Absolutely Divine: Spruce by Chef Mark Sullivan

Spruce Martini

A sexy start to a meal with a slightly dirty martini.

Sexy, classy, vibrant and inviting, Spruce is a staple in San Francisco — and compared to other better-known establishments, it’s wholly underrated. Perhaps it’s because of the location in Laurel Heights, surrounded mainly by private boutiques and residences of young families with strollers? Or perhaps it’s because they are always busy despite not being mentioned enough in restaurant circles?

I have no idea but I’m not sure how anyone can discuss amazing San Francisco food and not mention Spruce in the same breath.

The ambiance here is second to none. Walking in through the double doors and being welcomed by well-dressed hosts, you have a sleek bar and lounge area to the right and an elegant dining room to the left. With leather booth seating around the perimeter of the room and spacious tables loosely spaced throughout the middle of the room, and a gorgeous wall of windows streaming in natural light, there’s no corner of this restaurant that has been neglected.

Despite the numerous business dinners obviously going on, the atmosphere made this the ultimate location for a date.

In fact, when it comes to ambiance — and admittedly, this is completely subjective — I can’t think of any high-end establishment in the city of San Francisco that compares to the design and decor offered at Spruce. Be it Gary Danko or Michael Mina, my own preference is for the simple and sleek feel of Spruce.

The service at Spruce was stellar with everyone from the host of the evening to the server, to the bussers all making sure that everything was placed and timed perfectly throughout the multi-course dinner. Every time a table got up to leave, soon thereafter, one of the bussers would go and lay a crisp white tablecloth on the table, and discreetly give it a quick iron; it was awesome to watch!

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Head Chef at Spruce – Chef Mark Sullivan (image from Village Pub)

Executive Chef Mark Sullivan heads up this icon of a restaurant alongside his new Chef de Cuisine, Walter Abrams from The French Laundry. The dishes that come out of this partnership in the kitchen are exemplary of what restaurant quality food should always be.

The tastes are intense but simple; execution is nothing short of perfect — but there is nothing easy about the preparation of food at Spruce. Great time and effort is given to gather the freshest of local ingredients, with the majority of ingredients provided by local farmers. These ingredients are then prepared in ways that require just as much care and in the end, all of it is brought together to create a masterpiece that sings in your mouth. You can recognize the notes, but can’t imagine what made the chef put these notes together to create this ensemble. But each composition somehow works — like magic.

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Cauliflower Soup

Take, for instance, this beautiful creation that I will most likely remember for the remainder of my life. It’s a “cauliflower soup”, which sounds about as appealing to me as eating four day old bagels with cream cheese. But whatever it is that Chef Sullivan does with his cauliflower, the rather bland and boring vegetable magically transforms into the foie gras of vegetables when he touches it. The soup on its own was as good as gold, but top it with some coriander seeds and a drizzle of orange confit, and you have an explosion of three surprisingly symbiotic flavors that continue to give long after the last spoonful of soup. I stared at the empty bowl, pondering whether my server would think of me as weird if I ordered just two more bowls of this before moving on with my meal.

(In fact, every soup that comes of Spruce’s kitchen is perfect — and I’m not using this word loosely. PERFECT — which is why I’m on cloud nine that Chef Sullivan’s recipe for his amazing Carrot Soup is included in my upcoming book!)

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Pork Jowl Presentation

When I say attention is given to every detail, it applies to the food, too. Each piece of pork jowl is beautifully marbled, but in this dish, even the asparagus is hand-picked by the chef, who uses a specific asparagus from a specific farmer who sells it at the Farmers Market. The meat is grilled then presented with fresh greens and asparagus, and topped with an olive oil based dressing with some creaminess from eggs and citrus notes from lemons; this dressing with the vegetables and fatty meat made each bite nothing short of heavenly. The sommelier paired this with a glass of Josef Bosch Riesling that completed this dish.
(Ignore the portions shown in my photos; I had mentioned that we’d be sharing each dish and the kitchen was kind enough to split it for us prior to serving.)

Beautiful solo ravioli

Beautiful solo ravioli

In freshly made pasta, a ravioli was filled with fava beans and ricotta cheese and slathered with Pecorino cheese. Fava beans being exactly the type of thing not to judge by the way it looks, there was a hint of nuttiness that was complemented by the buttery and creaminess of ricotta. Each bite yielded almost overly rich flavors and the pecorino offered some sharper tones that never overpowered but definitely got your attention.
I say almost too rich because it reached a whole new level when I took one sip of the pairing that our sommelier offered us — a glass of crisp white from Domaine Ostertag that I’m unable to recall the name of, but will undoubtedly wonder about for the rest of my life. This pairing was exactly what pairing wine with food was all about; it took very good to “holy amazing” level in one sip.

