As CL reported last week, my favorite fine dining restaurant in the Bay area (SideBern’s) is undergoing the culinary equivalent of sex reassignment surgery. I’m supportive of trans-cuisine transitioning, but despite being on the record as a confirmed admirer of wine and charcuterie, I must admit I shed a tear knowing that small plates are on the rise and my degustation fetish is an unwelcome kink. Since there’s no culinary equivalent to Dan Savage, my only self-help option is to get back to basics — aged beef and big, chewy red vino.
As you cut through the CVS parking lot on Ulmerton Road and head toward Bascom’s Chop House, you can’t miss the huge banner that screams “famous martinis, fine wine, dock fresh seafood.” Oh, and steaks.
Bascom’s is old school, which is readily apparent in the decor. It’s a guy’s place, with the clubby feel of dark wood. Add crisp linens, crystal stemware, and servers in white shirts with black bow ties, and you can practically hear “Tradition, Tradition!” ringing in your ears.
Since Bascom’s is fine dining with old-fashioned appetizers (in addition to more modern offerings), we jump at the chance to have oysters Rockefeller and escargot en croûte. black-sesame tuna, which came into vogue (and stayed) since, completes the package.
Because we’re sharing, the kitchen plates all of our appetizers on one giant, beautiful platter. Five oysters are baked with creamy spinach and a hint of Pernod, and finished with hollandaise sauce. The center is a giant pastry shell floating on thick cream sauce topped with sautéed snails and mushrooms in garlic-herb butter. The unnamed ample sauce is a magical alchemy of cream and alcohol. Next, thin slices of the seared rare fish fan out beside wasabi, bright pickled ginger and an Asian dipping sauce of soy with sesame.
As you might expect in this traditional environment, our server brings a basket of warm rolls with some whipped butter. This proves to be fortuitous, as my table dips into the creamy escargot sauce like a pack of rabid dogs. The snails take a back seat here, as do the oysters, which are totally overwhelmed by the spinach and hollandaise. In both cases, less is more. You’d be hard pressed to even know there was an oyster in the shell. Like the escargot, it’s tasty but out of balance. Luckily, the tuna is handled with a light touch and the condiments are added to taste.
The wine list is dominated by a wide selection of New World reds, mostly from California. It covers all the bases from cult wines at expense-account prices to bottles with modest tabs; in other words, something for all budgets – plus a small but nice selection of half-bottles.
Our server tempts us with a delectable-looking platter of scrumptious beef. There’s high-end and highly marbled Waygu, plus a beautiful fat filet and New York strip. We test drive a 16-ounce, 28-day dry-aged Angus ribeye, which delivers all the flavor you’d expect from this cut.
On the chop front, we skip the pork and veal and settle on two grilled, double-cut Australian lamb rib chops. They’re luscious, but the demi-glacé with corn starch disappoints.
Fresh Gulf grouper is crusted in chopped pistachio nuts and served over white rice pilaf, with fat, bright green asparagus that’s perfectly cooked al dente (sides are à la carte with meat dishes), and a citrus cream sauce that doesn’t register. The fish is fine, but the dish has no personality. There’s so much that can be done to make rice pilaf interesting. My favorite recipe combines celery, carrots, mushrooms and toasted pecans with wild rice; it’s so delicious, it’s almost a meal in itself. Not so here. Boring!
Before our sever comes by to pimp the dessert platter, we joke that the sweets will be key lime pie, cream brûlée, flourless chocolate or lava cake, and our predictions turn out to be correct. These three are ubiquitous selections that are usually as disappointing as they are omnipresent. But I’m not a restaurateur; I certainly understand the impulse to give the people what they want.
My mantra, however, is if you only offer people from A to B, that’s all they’ll ever know. Clearly Bascom’s (and their ilk) have a following and they see no reason to argue with success.
We settle on the Key lime pie, which is appropriately creamy but lacks that real hit of sharp citrus that makes this desert sing. It improves immeasurably when I squeeze the fresh lime garnish on top. We turn away from the other ubiquitous selections, including cheesecake, and opt for Bascom’s version of bananas Foster. It seems the fire marshal and the low ceilings discourage the tableside flambé; the server brings an absolutely gargantuan martini glass filled with delicious vanilla ice cream and then dumps a boatload of sautéed bananas in rum-based brown sugar-butter sauce on top. While it tastes great, the texture is grainy. It needs more time to meld before the flambé; perfection can’t be rushed. Still, we manage to eat it all with smiles.
While I’ll still lament the loss of fine dining SideBern’s-style (tasting menus with wine pairings), the aged beef and big red crowd is still in good hands.