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EPIC Roasthouse and Waterbar

Decadence in Waterfront Dining

Surf and turf has crested new (some would say ostentatious) heights thanks to Pat Kuleto, whose EPIC Roasthouse and Waterbar restaurants opened in Spring 2008 with a whiz-bang, see-and-be-seen party complete with a spendy fireworks show, cases of Champagne, a neverending oyster bar, and live sets by the Glide Memorial singers and Joey Altman's all-chef Back Burner Blues Band. But Kuleto's never been one for the understated.

The sister restaurants are planted on the Embarcadero in Rincon Park (the toniest of locations), where Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's 2002 arrow sculpture Cupid’s Span marks the spot. The prime waterfront setting for this $20 million dollar venture -- requiring over seven years to realize -- boasts a sweeping bay view and a shared 5,600 square-foot piazza dedicated to outdoor dining and cocktailing.

Kuleto is ambition incarnate; in his 30 years as a restaurateur and design consultant, he's produced fine dining standard bearers like Farallon, Boulevard, and Jardiniere, with no end in sight. While EPIC and Waterbar were in the concept stage, he opened Nick’s Cove and Cottages, the spatial antithesis of EPIC and Waterbar with its intimate setting along quiet Tomales Bay up north.

As a practice, the wildly popular Kuleto restaurant empire provides diners with an immersion/fantasy experience -- if they're willing to go along for the ride.

EPIC Roasthouse
With so many dining options in San Francisco, classic American steakhouses seem to fall by the wayside. Sure, there are places like Morton's, Ruth's Chris and House of Prime Rib, but these chain establishments have gotten rusty, with their stuffy, stuck-in-the-80s versions of “fine dining.”

There have been newer, updated steakhouses like Acme Chophouse and Izzy’s Steaks & Chops, but EPIC ramps up the cosmopolitan feel with a very "now" approach. Though contrived, you have to admit that the accents are spectacular: luxurious leather chairs and banquettes; rich mahogany tables; the indoor/outdoor fireplace; and the dining room focal point, a gargantuan industrial flywheel. There is an additional private dining room upstairs that seats up to 60.

We started a recent meal with a quick, retro Aviation ($10) cocktail at the masculine upstairs bar, Quiver -- a solid option for bar dining on the now-infamous $25 burger. On our mid-week visit, the dining room and bar were hopping with tourists, couples, and expense account types vying for the few lounge tables in the corner, which provide one of the best unhindered views of the bay.

After our drinks, we moved to a very roomy, comfortable leather booth in the dining room with a surround view of the 120-seat dining room and open kitchen, which houses a custom wood-fired grill and wood-burning oven. EPIC’s kitchen is in the able hands of chef and co-owner Jan Birnbaum, onetime executive chef of Campton Place and more recently, owner of the successful Catahoula Restaurant & Saloon in Calistoga. Birnbaum creates a seasonal and farm-to-table menu -- a fresh approach to customary steakhouse fare.

Since the emphasis here is on meat, we thought it appropriate to begin with the charcuterie platter (small $25, large $40). A beautiful array of cured meats, including the delightful signature EPIC Salami, as well as duck and lamb proscuitto, come accompanied by housemade whole grain mustard and pickles.

If roasted bone marrow is on any menu, it is guaranteed that I will order it. Unfortunately, EPIC’s version ($14) was very disappointing. While those who like the work done for them may appreciate the sliced-open bone, I prefer to spoon out the flavorful marrow myself — this also helps keep it tender and moist during cooking. The tomato jam pairing was extremely pungent, overwhelming the delicate flavor and texture of the marrow.

We also sampled the warm spinach salad ($13) tossed with house-cured, smoked bacon and topped with a poached duck egg, cooked expertly; the yolk oozed just like it should.

Fresh seafood, poultry and game meats are offered, but beef is the reason to go to EPIC. We opted for the dry-aged 26 oz. porterhouse ($54), cooked to a perfect medium-rare. As if half a C-note isn't enough for a steak, the big-ticket item is the 32 oz. wood oven-roasted rib eye for two -- $84 -- served with horseradish and black pepper crème fraîche. The 20 oz. New York strip runs for $46, and prime rib priced at $33 (10 oz.) and $42 (14 oz.) is offered nightly until 8 pm.

