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Winterland - CLOSED

Legendary Former Venue Turns Out Equally Legendary Cuisine

Winterland, situated on a nondescript block in the quiet residential zone between Japantown and the Mount Zion medical complex, is an oasis of sorts. It's hard to believe that a restaurant of this quality even exists in an area that easily could be considered the culinary middle of nowhere.

Music fans remember Winterland as the concert hall made famous by Bill Graham, who booked such notable events as The Band's epic Last Waltz, plenty of Grateful Dead shows and even, years later, the final appearance of the Sex Pistols. Originally built as an ice-skating rink, Winterland could hold over 5000 guests; its location was just a short stroll from the original Fillmore Theater. In 1978, the venue closed and soon after was demolished. Residences sprang up on the bloc, and a commercial space nestled therein has housed a number of somewhat ill fated restaurants, most recently Julia. Current owner Georges Yazbek and chef Vernon Morales opened Winterland in early 2005.

Upon entering, you are immediately welcomed by a sleek and well-appointed bar, perfect for drinks before or after dinner, or even as a quiet evening destination in and of itself. The space has a subdued feeling to it, the gray and red color scheme creating a warm atmosphere. The adjoining dining area has about 15 tables, and all offer an intimate experience. Eating at Winterland is best enjoyed in parties of 2-4, but a slightly larger party would certainly have a nice evening as well. Service is gracious; the servers are friendly, knowledgeable and, most importantly, genuinely enthusiastic about Chef Morales' cooking.

Morales' impressive work history shows throughout his cuisine. He cooked at New York City's acclaimed Restaurant Daniel, where even the slightest misstep in Daniel Boulud's pristine kitchen has been known to result in quite the dressing-down. Morales also apprenticed at the legendary El Bulli in Spain, where the experimental is taken to the extreme, with the most notoriously creative results in the industry. Morales' preparations almost border on "trying too hard" by San Francisco standards, but his menu is redeemed by mouth-watering flavors and compelling, unique combinations.

For example, the bay scallop & crispy duck tongue starter ($15), served over a sea urchin emulsion, is fantastic. Emulsions make a showing in many of Winterland's dishes, and they demonstrate Morales' faith in the complexities and technology made famous at El Bulli. Another nice option is the delicate fluke sashimi ($11). If you had to go with only one starter, however, the oxtail ravioli (with a horseradish emulsion!) is the way to go ($14).

Being a neighborhood restaurant, Winterland's menu changes almost daily. Sometimes a popular appetizer will emerge as more rounded entrée, and the opportunity is not lost to showcase seasonal ingredients. That said, fans of the restaurant return again and again for the excellent Berkshire pork duo ($24), served with a quince puree, and the delicious venison loin with chestnut crust ($32). Some diners claim that the braised short ribs ($29) are worth the visit alone.

The wine list is extensive enough to allow for some impressive pairings, with some great wine-by-the-glass options like a 2002 M. Chapoutier Cotes-du-Rhone ($8), and a 2003 Montresor Valpolicella Classico ($8). Try one their innovative cocktails, like the Beso Amargo ($9), or the Free Man in Paris ($9).

While Winterland might seem expensive as a neighborhood restaurant, it appears that the regulars who make up the clientele are foodies who enjoy a culinary adventure -- who want not only just to eat but also to truly dine out.

In that light, Winterland is best considered as that above-mentioned oasis, and accordingly as a destination for those who are searching for a unique and memorable experience. There are most definitely harmonies at work at Winterland -- this time around, they're of the gastronomical variety.

Californian Cuisine
Lower Pacific Heights