Portrait of Chef Michael Tusk of Quince and Cotogna 6 min read
I first leaned about Michael Tusk’s Quince several years ago, from Harvey Steinman, a Wine Spectator critic. Harvey shared that Quince is one of his favorite restaurants of all time, so I booked a reservation and had a memorable meal there, with a highlight being his signature sublime pasta dishes.
A critically acclaimed (two-star Michelin, four-star SF Chronicle) San Francisco restaurant, Quince is the creation of Michael and Lindsay Tusk. It’s a place where grandeur meets comfort, the sort of spot that fulfills the most discerning diner, yet does so casually, with fun and flair. It’s cuisine is a fusion of Italian and French influences, with a hefty nod to Northern California’s largesse. The restaurant is regularly supplied with the freshest ingredients; meticulously chosen from purveyors of local farm produce, fish mongers, and ranchers.
Pasta used to be a signature fare, however that’s clearly changed, during my recent dining experience there were only two pasta courses on the nine course tasting menu, (as well as a supplemental course that featured royal indulgences such as smoked sturgeon and caviar.)
Tusk is originally from the East Coast where a chance cooking job led him to a culinary school and subsequent stints at Michelin star restaurants in France and Italy. French classic techniques and Northern Italian finesse made an indelible impression on Tusk.
Michael credits Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli as his most influential mentors. During the time at Waters’ Chez Panisse and then Bertolli’s Oliveto he took multiple trips to Italy. When Chef Tusk was ready to open his own restaurant, he knew precisely the type of cuisine he wanted to present. An intimate, 60 seat, Italian-inspired restaurant, Quince opened its doors in 2003. Word spread quickly of the fabulous, local ingredient-driven menus, and soulful, creative food.
In 2009, a new chapter in Quince’s history unfolded, as it moved from its San Francisco, Pacific Heights neighborhood, to Jackson Square. It now resides in a spacious, historical landmark building, built in 1907. Elegantly appointed, it emanates an upscale vibe without being ostentatious.
Michael, and his wife Lindsay, opened their second restaurant, Cotogna (“quince” in Italian), in the same building, to rave reviews from public and press. Cotogna is an homage to hearty Italian cuisine, and tempts guests with a diverse menu of roasted and grilled beef, poultry and fish, wood-oven pizzas and decadent, luxurious pastas.
Instant success is a myth. Ironically “Myth” is the name of the former restaurant space, which Cotogna now occupies. A medley of Tusk’s stellar work ethic, unrelenting pursuit of top notch ingredients, and profound dedication to perfecting his craft are the ingredients that created this “instant success.”
Michael’s tasting menu oozes sophistication, without an ounce of pretense. There is a progression to Tusk’s dishes, each guiding the palate into a new discovery of flavors and sensations. Each thoughtful course functions independently, yet is in concert with the preceding and the following ones. His tasting menu is a symphony of revelations.
After weeks of anticipation the ‘d-day’, or dining day, finally arrived and I found myself at Quince’s table, excitedly reviewing their impressive wine list. The evening started with a glass of Paillard Rose which paired marvelously with the “Stuzzichini De Benvenuto” – an array of playful amuse bouche bites. This was followed by Hawaiian Bonito floating on a cloud of cherry tomato, seaweed and lemon cucumber. Next came my favorite course of the night, white asparagus resting on morel mushrooms, spring garlic and vin jaune sauce. I knew that asparagus was one of Chef Tusk’s favorite ingredients, but I wasn’t prepared for the simple splendor of this epic dish. Spiny Lobster made an appearance in its complete form before being presented with avocado, padrones and haricot vert. Tagliolini e oro featured real gold leaf gracing its exquisite shape. This unusual cocoa clam, and melon combination was stunning. Suckling pig tortellini were impossibly delicious yet it was the Four Story Farm Poussin with sunchoke, pistachio and porcini that was a show stealer.
The dessert was beautifully executed by the Chef Carolyn Nugent, whose delicious creations I recently sampled at Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival. Carolyn’s superstar mentors were Ferran Adria and Joel Robuchon who own some of the most coveted restaurants worldwide, el Bulli and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon; and served as Executive Pastry Chef at Bottega Louie and Bouchon, Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. It consisted of yogurt, Mara de Bois (a hybrid of wild and garden strawberries) and Varhona Opalys. It was a testimony to Carolyn’s creativity, a study in contrasts and her ability to stimulate the palate down to the very last sweet, tangy and savory bite.
The wine program at Quince is a quick pathway to the heart of a card-carrying wine geek. Formidable, diverse and thoughtful, the wine list presents a large number of prominent, world-wide, producers. There is large number of international selections, yet it was the vast California section that won me over. The appearance of 1995 Bryant Family Cabernet on the list made my heart skip a beat.
I ordered Philippe Melka’s beautiful Sauvignon Blanc creation titled “Entre Nous.” Soft and silky, with hints of white flowers, nectarine and seductive tropical aromatics, it’s core firmly centers around brilliant, fresh minerality. Texturally superb, expansive and layered flavor profile pleased the palate and paired brilliantly with food. Other wine indulgences included Gary’s Franscioni Pinot Noir and some welcome surprises. At the end of the meal I was treated to not one, not two, but three different Amaros, a compelling companion and a powerful revelation in how much I want to learn about the fascinating world of aperitifs and digestifs.
For those who are on the adventurous cocktail path, there is a table-side cocktail spirits cart, where a server will create a cocktail right at your table.
A visit to Quince cellar just about sent me over the edge. Rows upon rows of treasured bottles, Marcassin, Krug, Lafon, Gaja, Araujo… it was breathtaking. I seriously considered applying for a temporary residence in the cool splendor of this corner of the wine world that speaks to every part of my being.
The service was superb, attentive, yet seamless and non-intrusive.
Perhaps it’s the Chef’s and my mutual disdain for truffle oil or the way the silky white asparagus caressed every square millimeter of my enthusiastic palate, but somewhere between Brokaw farm avocado and Marcassin resting gloriously in its wooden cradle I fell in lust. Michael’s food performed an expert seduction of my senses and thoroughly engaged my intellect. It was a complete fine dining experience. Complete with an impassioned desire to return… soon. I now know why Harvey Steinman was so fond of Quince. San Francisco formidable fine dining scene is very fortunate to have a powerful presence of what is now one of my favorite restaurants.