For good measure, we tried the lamb, prune and Armagnac sausage ($21). The sausage was stellar in flavor, while the raclette cheese was an oddity, a small clump perhaps meant to be melted over the sausage.

A wide selection of side dishes are available to accompany all that meat, including a section dedicated to potatoes alone — my weakness. The steak fries ($10) were perfectly seasoned and tossed with aromatic fried herbs, while the sautéed spinach with garlic confit ($9) was somewhat forgettable. I would’ve been more excited by creamed spinach.

On our visit, service was impeccable. However, friends and other reviewers have commented that the staff can be forgetful. Several didn’t get the chance to taste the decent chocolate soufflé ($10) because they were not warned earlier on in the meal that it requires about twenty minutes. We were lucky enough that our server did remember, to which we obliged, although the dish is not as delicate as I’ve had elsewhere.

What I did fall for: the beignets, little mounds of fried goodness presented in a brown paper bag and accompanied by a glass of bicerin café au lait (espresso, milk and drinking chocolate), a subtle shout-out to chef Birnbaum’s New Orleans.

Wines by the glass are fairly priced. By the bottle, the selection is broad but pricey if you’re looking for something interesting beyond California.

While the menu is solid for the most part and proportions are indeed epic, so are the prices. When you get your eye-popping bill (which includes a 4% service charge) just remember that killer bay view you’re getting along with it.

The meat focus at EPIC is balanced by Waterbar’s emphasis on seafood, with the same commitment toward local and sustainable purveyors. Mark Franz takes the helm in the kitchen here along with Park Ulrich, his executive chef and former mate in the Farallon kitchen for over ten years.

Waterbar’s setting is just as decadent as its neighboring restaurant, with wall-to-wall windows showcasing the bay. A raw bar stocked with glistening shellfish is situated up front, decorated with a caviar-like, hand-blown chandelier. The floor-to-ceiling centerpiece of the dining room is a pair of massive, cylindrical aquarium columns, filled with colorful, finned creatures. We were seated right next to one, mesmerized — and a bit daunted — sensing that the formidable eel with gaping jaws was eyeing us as we noshed on its cousins. We switched seats at one point to get a better view of the bay and dining room; indeed, there are definitely "better" tables here.

During dinner we watched as a nearby server skillfully debone fish, while wine director Steven Izzo assisted guests with pairings. My companion ordered a bottle of Domaine Landron Muscadet ($30) from the Loire Valley. The bottle was very cold, so it wasn’t until after a few sips that we noticed some cork on the wine. We kindly asked Izzo for his opinion, he obliged immediately and replaced our bottle, even though we had already tasted it.

We paired our wine (sans cork) with the sea bass and sea urchin ceviche ($14), a delicious mix of nicely seasoned fish with a citrusy tang and a little heat from some pickled jalapeno. We were not as happy with the grilled whole sardines ($11) on a bed of lemon bagna cauda sprinkled with fried ceci beans. A bigger spike of lemon would’ve brought out more flavor in the dish.

Many of Waterbar’s plates cater to larger groups, such as the shellfish platter or whole fish, but there are options for smaller parties and couples. We ordered the wood oven-roasted striped bass ($31), which had good flavor, but the baby artichokes and black trumpet mushrooms did not have much seasoning, leaving the dish bland. The seared petrale sole ($28), on the other hand was overly salted.

Emily Luchetti, who oversees the Farallon dessert menu, creates the sweet endings at Waterbar. Perhaps she was not in the night we visited, because our pineapple tart ($10) was quite dry.

While execution of the menu at Waterbar was a bit clunky, service was quite good. Our server paced out our dishes well, and continuously checked in with us without being overbearing.

Waterbar may still need to find its bearings, but in the meantime, drinks and the view might have to do.

EPIC Roasthouse
The Embarcadero
Reservations Essential? Yes.

The Embarcadero
Reservations Essential? Yes