In an era when the naming of restaurants resembles the naming of Japanese cars the ideal being a single, elegant, mysterious word like "Incanto" or "Lexus" it seems rather daring to give a new place such a defiantly plain, yet weirdly complex, name as Flour + Water. One suspects that the idea is to suggest simplicity and forthrightness, but a certain austerity is also implied not to mention the ubiquitous ness of flour in this country. We eat way too much flour, too much of it white and refined. It silts up our insides. I do like the "+" for its distinctiveness.
As it happens, pizza crust consists largely of flour and water, and one of the bigger deals at Flour + Water (which opened by a pair of Davids, White and Steele, late in the spring on the ground floor of a big Victorian building in the innermost heart of the Mission District) is pizza. The pies are made in the Neapolitan style, which means a thin crust and a very hot oven. This style of pizza has become very, very popular in San Francisco in the past few years a winsome development for those of us who suffered through a long Dark Age of foam-rubber crusts. Are Flour + Water’s crusts up to the high standard set by Pizzeria Delfina, Gialina, Pizzetta 211, and Piccino? That, Horatio, is the question.
The duet of flour and water also figures in pasta, but the routine here can be more complex, since if you replace the water with egg, you end up with noodles. Flour + Water’s excellent pastas are hand-rolled, just from semolina flour (the slightly yellowish stuff produced from durum wheat) and water, I would guess. The name we give to this combination, macaroni, faintly suggests that it came from a box on a supermarket shelf, but in fact Flour + Water’s pastas are not only brilliantly sauced but produced in unusual shapes with evocative names "maltagliati," for instance, or "rags," a type of pasta made from leftover scraps. One evening I saw a plate of this arriving at the festive table next to ours, and it did look like a tiny pile of old clothes waiting to be stuffed into a Goodwill bag.
My own plate of pasta, already dispatched, had consisted of agnolotti ($16), a swarm of little ravioli-like pockets filled with seasoned minced pork and bathed in a sauce of butter, Parmesan cheese, and parsley. (Our well-schooled server said that the name meant "clouds," but I might have misunderstood her; "agnolotti" is also said to refer to the shape of priests’ hats.) The pasta itself had the slight, not-unpleasant toughness I associate with fresh macaroni; fresh noodle pasta is a bit more pliant and luxurious. It’s like the difference between wool and cashmere.
Given the apparent pedigree of the pizza operation (chef Thomas McNaughton’s kitchen has its own pizzaiolo, Jon Darsky), I was struck by the condition of the crust under a margherita pie ($12 for a decent-sized one). I am all for blistering, and the restaurant’s Web site boasts of an ultra-hot oven, but there is a difference between blistering and charring. Blistering good, charring bad. Charring makes an un-pretty spectacle and leaves an off taste we are talking about burnt flour, after all while research suggests that it’s bad for you. By the time we were done with the pie, the serving tray was littered with twisted little lumps of charcoal, like burned-out tanks on a miniature battlefield. The toppings were fine and included fior di latte (a mozzarella cheese made from cow’s rather than water-buffalo milk). The half-wilted basil leaves clearly had spent some time in the oven.
In a small irony, some of the restaurant’s best dishes have nothing to do with pizza, pasta, or flour. A trio of plump marinated sardines ($9) wore bikinis of roasted-pepper slivers they looked like a chorus line in some musical about a beach while a simple side dish of chickpeas ($5) turned out to feature fresh chickpeas. These have a wonderful spring-green color and a bit more juiciness than the reconstituted, beige kind. F+W’s lot was also enlivened by a fine dice of pancetta, carrot, and onion (a meaty twist on mirepoix) and broth, which we daintily sipped after the chickpeas were gone.
Best of all, Flour + Water’s brief dessert list includes an authentic star: a block of olive-oil-scented cornmeal cake ($8) topped with a globe of olive-oil ice cream a dense, smooth reminder that olives are fruit and flanked by split strawberries tossed with shreds of candied fennel. Fennel is a root, not a fruit, and candied or not, its looks are unprepossessing (like a frosted-glass lightbulb that’s shattered), but its licorice flavor takes well to sweetening and to a union with sweet-tart, ripe strawberries. Enchanting!
FLOUR + WATER
Dinner: 5:30 p.m.midnight
2401 Harrison, SF
Beer and wine