Like their signature filet mignon capped with creamy morels & truffle butter, the sautéed veal sweetbreads at Chez Spencer are simply over the top. This pheromone-jolting little plate is rich, rich, rich. Not bourgeois rich, not nouveau-riche, but dirty-old-money, we-don’t-look-at-prices rich.
Chez Spencer’s sweetbreads draw that perfect balance of slightly crisp outside and wonderfully chewy within, with sienna brown gravy (sherry wine vinegar and truffle vinaigrette) that’s waiting for a pirouette of torn bread to dance across its muddled floor. The little glands have a fallen ceiling of crisp baby spinach and a big, flat roof of a Parmesan crisp to add a tiny cheese-tang to the mild tang of the sherry wine vinegar. Some of the best sweetbreads in San Francisco, to be sure, and thankfully, they’re a staple on the menu of this little French hideaway where the Mission District meets the even more grungy South Van Ness and 14th Streets.
The Grade: Exceptional (5 out of 5). This is a large appetizer that should be shared, preferably by 3 people. The Damage: $17 The Skinny: Chez Spencer 82 14th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103
Phone: (415) 864-2191
I’m the kind of guy who automatically orders certain things when they’re on the menu, no matter the restaurant, time of day, season of year, or price of the certain thing in question. One of those things is sweetbreads.
Sweetbreads are definitely not everyone’s idea of food. And contrary to popular rumor, they aren’t pan-fried bull testicles. But if you get caught up in the concept of them (or definition of them, actually) as animals’ endocrine glands, without the experience of them (tasting what a great chef can transform them into), you’re missing out on a potentially sublime food.
When done properly, sweetbreads are among my Pantheon of great things to eat. But when done poorly, sweetbreads can be gooey and gross. People’s revulsion to foods, curiously, are usually aligned more with unsatisfactory texture than taste. So, needless to say, there’s a wider opportunity for error with sweetbreads than the clear, thin line to sweetbreads glory. This is a round-up review of three San Francisco restaurants that serve sweetbreads on a fairly regular basis. I left prices off, as they will likely change more over time than regular menu items.
The Spot #1: Canteen, Sweetbreads
The Grade: Awesome (5 out of 5)
I don’t know if the grade is high enough, because Canteen’s sweetbreads are likely the best I’ve ever eaten in my life. Like most dishes that Canteen owner/chef Dennis Leary puts out on the bright green countertop, his sweetbreads are just phenomenal. I wish they were on the menu more often, frankly. They are simply prepared and plated, and have the perfect sweetbreads texture: slightly crisp on the outside and tender inside. The appetizer is large enough to share (as most sweetbreads are), but I didn’t share mine. (I’m not cruel; I was just dining alone.) A little blanched spinach and jus with the sweetbreads, and that’s it. That’s all you need. It was simple and it was incredible. Kudos to Dennis Leary.
The Spot #2: Fringale, Sweetbreads
The Grade: Great (3 out of 5)
Fringale is an under-recognized French restaurant, perhaps because it’s neither new nor trendy after over a dozen years in its quaint SOMA location on 4th Street between Bryant and Brannan. Fringale consistently serves up classic French cuisine at pretty reasonable prices, so it should probably be back on people’s radars, if it fell off or if they’ve not dined there yet. Fringale’s sweetbreads are a bit larger in size, doused with a darker, richer gravy, and laid atop fresh asparagus spears. The sweetbreads are nicely prepared, and the pairing of the asparagus offers a nice counterbalance to the richness of the sweetbreads in gravy. This is definitely one you should share.
The Spot #3: Piperade, Sweetbreads
The Grade: Very Good (2 out of 5)
Piperade is a restaurant sporting high cool factor, due to its proximity to the many ad agencies in the neighborhood, and the cool agency folk who frequent it. Unable to say no to sweetbreads, I tried them at Piperade and, while I enjoyed them, they do have a few shortcomings. For my palate, the sweetbreads were a bit too soft all the way around. A bit crisper exterior would have been a major improvement. And, while I don’t mind sweetbreads being sloppily plated, I think the swamp of gravy didn’t elevate the taste or presentation. It had a good taste, but fell short of the gravies from Fringale and Canteen, and the amount of sauce here may have also contributed to keeping the sweetbreads too soft. So Piperade gets a ‘very good’ grade, along with my hearty encouragement to improve the dish.
THE SKINNY FOR SWEETBREADS IN SF, VOLUME 1:
1.Canteen 817 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 Phone: (415) 928-8870 Web:www.sfcanteen.com
2.Fringale 570 Fourth Street, San Francisco, CA 94107 Phone: (415) 543-0573 Web: www.fringalesf.com
3.Piperade 1015 Battery Street, San Francisco, CA 94111 Phone: (415) 391-2555 Web: www.piperade.com
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