Wild Mushroom Ragoût with Toasted Brioche and Goat Cheese; Avocado, Dungeness Crab and Bay Scallop Salad with a Citrus Fennel Vinaigrette; Filet Mignon with Potatoes au Gratin, String Beans, and a Truffled Bordelaise Demi-Glace
Occupation: Senior Software Engineer
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Forbes Island
Reviewed Forbes Island: Thursday, August 10, 2006
Who knew there was a 100-foot island off the coast of San Francisco with a dining room a la Captain Nemo and a 40-foot lighthouse? When in the company of Bay Area veterans, the conversion always turns to restaurants. Forbes Island is my “dark horse in the running” and, nine times out of ten, the person I’m talking to has not heard of it, and ninety-nine percent of all people don’t believe it even exists! You will get instant “street cred” when suggesting this pick.
Our trip began by finding a mysterious grey box, picking up the phone, and asking them to dispatch the tiki-boat to shuttle you to Forbes Island from Pier 39. The boat captain was Captain Forbes himself, an eccentric thespian who apparently loves word play and a good laugh. As we cruised to the island we saw and heard sea lions, which for visitors could be quite shocking and exciting. With the island in view, the first thing we noticed was the 40-foot lighthouse, then the palm trees, and finally when aboard, we realized you can actually take a spiral staircase into to the top of the lighthouse which is especially nice at sunset. It’s a very romantic spot and an extremely unique view, make sure it’s part of your experience; toasting the sunset with a glass of wine in hand.
Once we were ready to eat, we had a choice of sitting above deck in a “hut” with a gas fireplace, or below deck in a Captain Nemo-like decorated dining room that also included a round gas fireplace as well as a cozy bar and lighted portals. Occasionally we saw fish swim by during our meal. With the smell of the sea still in our heads, we started off with the Wild Mushroom Ragout that had a savory sauce we quickly mopped up with the supplied toast. My guest chose the gnocchi, which was served at the right temperature and seasoning and was quickly eaten as well. Each dish came out after about ten minutes. I ordered the amazingly thick Filet Mignon Served with Potatoes Au Gratin, Shitake Mushrooms, Broccoli and a Truffled Bordelaise Demi-Glace. At $36, the main course was not cheap, but the atmosphere and adventure was worth the pittance. Also tasty, my guest ordered the Crispy Seared Ahi Tuna Niçoise. Having been to the island a few times, this is my second favorite because of its savory and “fresh today” taste. They also have a medium-sized wine menu, which has several hard-to-find wines, affordable favorites, and a focus on French juice for those in the know. Pierre, the host, has assisted me on French wines before, but I occasionally bring a bottle on board and pay the corkage.
For dessert, consider the Valrhona Chocolate Mousse Cake Chantilly, my favorite when I visit. It’s silky smooth and melts in your mouth. After dinner you can mill around the deck and watch the views until you request a return.
Come for the experience and stay for the food. For those concerned with price, there is a special $37, prix fix, three-course menu on Wednesdays and Thursdays, or it’s a great place to go at sunset just for a drink! But consider splurging on this special occasion restaurant, which is a sure cure for the winter blues and a surprise city getaway for guests and unknowing locals — you’ll leave with a smile.
Occupation: High School Theater Teacher
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: South Park Café
Reviewed Forbes Island: Wednesday, August 16, 2006
If you get seasick easily, be sure to check the weather on the bay before heading out to dine at Forbes Island. We dined there on a very choppy night and as we enjoyed dinner in what looked like a captain’s quarters, we watched the chandelier swing violently back and forth…it felt like the liquid in our stomachs was doing the same thing! While the trip to Forbes Island is novel — the only way to reach this restaurant is by their water taxi — we did find it a little tacky that we were charged for this transportation. As we approached the island by boat, I only saw a palm tree and a lighthouse on Forbes Island and wondered, “Where is the restaurant? I hope I don’t have to eat outside tonight!” My fears were assuaged when the captain of our water taxi (who was also happened to be the bartender) told us to go down the stairs. The restaurant is actually underwater.
Besides the swaying, our dining experience was lovely and the atmosphere is very romantic. Dim lights and mirrors make the space a little Moulin Rouge; due to the mirrors I thought the restaurant was twice as big! Our service was well timed and thoughtful. They seated us at a quiet table for four even though we were only a party of two. And even though I’m usually a little embarrassed to ask for a doggie bag, our server was very polite and almost insisted that I take home my extra Tuna Niçoise as a “treat for my cat.”
The food ranged from average to magnificent. My Bay Scallops, Crab, and Avocado salad was particularly worthy; it had a tangy vinaigrette that complemented the seafood and was light enough to let all flavors harmonize. The presentation of the salad was also breathtaking; everything looked fresh and was arranged kind of like a blooming flower. My main dish, the Tuna Niçoise, was rather inventive and average at the same time. I loved how the chef deconstructed the usual salad Niçoise into a main dish by serving pastry wrapped tuna over green beans and rice with olives. Having said that, the dish was rather plain in flavor. Yet my dinner ended on a strong note with dessert. As I recall, there were only four desserts on the menu. Forbes Island seems to go for the classics such as chocolate mousse and crème brûlée. I chose the fresh berries and cream and they were fabulous. The cream was lightly sweetened and spiced and the berries had a “just-picked” taste. This dessert was served over a thin crisp cookie to add a bit of crunch and needed texture. I thought they prepared this dessert perfectly.
