I've followed with as much interest as anyone the drama and intrigue around the recent assignment of Michelin guide stars to Bay Area restaurants. I was unsurprised by many of them, but was pleased to see Range receive one star. Frankly, I didn't expect any Mission restaurants to receive that degree of attention.
We've eaten at Range a few times now. We really fell for it from the very first time we went, shortly after opening. Repeat revisits have reconfirmed my opinions: solidly good food and above-par service ... for a Mission restaurant. And that's an important modifier. I have long held that the Mission/Valencia Corridor restaurants are among the best in the city, but that is to say that they are the best in terms of diversity and quality -to-value ratio. They simply cannot be judged on the same terms as, say, Acquerello, much less French Laundry. So how can Acquerello and Range merit the same rating? How did other seeming worthies within the Mission, like Delfina and Limòn (to say nothing of more under-the-radar spots like Walzwerk) miss out?
We returned to Range last night; I was luckily able to nab a reservation for six of us, albeit at the blue-plate special hour of 5:30 pm. It had been a few months since our last visit, and I was eager to see whether the restaurant not only lived up to its newfound Michelin-star reputation, but simply whether it was as good as I had remembered it.
Our first courses were a mixed bag. My salad of French butter pears, celery root, feta and arugula was unremarkable, unattractively presented and, above all, skimpy. The pears and feta were out of balance, and the julienne of celery root lent little to the overall flavor profile of the dish. The arugula was pleasantly peppery, but there was so little of it, it barely made an impact. DPaul had a salad of hearts of romaine with figs, pecans and blue cheese dressing, which came exactly as advertised. It was good when you could grab all ingredients together and in balance, but it was otherwise uninspired. This is consistent with our past experiences -- the only dishes we haven't loved there in the past have been salads and appetizers. To be fair, others at the table had steamed mussels with sweet peppers that were excellent.
Entrees did not disappoint, though not without their own hiccups. Four of the six of us had the pork loin, advertised as slow-cooked, with butter beans, hen of the woods mushrooms and pork jus. It was delicious, but in full accuracy, it was roasted. Mind you, it was roasted to perfection, barely hinting of pink and wonderfully moist, but a very different creature indeed from a falling-apart hunk of meat you would expect from a slow cooking method. I enjoyed every bite, but was left mildly mystified by the change in method. Jim's roasted chicken was delicious, but the standout entree was Donna's fluke with beluga lentils, pancetta, broccoli di cicco and mustard tarragon sauce. The flesh of this fish was spectacular: firm, moist and infused with a delicious anise flavor from the tarragon. Again, this is consistent with past experiences. I have had fish on all previous visits, and have always found its preparation exquisite. Typically, they also have one fish dish that is served braised in a small Le Creuset crock, which recirculates the flavors of the braising liquid; I have enjoyed this preparation very much. My lesson is learned -- I will go out of my way for the fish next time around.
Come dessert, we ordered three to split for the table, and were surprised by a fourth from the kitchen. I am always a sucker for a good fruit crisp, and the pear and huckleberry crisp won my heart, most notably for an undefinable herbal-spice note that was hard to pin down. I thought it was bay leaf, but Jim swears he tasted five-spice. We ordered the peach leaf panna cotta out of curiosity; the roasted plums on top were succulent and delicious, and the panna cotta itself wonderfully soft and silky, but if the peach leaf imparted any flavor at all, it was lost on me. The chocolate souffle was a total crowd-pleaser, and I especially liked the cocoa nib creme anglaise, which gave a pleasing crunchy contrast in texture to the fluffy souffle.
The bonus dessert, though, confounded me: Buckwheat crepes with blackberries and praline ice cream. From my first read, I lost interest in it. Buckwheat crepes in dessert? Blackberries with praline ice cream? It wasn't working for me. I wish I could say I was surprised and blown away by the results, but the crepe was flabby, and the flavors of blackberry and praline were as mismatched as I had expected. Why would they throw this out unsolicited?
Still, overall the food was solidly good, and completely consistent with our past experiences and feelings about the restaurant, so we were willing to overlook the minor shortcomings. Clearly, the one thing that edges Range out above its competitors in the neighborhood is service. The front of house is run very well. Tables are seated promptly and efficiently. Glasses are filled and refilled without so much as the cock of an eyebrow. Servers are courteous, casual and competent. In a city where, in my opnion, service is a lost art, Range stands out as a happy exception.
But our personal feelings and willingness to ignore inadequacies aside, how did Michelin decide they were worthy of the star? Why does Acquerello, whose service and food is orb and scepter above Range's, not in turn merit two stars? What is the intangible quality that sets Range apart? I don't know, and I only fear that the star presents a potantially unwelcome and unachievable expectation on the part of the unsuspecting diner who chooses to eat there based solely on that recommendation. In a way, Delfina may have dodged a bullet by avoiding Michelin's mixed blessing.
842 Valencia St (btwn 19th/20th)