Fish might not need bicycles, but does a restaurant with an Italian name need pasta? Terzo does offer fish on its menu and pasta too, though rather glancingly, considering that many of us would put pasta right at the center of Italian cuisine. But despite the name "terzo" means "third" in Italian and is meant to suggest the public spaces where people gather when they’re not at home or work Terzo isn’t quite an Italian restaurant. It’s both less (a minimum of pasta and pizza-like items) and more, in its use of flavors and influences from around the Mediterranean. A friend found that the restaurant, with its emphasis on small, shareable dishes, reminded him of SPQR, the Roman-style small-plates spot on Fillmore, but for me the deeper resonance was with SPQR’s predecessor, Chez Nous, whose tapas-style cooking drew on all sorts of Mediterranean roots.
It must be said that, similarities in food notwithstanding, Terzo doesn’t remotely look like either of those places. Behind a demure street face, the surprisingly spacious interior is a kind of warm metropolitan glam: caramel-colored wood, flickering candles, mirrors, and touches of glass; the look is like that of a monastery designed by Mies van der Rohe. The patrons, while casually dressed, have an air of importance about them but then, we are in Cow Hollow, an enchanted land of importance. Sort of our Green Zone.
That Middle Eastern staple hummus ($8), then, to set the mood. Our server told us that chef Mark Gordon’s kitchen is particularly proud of its version, and so it should be. The chickpea puree was rich and smooth, with no hint of tahini bitterness, but it was the house-made pita triangles, warm and swabbed with olive oil and za’atar, that provided the burst of extraordinariness. Pita bread like this tells you that you’ve probably never had fresh pita bread before.
Subtle touches similarly raise many of the other small dishes to the heights. A marriage of crispy polenta and morel mushrooms ($14) was discreetly though powerfully enhanced by a splash of crème fraïche scented with thyme and braised green garlic. Baby artichokes ($9), halved and achingly tender, had been braised evidently in or with lemon juice before being heaped atop piquillo peppers, then covered with tumbled sheets of prosciutto. A panzarotto ($9), a kind of calzone, was filled with mozzarella, chard, and chili (whose bite was palpable), then napped with a radiant marinara sauce, but it was the bread pouch that caught my attention, with its serrated lips and faintly shiny crispness, like that of pastry. And a salad of shredded fennel and porcini ($12), although laid flat on the plate like a kind of unsettled carpaccio, jumped up impressively under the coaxing of lemon, olive oil, and truffle pecorino.
Spiedini ($12.50) were simple skewers of free-range chicken chunks, bread, and onion, brushed with a cilantro-chili marinade and then grilled until everything was soft and lightly caramelized. Campfire food, for rather boutique-y campers. The only small plate that didn’t quite come off for me was roasted asparagus ($9). The spears seemed very much al dente (how much roasting did they get?) and were scattered with toasted hazelnuts a clever idea that did not work, since these hard hemispherical pellets made an already difficult-to-eat dish that much harder to eat: knife and fork for the asparagus, plus a spoon to scoop up the nuts. At some early point, we dropped the pretense and used our fingers.
We also used our fingers, greedily, on a huge bowl of fried-onion rings ($6). No ballpark I’ve ever been to offers anything better. The red-onion rings were dunked in buttermilk batter, then fried to a delicate, crisp gold; the shreds seemed almost to want to float.
"Don’t let me eat any more, I’m going to be sick," moaned an addicted party from across the table, who nonetheless kept right on eating.
As is so often the case at small plate-ish restaurants that also offer some big plates, the latter at Terzo do not shine quite as brightly. I wonder if this doesn’t have something to do with plentitude delight diluted by too many bites. I did like the roasted halibut ($27), topped with a surprisingly gentle radish-lemon salsa verde and presented in a shallow bowl on a rubbly bed of chickpeas. The fish had the sublime moistness I associate with poaching, while the chickpeas were plump and perfectly cooked. I liked this dish fine, but I suspect I would have thought it was a knockout if it had been half the size.
The flourless chocolate cake ($8), with fleur de sel and whipped cream, would have been a knock-out at twice the size. It had the primal intensity of some ingredient lifted from a pastry chef’s secret cache. Entre nous: amazing.
Dinner: Sun.-Thurs., 5:3010 p.m.;
Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m.
3011 Steiner, SF