Every now and again, a restaurant opens in San Francisco that doesn’t just add texture to the city’s food landscape, it rises up from it like a culinary monument.
It’s a status Flour + Water realized almost immediately when it opened to a crowd four times what the dining room could hold in 2009. Even Michael Bauer, the former SF Chronicle food critic, recognized the restaurant’s potential. “By the end [of my meal],” he wrote 13 years ago, “I felt a tingle similar to when I first went to Delfina and A16. I couldn’t wait to return.”
Like many of us, over the last decade-plus, I’ve had a variety of encounters with Flour + Water. I’ve whispered over romantic dinners in its dining room and grubbed barside on wood-fired pizza and happy hour wine. But I’ve never had a meal like this.
The updated dining room at Flour + Water.(Krescent Carasso)
After four months of renovations, literally everything in the restaurant is new, says co-executive chef and founding partner Thomas McNaughton. With the expertise of SF-based Lundberg Design, Flour + Water has replaced the formerly on-trend reclaimed-wood-and-edison-bulb look with what McNaughton hopes is something more timeless: an interior with simple refined lines, an earthy palette, and an emphasis on artisan craft.
Pendant lanterns, rich walnut chairs and tables, and screens now accessorize the space, along with an Italian marble bar and hand-plastered American clay walls. The original mural on the restaurant’s back wall has been updated to fit the new aesthetic, and a sound baffling ceiling installed to keep the decibel of Flour + Water’s essential playlists from overwhelming the dining room. Even the floors have been completely ground down.
But McNaughton and co-executive chef Ryan Pollnow knew where to draw the line between new and old: at the food that helped define Flour + Water in the first place. While they’ve added more of a focus on antipasti (think veal carne cruda with Parmigiano Reggiano, chili aioli, nasturtium, and crispy potato; and grilled black cod with fennel, capers, and crab brodetto), handmade pasta from distinct regions throughout Italy remains the restaurant’s master work.
As a pescatarian, it’s not often I get to indulge in a tasting menu and feel like I really get the full expression of a chef’s abilities—though a sea change seems to be on its way and McNaughton and Pollnow are already ahead of the curve. They offer two versions of their pasta tasting menu, one with amberjack crudo and veal agnolotti verdi, and one that replaces those dishes with versions fit for the discerning non-meat eater. As always, the menus are braided with seasonal delights which currently include golden beets, rutabaga, nettles, celery root, and sea buckthorn.
Antipasti include (clockwise) mushroom arancini, winter pinzimonio, truffle sformato, amberjack crudo, and savory ricotta-filled cannoli.(Krescent Carasso)
To say everything was great is an understatement; if you’ve ever dined at Flour + Water, you don’t need me to tell you that. But…
…the truffle sformato, oh my god, the truffle sformato! With its potato-crumb-base and a varnish of a parm fonduta as light and airy as marshmallow fluff (and 100 times as good), it is almost like a savory bread pudding. The mushroom arancini, filled with smoked treccione and dolloped with green garlic aioli, is creamy and indulgent. The Taleggio scarpinocc, a standout wooden shoe–shaped pasta from Lombardy, draped in melted Parmigiano Reggiano and laced with 25-year-old aged balsamic, and the orecchiette, little pasta ears with maitake and trumpet mushrooms, nettles, and truffle pecorino, are both comforting and complex. For dessert is the only thing that’s been on the menu since opening day, a silky chocolate budino topped with espresso whipped cream and sprinkled with sea salt.
These dishes and others (do not overlook the Parmigiano Reggiano gelato) also appear on the a la carte menu. The staff, which is friendly and attentive and eager to answer questions without judgment, will help steer you in the right direction.
Even though the food is the star of the show, the wine list, which is primarily made up of artisan, small-batch Italian vintages that stretch from Piedmont to Puglia, is a worthy competitor. Pair wine with the tasting menu for $65.
So what if it will be another 27 years before Flour + Water can be officially identified as a legacy restaurant of essential intangible cultural significance to the city of San Francisco? It's already legendary.
// Flour + Water is open for dinner only (closed Tuesday and Wednesday); 2401 Harrison St (Mission-Potrero), flourandwater.com