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Sauce

August 13, 2006

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Sauce is a cool, comfortably hip restaurant (with a joint bar) on the southern edge of the ever-gentrifying Hayes Valley. Although the immediate vicinity of Sauce has not seen the kind of transformation that Hayes Street proper has, change is on the way, as they are already constructing some new condominiums just down the street. Sauce specializes in gourmet, upgraded versions of what is essentially American comfort food. For example, the menu features a “mac and cheese” dish with a four cheese sauce (we believe it’s the same four cheese sauce we’ll discuss just a little later) that has asparagus and roasted chicken. There is also a bacon-wrapped meatloaf, and another dish which is essentially just steak, eggs, and potatoes, but upgraded with smoked sea salt and a chipotle Hollandaise. This comfort food theme carries over into the dessert menu, which, among other things, features a PB & J dessert, chocolate chip pancakes, a Guinness milkshake, and various incarnations of ice cream and doughnuts. Upon finishing our meal, Short Exact was too full to try any of these desserts (though we were tempted by the chocolate chip pancakes). However, as you’ll find out if you keep reading, the food itself was actually less than stellar, so perhaps going to Sauce for a drink and a dessert (and skipping the main menu altogether) might not be such a bad idea.

The food may not have been stellar, but the service was actually quite good: warm and courteous, and very accommodating, given the fact that Short Exact was dining solo on this particular evening. Sauce of course has appetizers, but the portions are larger than a standard appetizer, and rather than calling them appetizers, they are called “social plates”: they are meant to be shared. Since we had no dining companion this time, our server, without any prompt, first offered a half-order in case a full social plate was too much. Short Exact was not terribly hungry at the time, and we most certainly appreciated this offer. A little later, though, upon hearing that we were stuck deciding between two of the appetizers, our server then offered even smaller portions of each, so that we could try both, while still having a reasonably-sized total portion. When our appetizer arrived, we saw that we were given 1/3 of each of the dishes (i.e. 2 pieces each). And sure enough, when the bill arrived, we were charged for 1/3 of each appetizer, with no extra charge. We thought this was a very nice touch.

The one faulty point in the evening was that our server neglected to stop by in the middle of the meal to see if we enjoyed it, or if we needed anything. But we can’t fault her too much for this because she did a really good job for the rest of the night, and as essentially the only server for the entire room, she was rather busy. In addition, our server was (or at least put on a good face of being) so enthusiastic about being there, and about the menu, and that, in turn, made me more excited about the meal as well. The fact that we became somewhat less excited once actually tasting the food is the story for the rest of this review.

So now: the food. We’ll start with our smaller versions of two of the social plates:

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In the background of the above picture lie two fresh, rather plump sesame shrimp that were fried in Panko bread crumbs. The shrimp were served with a sweet and lightly spicy garlic chili sauce, which had a delayed bite, and an all-around nice flavor; it was a good complement to the shrimp. In the foreground are two Dungeness crab wontons with cream cheese. The wontons taken alone, without any sauce, were actually on the bland side, despite the crab and the cream cheese. So some sauce here actually was required, but we remain unconvinced that the orange-mango reduction that the wontons were served with was the right choice. To some extent, this sauce overpowered the crab, and it certainly did not enhance any of the wonton’s flavors. At various stages of chewing, we had some orange, mango, cream cheese, and crab tastes floating around our mouth, but at no point did these combine in any convincing way. The sauce was needed to unify the dish, and that didn’t really happen.

For our entree, Short Exact ordered the vegetarian strudel,

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which featured a Portabello mushroom duxelle, tomato, asparagus, spinach, a blend of four cheeses (parmesan, mozzarella, provolone, and asiago) with herbs, all wrapped up in a Phyllo pastry, and served with a roasted tomato sauce. Once again, as with the wonton social plate, we found the sauce to be the weakest aspect of this dish: it overpowered not only the asparagus, but also the subtle earthiness of the Portabello mushroom.

In some sense, this dish is a second generation spanakopita, and at its core lie the spinach, herbs, and the four-cheese blend mentioned above. On certain bites of the strudel, we were able to taste “cross sections” of the contents of the Phyllo pouch, without the roasted tomato sauce — in particular, the spinach and the four cheeses — and when these flavors were allowed to shine, they were actually quite nice. Somehow, though, the dish never came together as a whole, and the roasted tomato sauce not only overpowered the rest of the dish, but it did not have a flavor complementary to those found in the interior of the strudel.

We think that Sauce has potential, and while the kitchen has some interesting ideas on how to upgrade and gourmet-ify American comfort food favorites, the dishes don’t always turn out as well as we had envisioned prior to tasting them. Having said that, we aren’t willing to entirely write it off. We’d be willing to return to test out a different assortment of dishes and observe how those are executed. One important point here is that most of Sauce’s entrees are not vegetarian, but are decidedly carnivorous in nature. Now, since standard American comfort food, on the whole, tends to also be more meat-oriented, it seems reasonable that perhaps Sauce’s more carnivorous dishes fare better than the dishes we ordered; after all, the food Short Exact ordered doesn’t really fall into the category of American comfort food. Nonetheless, they only offer half a dozen entrees, and at the prices they are charging, they really ought to be able to turn out a good product for all the entrees, not just the meatier ones. Another quirk of this restaurant to keep in mind is that certain ingredients run through the menu and appear in multiple dishes: for example, the four-cheese blend from our vegetarian strudel. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and while it lends cohesion to the menu, it’s definitely something to keep in mind when structuring your meal, so that you don’t overload your palate with too much of the same flavor.

In the end, Short Exact is perhaps most irked by the name of this restaurant. If a restaurant chooses to name itself after a particular ingredient or aspect of food, it really behooves the kitchen to make absolutely sure it excels in its presentation of that ingredient. In this respect, Sauce falls short, as the sauces we experienced were definite weak points that tended to detract from the dishes they were associated with, rather than enhance them.

Is this a horrible restaurant? Certainly not, and if you come, you’re bound to have at least a decent meal. We just wish the restaurant were a bit saucier.

RATING:

COST:

131 Gough Street (at Lily St., between Oak St. and Page St.)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415.252.1369
Hours: Daily, 5:00 pm – 12 midnight. The bar stays open until 2:00 am.

Cuisine: American (New), California
Neighborhood: Hayes Valley/Civic Center

How to get there: Sauce is conveniently located within a few blocks of Muni lines 6, 7, 21, 47, 49, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N, and T, and is a mere 2-3 blocks from the Van Ness Muni subway station. For BART riders, the closest station is Civic Center, which is about 5-6 blocks from Sauce.

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