If you've lived in the City in the last couple of years, you've probably heard that Flour + Water is kind of a big deal. With endless praise from local critics, a Beard nomination under its belt, and a young, good-looking executive chef (Thomas McNaughton, named one San Francisco's Rising Stars by Star Chefs), Flour + Water has clearly built quite the reputation. Plus, it has a cool name.
The problem is, because of its reputation, this small neighborhood restaurant has quickly become one of the most popular in the City. Nowadays it's nearly impossible to pop in for even a weekday dinner without having to wait 45-90 minutes for a table. Hell, even Steve Jobs was recently told he had to wait, or come back another time. Lacking a full bar and only offering eager diners an uncomfortable "waiting" area that holds roughly six people, waiting this long for a casual dinner frankly seems like a joke. So, no matter how good the food may be, it's going to be hard for any diner to overcome the expectations that come along with both the hype and the wait.
I admit, I was one of those diners. Having previously popped in for a quick appetizer/pasta and leaving with an average opinion of my dinner, I didn't see the need to brave the crowds and give the restaurant the second chance it deserved. It was actually a friend of mine who dragged me back, first for a quick drink/tour of the brand new prep kitchen, then for a legitimate late-night meal. After tasting about half of the menu, I came to the realization: the food at Flour + Water lives up to the hype.
First of all, each plate is beautifully presented; the attention placed on small details certainly goes beyond that of the usual, casual neighborhood Italian restaurant. Prosciutto-wrapped fig with mustard greens is a perfect example of a well-composed dish that, despite its simplicity, is exciting to the eyes.
More importantly, each dish, whether it be an appetizer, pizza, pasta, or entree, is thoughtful, well-balanced, and just down right delicious. While the food is Italian-inspired, seasonal ingredients are the real driving force behind daily-changing menu, and I have yet to come across a dish that's left me anything less than totally satisfied.
For appetizers, the Black Cod ($12) with young fennel, summer squash, eggplant puree, and pine nut raisin relish left me speechless. Generally not a big fan of eggplant or raisin, the ingredients screamed summer while achieving a perfect balance - a must-try if listed on that night's menu. For a lighter option, the Halibut Crudo ($11) with avocado, cucumbers, sea beans, purslane and mint was perfectly refreshing without being cliche; the use of sea beans and purslane made this particular composition stand out from the crudo crowd.
As for pizza, I’m convinced that anything you order will be amazing. Why? Because, bottom line, they know how to cook pizza dough. Chewy and puffed around the edge, but not soggy in the center - just the way I like it. While most (including myself) label this as Neapolitan pizza, I was recently informed that true Neapolitan pizzas actually aim to have wet centers, and are meant to be eaten with a fork and knife. So, to call this a true Neapolitan pizza wouldn't be accurate. However, since I've been adequately Americanized and prefer a crust that holds up in the center, Flour + Water nailed what I was looking for. And, with sauces that don’t overwhelm, and topping selections that clearly demonstrate restraint, every diner can find something that fits their concept of the ideal pizza.
Now for the true test of Italian food: the pasta. On each of my visits, I was lucky enough to try almost every pasta on the menu, and while some may speak more to my taste buds than others, everything has been impressive. Making use of a wide variety of cuts means that each pasta is unique; the cuts are carefully selected as being the best canvas to highlight the accompanying ingredients. Not to mention, every single one is cooked to a perfect 'al dente.' The stuffed pastas have proved to be my favorites, with recommendations including the Eggplant and Crescenza Mezzaluna ($16) with cherry tomatoes and fried basil, and the Veal Agnolotti in butter sauce with shaved Pecorino.
The desserts are equally impressive, with the warm Polenta Cake with summer corn ice cream (from Humphrey Slocombe) and elderberries being a highlight of the last meal. With a wonderful wine list, and attentive, friendly service, it seems like Flour + Water has all the necessary ingredients for being one of SF's best. So, after leaving with such a sterling impression, why not give it 5 stars? It comes down to one thing: the wow factor.
While it's been difficult to find fault in most of the dishes, there also hasn't been a dish that's made me stop, put down my fork, take a breath, and take it all in. Because I've had that moment at the only Italian restaurants that I've awarded 5 stars, Delfina and SPQR, I can't put Flour + Water in the same category just yet.
However, because the menu is constantly evolving, adapting to the season, and consistently executed to perfection, it seems like only a matter of time until the moon and stars align, and I discover an absolutely mind-blowing dish. I won't pop in at 7 p.m. and wait two hours for it, but I'll certainly take a little time out of my beauty sleep for a late-night visit.
Flour + Water
2401 Harrison Street
San Franisco, CA