russian River (our winemaker Chris Nelson worked there previously) and the Clos Saron, a Pinot Noir from the Sierra Foothills (we’re very intrigued about this wine region). But having read a few articles about David Hirsch and his extraordinary vineyard in the Sonoma Coast (located just three miles from the ocean, at a 1500 feet elevation), I was keen on trying more Hirsch wines when I had the chance. Zack, who was helping us with the wine choices, recommended we try the “Moss Room Blend,” a small production (50 cases) Pinot Noir from Hirsch Vineyard blended by the Moss Room’s beverage director. Apparently only five other restaurants or retailers got the opportunity to make their own blend with Hirsch’s grapes.
So, given all that information and the fact that Hirsch farms his vineyard in 60 different blocks because of the varying soil characteristics and climate conditions in this wild location along the coast, we had to try it. It was a 2007, but with decanting it didn’t take long to open up. The color was a transparent ruby red, with a touch of crimson. The nose had a nice floral and strawberry high note, with a hint of earth. The palate showed fresh raspberries up front with a sour cherry finish on the back. Good acidity and fine, yet forgiving tannins gave it the right structure to complement our dishes. Between the mushrooms in Jennifer’s dish and the duck in mine, we had a lot of earthy flavors going on, so the wine balanced them out beautifully.
We savored the wine and lingered at our table while other couples came and went. It was impossible to ignore the fantastic dessert menu. Jennifer loved her creme fraiche panna cotta with farmer’s market organic strawberries. Brian had the dark chocolate hazelnut cake and deemed it delicious as well. We were happy to have finally checked out the Moss Room and hope to return soon.
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