It’s elementary, my dear. Flour plus water makes pasta and pizza dough. But flour plus water in the hands of rising-star chef Thomas McNaughton makes art: stunning pasta packages in fanciful shapes – agnolotti, triangoli, caramelle, garganelli, bucatini, strozzapreti (which, by the way, means strangled priest) -- all teamed with imaginative, robustly flavored sauces.
The concept at Flour + Water, one of San Francisco’s most buzzworthy restaurants, is so simple. There are just four appetizers, four pizzas, seven pasta creations, and two “secondi” (main courses) on the little brown paper menus printed in old-fashioned typewriter font.
The place is simple, too. A long, narrow storefront on the corner of 20th and Harrison in a residential section of the Mission. No frills, but an attractive bar area, exposed beams, contemporary artwork, and a partially open kitchen that allows a peek at the wood-burning pizza oven which, I’m told, cooks a pizza in two minutes at something like 800 degrees.
But there is nothing at all simple about McNaughton’s talent, style or passion for tweaking great food traditions. (He was a finalist in the Rising Star category of the recent James Beard Awards .)
I was captivated from the very first bite of tuna conserva with artichokes and impossibly airy battered and fried cardoons. Crispy pork trotter with shaved asparagus, pine nuts and pickled green garlic was equally impressive.
But then came the tour de force, a parade of six pasta dishes that awed, fascinated, mesmerized, and dazzled. There was maltagliati with earthy porcini mushrooms, green garlic and nettles. Elegant little raviolini filled with braised lamb and strewn with wispy pea shoots and fresh mint. Fat, chewy bucatini with peas, tesa (a type of pancetta) and an egg. Twisty strozzapreti tinted green with spinach and tossed with whey-braised pork and ramps, the wild leeks that only hang around for a few weeks each spring. Precious caramelle filled with ricotta cheese and asparagus and bathed in brown butter and chile flakes. Each dish was my favorite…until the next amazing creation came. (Photo by Brian Smeets, from GrubStreet.com.)
But, clearly, we couldn’t call it quits until we had tried one of the handsome Neapolitan-style pizzas that went whizzing by us all night long. The pork sausage pie with tomato, capers, chile flakes and caciocavallo cheese was sensational – thin, light, airy, with a charred rim and crackly crust.
Just when I thought the meal couldn’t possibly be improved upon, along came the extraordinary chocolate budino – an Italian pudding with a shiny, ganache-like texture – that was topped with espresso caramel cream and a sprinkling of coarse salt. (Photo, below, from SingleGuyChef.com.)
Since we were clearly on a roll – some 12 different dishes and not a dud among them – we also ordered the intensely moist olive oil almond cake capped with lavender-scented zabaione and crushed brittle. Divine.
Judging from the din, Flour + Water was full of happy, enthusiastic fans the night I was there. Management takes reservations for only about half the tables, leaving the rest for walk-ins. There’s always a gaggle of folks in the bar waiting and sometimes a line out the door. No parties larger than six are accepted because there is simply no place to squeeze a bigger table.