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Alaskan Halibut by Chef Abrams

Up to this point, I knew the cooking was that of Chef Sullivan — but then we were presented with this dish created by his Chef de Cuisine, Walter Abrams. Much like his own creations, this dish was beautiful and simple in appearance. The halibut rested peacefully on a bed of nicely poached greens which were sitting atop a calm pool of sauce. The moment my fork touched this fish, I knew it would be amazing as the meat gave just enough bend before giving way to my fork and breaking off from the rest of the fish. The halibut flavor shined through as not much else except seasoning had been given to this fish; combined with a biteful of the greens and a light dip into the olive oil sauce, and this was truly simplicity at its best. You take an incredibly fresh piece of fish and combine it with fresh greens – and really, what more do you need?

Well, perhaps a wonderful pairing — nothing more. This dish was served with a 2006 Pierre Morey Mersault “Les Terres Blanches” that was a rather big white and long on the finish–and made for a nicely contrasting partner to the clean and freshness of the fish and olive oil sauce.

Spruce San Francisco Burger

The mini Spruce burger

But some say you haven’t really lived until you’ve tried the Spruce Burger.

The meat being flavorful and juicy comes as no surprise, especially after this many courses of amazing food coming from the Spruce kitchen –but the delectable little muffins that are freshly made, crispy on the outside but soft and moist on the inside, and the foie gras sitting on top of my lovely little patty truly made me happy just to look at it, long before I had even one bite.

Took a bite out of that to show you the inside.

Took a bite out of that to show you the inside.

Whether you go for lunch or dinner at Spruce, this is a must-order item; request the fried egg on top, and definitely order the duck fat fries. (Yeah – I said it, the DUCK FAT FRIES!) While the burger is not officially on the dinner menu — if you order it, it will come. (Never let it be said I haven’t helped you.)

I have a little secret in that I really despise two things: ketchup and pickles.  I hate ketchup on anything — and pickles, I’ll eat as a snack on its own but with food? Keep that stuff away from me.

I never could understand why people paired these two things with a perfectly decent burger. Or with anything at all, for that matter. Thankfully, Spruce did not offer me any ketchup to disgrace my lovely burger, but they did bring out pickles with it.
But these aren’t your normal pickles; they were thin slices of cucumber, mildly pickled and offering only slight sourness while providing a nice crunch to go with the burger. So alright – I like THESE pickles, but no other pickles in the world!

Terrible shot but these were the ribs.

Terrible shot but these were the ribs.

With a mini-burger came a small tasting of the braised ribs. The meat itself was perhaps leaner than I prefer in braised meat but infinitely healthier — and cooked in a deep, dark and aromatic sauce that extended the flavor of each bite. The pairing with the complex and creamy farro, which might be my newest favorite ingredient, made into a risotto of sorts, was a fantastic meld of textures and flavors.

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Beignets - made in-house, of course.

Beignets – made in-house, of course.

We were stuffed to the gills but the wine kept on coming – and at the end, a beautiful glass of 2006 Domaine de Durban Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise was poured and I felt satiated. The sweetness and slight acidity was a refreshing ending to the meal but how do you come to a meal this good and not try the desserts?

When our server told us about freshly cooked beignets — they had us at “hello”. One being a lonely number, we asked for one more dessert that was recommended by the kitchen. Halfway into our wine, a bowl of piping hot beignets appeared with both a vanilla and chocolate dipping sauce, along with a “too beautiful to eat” strawberry tart with a serving of a strawberry and creme fraiche gelato. With just the right amount of sweetness and such fresh, sweet strawberries on top, this dish was spectacular; we literally took a bite of the beignets, then a bite of this tart — then another bite of beignets dipped into the vanilla sauce then another bite of the tart.

Spruce San Francisco

Attention to all the details

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that despite how full we were, we finished off both desserts and the wine — and an additional glass of Scotch. I would be extremely happy to just jump into that strawberry tart and live happily ever after — and this comes from a girl who usually doesn’t even like desserts.

All in all, the meal was a stellar one from beginning to end. The ambiance, the service and the food just go together perfectly with all three lacking nothing at all. With a Michelin star secured, and two chefs focused solely on creating superstars out of every ingredient they use, there really are not that many restaurants in San Francisco that offer dining experiences comparable to this one.

I have to mention that our sommelier, Haley Guild Moore, was everything that a person could hope for in a sommelier. There are only a few restaurants where I insist that people opt for the wine pairing, and Haley alone makes Spruce one of them. The others, like Acquerello and Saison, all get included solely because of the talent of the sommeliers they have on board. Every pairing we had on this evening was awe-inspiring; there were wines that were good that rose to fantastic when the food came out; and once or twice, the same was done for the food. It was a truly complementary partnership, and one you don’t skip out on when at Spruce.

Spruce is located at 3640 Sacramento Street, in the middle of beautiful Laurel Heights. Valet parking is offered in front, and I highly suggest you use it because parking in this mainly residential neighborhood, come dinnertime, can be frustrating. They are open Monday through Friday for lunch at 11:30 AM – 2:30 PM, and for dinner nightly from Monday to Saturdays from 5 pm to 10 pm on weekdays, and 11 pm on weekends. Closed on Sundays. You can make reservations on Opentable.

For more information about this fantastic restaurant, visit the website.

Service: 8.8/10
Ambiance: 9/10
Food: 9.1/10
Addictive Factor: 8.6/10

Overall Rating: 9/10

Grace Keh About Grace Keh
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.

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