May 24, 2013
Boulettes Larder: When Cool Chefs Serve Hot Food
We didn’t know anything about Boulettes Larder when we stumbled upon it in a corner of San Francisco's Ferry Building last February. That in an of itself seems to be a faux pas in food-obsessed San Francisco, if not an actual Class B Felony.
The counter was filled with jars of exotic salts and spices with handwritten labels. Behind that was a large kitchen, full of working cooks. There was just one large farmhouse style table by the kitchen—either, I assumed, for setting out more products for sale, or for some kind of scheduled Williams and Sonoma-esque cooking demonstration.
“Do you serve food here?” I asked a young, pretty woman behind a counter.
“Yes, we do,” said the woman. And as she said it, two customers just ahead of us, a pair of middle aged women in Bay Area chic, audibly snickered. Oh—nothing makes a person feel more welcome, more embraced, in a restaurant than being immediately mocked.
The hostess covered quickly. “We just finished our breakfast service,” she said. “Our lunch service begins at 11:30.”
“Can we see a menu?” my wife asked. I checked over to Mrs and Mrs Snicker—they had already taken their seats at the farmhouse table.
“Chef doesn’t release the menu until 11:30,” she said.
It was 11:26. The hostess had to see our confusion-- what was this menu, FedExed from Langley?
“But I think I have yesterday’s I can show you," the hostess added.
There were seven dishes on the small printed menu from the previous Thursday. Example: Greens Soup with harissa. Vadouvan braised chicken legs. Lamb shank ragu braised with red wine and herbs (and creamy rice). Vegetarian Farmhouse (“Caramelized cauliflower, warm lentil hummus, our cows milk yogurt, toasted cumin crispy rusks, olive oil fried eggs, shallots). I turned to my wife. They could laugh at me all they wanted, but I was staying put. Attitude or not, somewhere here knew how to cook—or at least how to make food sound really good.
The place was mostly kitchen—seating seemed to be an afterthought. Gleaming copper and stainless steel pots and skillets surrounded a large central stove. Men and women in chef’s aprons tended to their chores with librarian-like quiet and surgical focus. A woman shaped macaroon dough into mounds. The pastry chef, I figured.
Our waiter was a man in his thirties with a well-trimmed beard and a friendly manner. He sat us at the head of the table, closest to the chef. I caught the eye of Mrs. Snarky, who now was smiling at me.
“You must be VIPs,” she said.
At 11:34 the hostess handed us the menu. It was a single 8 ½ X 11 inch piece of cream-colored paper, hot off the laser printer, folded in half. We looked: Parsnip soup. Persian Salad (sweet lettuces, butter lettuce, mache, feta, citrus, herbs, dried persimmon, cucmber, radish, za’atar, pomegranate molasses) Seafood rice congee with braised shrimp, black cod, kampachi coriander and kaffir lime, warm roasted chicken breast salad (little gem lettuce, chicken broth vinaigrette, sibley squash puree, roasted baby carrots and marinated mushrooms). The Vegetarian Farmhouse was steamed barley and chickpeas with poached eggs nettle pesto and radicchio.
At the center of the battery of cooks a stern, gray haired woman worked at the stove. She never looked up to acknowledge us. Occasionally she broke from her cooking to direct or consult with the others. So she’s the chef, I thought. There were twelve diners around our table, the only one. There were thirteen staff and cooks, including the chef.
The chef set to work on our meal. With one hand she cracked the eggs into a skillet of simmering water. With the other she centered a stainless steel bowl that she soon began filling with the tips of chervil, lettuces, madeleine-thin slices of radish and cucumber. She never once looked at us, her guests. She never smiled in welcome, or at anyone.
“Fire a parsnip” I heard her say.
Moments later the parsnip soup arrived, hot, drizzled in sharp olive oil. If she had asked I would have said it was one of the finest soups I’d ever tasted. But she didn’t ask.
She laid some raw wild white shrimp in a saute pan, let them seize up, then braised them in a broth. We were three feet from her hands as she fileted, in deft economical movements, a loin of sea bass and a side of hamachi, for the next bowl of congee.
“Nice job,” I said, loud enough to warrant, at least, a grunt. Nothing. What’s the point of an open kitchen if you have a closed personality? I got the feeling she enjoyed every aspect of the restaurant, except for the part about feeding people. It made me begin to resent the whole place, except for two things:
The first is that the food she made was just superb. Her focus rewarded us first with that soup and the Persian salad— this ideal blending of za’atar and feta and dried persimmon. Then came the congee of deeply flavored seafood broth, bright with kaffir lime, along with its perfectly poached seafood and sterling fresh fish. Then there was a dish of two eggs she poached in a pan so close to us its steam swirled past my daughter’s curls. The chef placed these eggs on a stew of grains and garbanzo beans and ladled a bright pesto sauce over it. At last came a persimmon pudding, dense and light and autumnal. All, perfect.
The second reason I couldn’t resent her aloofness was because, well, I understand it. I love spending time cooking. When it’s over, when the guests arrive, I can feel loss, imposition. A couple glasses of wine later I bounce back. But for me, the really fun part is over. I learned, Googling, later, that we had lucked into one of the Bay Area’s best dining experiences. For all my food reading, I’d never heard of Boulettes Larder, or the Hungarian born chef, Amaryll Schwertner. I read, too, that Mark Bittman declared her breakfast the single best breakfast he ever had-- and that man has had a few good breakfasts. Boulettes has since outgrown its space and is moving, in July, to a larger one, where Chef Schwertner, I assume, won't be so close to the mouths she must feed.
Sure, it’s nice for the chef—for someone—to make you feel at home., to welcome you into their restaurant like you’d welcome them into your home. But that wasn’t going to happen with Amaryll Schwertner. Instead, she just put her feeling, her passion, her knowledge, onto the plate. As they say in sports, she left it all on the field. Which, in the end, was more than good enough for me.
San Francisco, CA 94111
Note: Boulettes Larder is not kosher, but it is a Foodaism favorite.