Eating Out: Nob Hill Cafe, San Francisco

Depending on where you stay in San Francisco, you’ll find numerous great restaurants just around the corner from your hotel, or you can consider yourself lucky if there are a handful of places within walking distance. The Nob Hill area is among the latter, unless you count in the three-block down-hill adventure into China Town: finding restaurants around here is a bit difficult. At least if you are looking for something casual.

So when I developed a craving for pasta tonight, I did the old-fashioned and often risky thing of asking the front-desk staff of my hotel for advice about which neighborhood restaurant to honor with my patronage. “There is a nice place near by, and it’s a staff favorite: the Nob Hill Cafe.”

Apart from the fact that all restaurants that have been suggested to me so far turned were “staff favorites”, I was willing to give this place a try, even more so since, during a walk a few days ago, I had seen a little tempting Italian place in just the spot where the friendly guest relations expert had made a little cross on the map that she handed me.

When I arrived, I realized that, indeed, it was the place I had seen earlier. And I also realized that the place was popular, as it was just packed with people, and a few groups were waiting outside to be admitted.

After a quick chat with a waitress (I don’t think a place as small as this has a maitre d’…), my name was added to the waiting list and I decided to go for a quick stroll, before I returned to the restaurant to join the queues.

As a nice touch, I was asked if I wanted to have a drink while waiting, so I opted for a glass of Valpolicella. Which immediately drew the comment from another guest-in-waiting that that was a good choice, as the Chianti wasn’t all that grand. Well, the Valpolicella was OK, if not spectacular. Part of the reason surely was it’s temperature: it was too warm. It’s irritating how many people in the hospitality business think that “room temperature” means “cozy and warm like a place in front of an open fire on a Winter’s night”. Instead, replace “room temperature” with “somewhere around 16..18°C,” and you’d be surprised by the result.

As an aside: have you ever seen someone in a restaurant slooooooowly picking at their food and munching away at the odd morsel of food, taking an occasional sip from their beverage of choice, and indulge in the pleasure of reading a book, all the while the queue of hungry guests outside the door gets longer and longer? And have you felt really angry at this selfish, egomaniacal bastard? Thanks, I feel better now that I know that I’m not alone, then.

After a few more minutes’ wait, I was led to my table, which was tiny, but definitely big enough for one. The place being absolutely packed with guests made for a great atmosphere which bordered on authentically Italian, if it hadn’t been for the “wrong” language being spoken at the vast majority of tables.

As I had strategically read the menu while still in the queue, I had already made a choice for a starter and a main course, but I had missed the enticing items on the daily specials. Anyway, I eventually settled on a carrot-ginger soup and Penne Bettola, which promised to “vodka & garlic in a spicy tomato cream sauce.”

Although I had ordered only a cup of soup, the first course arrived in a huge bowl: nice orange color and creamy texture. A first spoon and: “ahhh, ginger!” Tiny flakes of ginger were immersed in this big orange liquid and added a wonderful fresh edge to the flavor of the soup. Unfortunately, that very flavor — carrot, I mean — was a bit bland. The texture was very nice, if somewhat too smooth for my taste, but what I was really missing was a more intense carrot flavor.

The soup was soon followed by the main course, the Penne dish, served in a similar, i.e., darn huge, bowl as its predecessing course. And it also shared a bit of the same problems as the soup: there was definitely a lot of delicious garlic in the sauce, as was tomato. The vodka, though, I could barely detect, which, however, is no big surprise, as you’d have to add a lot of it to make it really stand out tastewise, and I’m thankful — having had my second glass of red wine — that the chef erred on the side of adding less of this ingredient.

And yet, the sauce not being too spicy either, it was, again, a pleasant dish, but somehow lacking character and soul that I would expect from such elegantly and delightful simple Italian cuisine.

To sum up, two nice, if not eye-opening dishes, prepared with self-assured routine, I am sure, but without that bit of extra “amore” that makes all the difference in Italian cuisine. The check came to around $40 bucks, which is reasonable considering the location and — judging from the buzz — popularity of the place. Well worth a visit if you stay in the area and are looking for a pleasant dinner spot, but, then again, not a major loss, if you have the option to visit one of the restaurants deeper in North Beach, instead.

Food: 3/5
Atmosphere: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Value: 3/5
Overall: 3.5/5

Nob Hill Cafe
1152 Taylor St, San Francisco


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