Unfortunately, the bill was not so perfect; we thought that for the price, there are better dinners to be had in San Francisco.
Occupation: Retired Legal Assistant
Favorite Restaurant: Shalizaar
Reviewed Forbes Island: Wednesday, August 9, 2006
(I have to qualify that I really dislike this place, nothing good to say about it, so please excuse my inadvertent nastiness)
Location: It’s in Fisherman’s Wharf, between Pier 39 and 41; if it’s not a tourist trap, I don’t know what is. This area is a madhouse eighteen hours a day, even with validated parking (only $8, which is a steal in this area), the garage is a zoo with the tourists walking all over the place. Then, we HAVE to take the little “ferry,” Okay, it’s a flatbed tugboat ($3 roundtrip), to get to the restaurant. The ferry runs every thirty minutes, so we had to wait around in the chilly wind (it’s the Bay, so of course it’s cold, even in August, even all bundled up). The other problem is, if you’re even slightly sensitive to motion, which I am when in small boats, don’t even get as far as the “ferry,” since this “shelter” shares space with the large Blue & Gold sightseeing boats, which create wakes, which makes waves frequently. By the time I got to the table, I was in bad shape. I was thisclose to calling your office to cancel my commitment! But I decided to be a good sport and stick it out, especially when I heard the soup was chicken and ginger (I’ll explain below).
Décor: Nautical kitsch. I realize that it’s a former houseboat, but the very dark interior and narrow space makes this not a good idea for anyone who’s claustrophobic. The mirrored walls in some areas still didn’t help. The portholes are actually non-operable (maybe because they’re below the waterline), so the air is very stale, which did not help the motion sickness!!! The dining area is “down below” with a small staircase/opening for fresh air, and I don’t know if the gas fireplace contributes to the stale air too. The whole place was too dimly lit, even with the cutesy lighthouse lamps AND oil lamps on the tables, we could hardly see the food, which was probably why they didn’t bother with the food presentation. There is a glass enclosed bar area on the deck, but the view is awful — the back side of Pier 39, the concrete breaker with the dredging crane, the Blue & Gold streaming by — unless you really want to watch the sea lions (in the dark) on the floats.
Noise Level: The place was mostly empty (Wednesday night, 7:30pm), so noise was not an issue. There was another party of four in the next table (we could reach over and touch their table) who was mildly complaining about the motion, but they were not noisy.
Prices: Expensive, not good value for what they offer.
Selections: Boring, uninspiring. Middle-of-the-road items to appeal to “everyone,” nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, two other couples (all foodies) chickened out after they saw the menu online.
Variety: Way too simple, and way too expensive for those average items. Just one steak, one roast chicken, one slow braised ribs, one fish, etc.; one of everything to be safe.
Quality: Bland, bland, bland. The only thing that had any flavor was the Parmesan cheese in the Caesar Salad. I ordered the soup du jour, chicken with ginger, because I thought the ginger would settle my stomach; it was horrible. There was only a hint of chicken flavor and the ginger was nowhere to be found, no salt, no other seasonings. The only thing that was “tasty” in that soup was the slice of fresh lime! My husband (he had no choice but to come along) ordered the “famous” Caesar Salad, which, except for the slivers of cheese, was bland, but with hints of anchovies — only the fishy part, not the tasty part.
For entrees, I ordered the filet mignon (rare) with potatoes au gratin and a shiitake broccoli puff, while my husband ordered the special, veal with mashed potato and something non-descript. Let me comment on the veal first. It was just OK, nothing special, and the side dishes were so-so, but we didn’t pay $32 for the side dishes alone! My steak came medium rare at best, some spots were rare, and some were medium. I didn’t eat the dish that night because I was too seasick by then, so I packed it to go. At $36, it’s the most expensive leftover I’ve ever had! The next day I had it for lunch. My observation: other than the overcooked steak, the glaze on it was ordinary with the peppercorns being the most tasty bits; the potato au gratin was bland, and the mushroom puff had no mushrooms in sight or taste, the broccoli overpowered everything. We didn’t even bother to look at the dessert menu.
Portion Size: who cares? A large or small plate of boring food is still boring.
Selections: Expensive and not very interesting. We ordered a half bottle of the Zinfandel which seemed the most interesting, but they were out, so my husband ordered a glass of the La Terre Cabernet Sauvignon. It was just OK, nothing special. Especially not at $9 a glass.
Parking: If you have time, you can drive around the area for free street parking, but there is validated parking in the garage across the street from Pier 39. However, watch out for wandering tourists in the lot. The ferry guy will give you a secondary ticket for the machine in the lot for the $8.
Service: Slow. We were like an after thought for the waitress, who didn’t even offer fresh ground pepper while the other tables (right next to us) got that from their waiter. We got more attention from the bus boy than the waitress.
Bang for buck: Small bang for large buck. If anyone wants to take out of town visitors to somewhere special, one would do better to take them to the other establishments in the Wharf, at least you’ll get a view, and the food may be better, and at least cheaper. If you want to pay this much for a meal, there are plenty of places in the Bay Area, and maybe the food tastes better.