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Sutro’s at the Cliff House

A View Towards a Better Meal

For years, the Cliff House was a place to take your out-of-town guests to marvel at the smashing ocean vistas over bland, overpriced crab cakes.

Fast forward to December 2008, when executive chef George Morrone made his surprising move to this century-old landmark, and now those crab cakes suddenly burst with flavor, and that’s just the beginning. These days, when the sun goes down, local diners have a variety of tasty reasons to venture to where land meets the sea, thanks to chef Morrone, whose street cred includes Aqua and the Fifth Floor.

Morrone’s menu straddles the Cliff House’s touristy past and its more ambitious future. Dishes like the filet ($34) in pinot noir sauce dressed with five peppercorns aren’t particularly risky or exotic, but they’re certainly not dull. The filet comes with seared foie gras and an herbed potato cake that tastes like an adult version of a giant tater tot. The roasted petrale sole ($29) was light and kicky with paprika and other Basque-influenced spices -- despite the difficulty in wrangling the fish from the bones in its giant serving bowl.

Appetizers include the aforementioned Dungeness crab cakes ($16), which are no longer bland thanks to a coating of panko breadcrumbs and a fiery tomato coulis. There is also a heaping portion of cured salmon ($14) presented in three interwoven strips and sprinkled with minute dices of apples and rye croutons. These small garnishes -- particularly the tart apples -- pack a surprising amount of flavor.

Service is knowledgeable, if a bit casual. Our server disappeared for long stretches tending to other tables, but when he did stop in he was engaging and knowledgeable about the menu, and would offer tidbits like Morrone’s pride in using butter sparingly.

For diners who want to experience the scenery without committing to a full dinner, the cocktail list at the dining room’s bar is a pleasant surprise. Drinks from the ever-changing menu cover the spectrum from the ginger lime Rickey and Ramos fizz to a berry Collins made with fresh juices, bitters, egg whites and other trappings of cocktail trendiness. A dining companion who tended bar for many years was impressed by our bartender’s technical skills as she speedily assembled complex cocktails and whipped out consistent pours of wine.

Also, the full menu is available at the bar, and the bartender knew just as much about the food menu as the servers on the dining room floor. She recommended the Dungeness crab bisque ($14), and could easily rattle off the ingredients, including red wine and onions when asked.

The bisque was rich and complex, poured over a small cake of risotto for added texture. Since my friend and I were sharing, the bartender offered to split the bowl, and brought us our own portions, each with a decadent, aioli-drizzled sourdough crostini. Sadly, she didn’t mention the $4 extra charge we found tacked on to the bill.

That little detail, and the still sky-high cost of lunch (midday entrees run $16 to $26) felt like a throwback to the tourist days, making us less anxious for a return visit.
Weekend visits revealed a dining room that remains lively, if not completely full, with a mixed crowd until well after dark -- especially during the peak sunset dinner hours. Older diners still abound, although Financial District and Marina diners seem to be making their way westward to try Morrone’s fare.

In its new incarnation, the Cliff House menu holds up as well-executed California cuisine that plays it safe without taking any chances. While it remains a stellar place to impress out-of-town visitors, Morrone’s arrival gives locals a chance to reclaim one of San Francisco’s storied landmarks.

California Cuisine
Reservations Essential? Yes