After months of traveling and nose-to-the-grindstone work, I finally made it to Orson, only about six months after it opened. Considering that restaurant critics don't even give new joints the customary two-month lag before reviewing them anymore, my tardiness could be seen as more than genteel. Anyway, I wasn't going in to review it but to enjoy it. And, largely, that's what I did.
From my drinky perspective, any discussion of Orson has to begin with Jackie Patterson, its official "mixologist." I've known Jackie a few years now, as she first appeared on my radar when she came out of nowhere (in the bar world) to start winning cocktail competitions I was judging. I remember being a fan of her concoctions. While Jackie's use of ingredients was creative and even counterintuitive, she always seemed to pull it off, coming up with one cocktail after another that not only was delicious but also had a palpable, admirable sense of elegance and beauty.
Unsurprisingly, her cocktails at Orson have those very same qualities. I tried pretty much everything, but standouts included the daiquiri des herbes (pictured) and the catch 22. The former gracefully married sage, rhum agricole, honey and verbena liqueur into a drink that was half Caribbean and half south-of-France. The latter was a more daring acrobatic act, bending arak into a shape in which it could support Clement creole shrubb, Manzanilla sherry, and homemade "chocolate liquor." Amazingly, every ingredient could be tasted in the final assemblage, though they all managed to coexist in harmony.
Alas, I can't rave so positively about the wine list, about which I can't decide whether to be more perplexed or disappointed. First of all, the list is titled "from the tower," referring, I guess, to the two-story wine tower that rises from the restaurant’s north side. This tower, though, appears to be mostly empty, as is the wine list. That part is perplexing. What's disappointing is that the restaurant couldn't manage to do better with its unfortunately limited selection. For instance, of its 12 white selections, only three were under $50 (two at $45, one at $35). One of the selections was a Moscato d'Asti (usually reserved for dessert wine lists). Many of the other decisions were just weird--two Gavis (northern Italy), two from Radikon (a good wine but with highly limited mass appeal). I'm not looking for Napa Chardonnay or anything, but given the very reasonable prices on the food, where's the selection of white wine in the same arena?
Reds were little better. Here, only two out of 13 wines were under $50 (a $45 Sierra Foothills Syrah and $45 for a good wine, Montesecondo, from Tuscany). There were some nice finds, like two different 1999 Nebbiolos from Roagna ($110 for each), but again there was no balance across the price spectrum and not a lot of stylistic diversity either (e.g. five out of the 13 were Rhone varietial wines--no Pinot Noir, no Gamay).
I hate to be so critical, but the lack of reasonable choice in price and in substance did seriously detract from my experience. And it’s surprising for a high-profile restaurant in San Francisco. Everything else was very good, though, from the cocktails to the lengua croquette to the pizza crust to the refreshing strawberry/balsamic granite for dessert.