Restaurant Reviews

The Teté Offensive

When Gary Danko's eponymous restaurant opened in San Francisco three years ago, it won the James Beard Foundation's "Best New Restaurant" award and received the first of three Five-Star ratings from Mobil. At the same time Chef Danko, previously selected as one of the ten best new chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine, was honored as Best California Chef by the Beard Foundation and Chef of the Year by San Francisco Magazine. The stunning restaurant features locally raised organic meats and produce, farmhouse and artisan cheeses including limited production "handmades," tea service with rare leaves brewed at precise temperatures and exact times, a 1300-bottle wine cellar overseen by noted sommelier Christie Dufault, and impeccably professional service. Dishes on the menu are not individually priced -- the diner selects any 3, 4, or 5 courses for the respective prices of $55, $64, or $74. For $55 you might choose a meal consisting of glazed oysters with leeks and Caspian Sea osetra caviar; roast Maine lobster with blood orange and basil; and Juniper spiced venison medallions with cranberry onion compote and homemade chestnut spaetzle.

This is what $52 will get you at Teté Restaurant, a nuevo-Cuban/fusion eatery that opened on Calle Ocho just under one year ago: grouper ceviche; pumpkin ravioli with choice of white or red sauce; "Oriental" sea bass with soy, ginger, and cilantro beurre blanc; and a side of spinach fettuccini in pink vodka sauce.

I could give other examples, but not too many -- Teté's menu is quite limited. There are just four appetizer options, the choices further narrowed if you avoid a martini glass filled with vinegary chunks of over-marinated grouper ceviche, which I advise you do. A crisply fried plantain chip rising from the glass was, I suppose, an attempt to make the dish look upscale. In an ideal world, plantain chips would rise only from bowls of plantain chips, and martini glasses would hold nothing but martinis. Preferably straight up with a twist.

I'd also skip the starter of overcooked bay scallops lined up atop roasted red and yellow pepper coulis. A few bundles of deliciously fresh potato gnocchi provided soft contrast to the rubbery bivalves, though I don't think that's the way this dish was supposed to work. The only appetizer that did work was a plate of two crab cakes pleasingly plumped with green plantains, flecked with minced peppers and onions, and accompanied by cilantro remoulade.

Another thing about Teté that unequivocally succeeds is the lovely 60-seat dining room, with crisply set tables, colorful contemporary light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, and attractive artwork displayed on pale yellow walls. The staff is friendly and service somewhat competent, though waiters need to familiarize themselves better with the menu; it also wouldn't hurt to figure out a system whereby those bringing food to the table have some inkling as to who gets what.

Seven entrées include one fish (sea bass), calamari stuffed with crab Louis over squid- ink linguine, steak with guava barbecue sauce, pork chop with mango-banana chutney, and chicken "carousel," so named because it's a special that rotates nightly. They were out of chicken when we dined, meaning if we weren't in the mood for seafood and didn't like our meats paired with fruity flavors, we'd have been limited to a choice of spinach-cheese or pumpkin ravioli (one other pasta dish is squid-ink linguine with scallops, mussels, calamari, and shrimp in pink rum sauce). Wasn't a problem for our group, but Teté would do well by injecting more diversity into its offerings.

Filet mignon was tender and properly cooked to a juicy medium-rare, the mild flavor of beef a bit overwhelmed by sweet-and-smoky guava barbecue sauce, melted streaks of blue cheese, and squirts of balsamic reduction. The meat came sided only by a scoop of tomato-based risotto that was overdone and barely Arborio in texture. As with most main courses here, the filet came with no vegetables -- at The Meadowood Restaurant in Napa Valley, the same $26 will bring to the table a plate of Idaho grass-fed prime filet mignon with wild mushroom sauce, spring onion and blue cheese tartlet, Yukon gold potatoes, and organic baby squash.

A thick pork chop was overcooked to the point of desiccation. Maybe the Cuban community prefers their meat well-done, but if Teté is going to be reaching out beyond Calle Ocho, they should learn to accommodate those who like a little pink in their pork. The chop was pooled with sweet fruit chutney and an accompanying sweet potato mash sugared up with a dense infusion of shredded coconut. Three fried yuca sticks were not sweetened, but the dish lacked contrast just the same.

The regular menu doesn't seem so limited when compared to the meager three-dessert selection, one of which is chocolate mousse, another chocolate mousse cake. We tried the latter, a slice from a log of yellow cake rolled around the mousse jellyroll-style. The cake tasted as if it had been sitting in the fridge for quite some time, though it was made from the sort of blasé ingredients that would have yielded unimpressive results even if fresh. The "boniatillo" was at least interesting, a very sweet sweet-potato, orange, and coconut concoction served in an orange shell. Thank goodness I wasn't stuck in the Martini House in Napa Valley, where I would have had to shell out an extra two dollars for a made-on-premise dessert of Meyer lemon torte with crème fraîche ice cream, lemon tuile, and fresh huckleberry compote.

Teté has won no awards. Chef Caprice Tassinari possesses culinary talent, but is not Danko-decorated. There is no sommelier, no pastry chef, no professionally trained wait staff, no specialized tea service, no cheese cart wheeled out to the dining room. Teté is clearly not in the same league as the other aforementioned West Coast eateries. So why is it fair to compare? Because Teté, like so many fledgling South Florida dining establishments, charges about the same amount of money as these and other seriously refined restaurants in American cities. This occurs in part because the food mafia in this town, meaning those who control the flow of food and restaurant information to the public via writing, mass media, and public relations, continue to hype culinarily clueless places as legitimate emporiums of fine dining.

Maybe Miami's food flaks ignore overpricing because they never have to pay for their meals. Perhaps they believe Miami will become a great food city if they simply chant the mantra of its greatness often enough. Whatever their reasons for electing to praise the emperor's new clothes, it serves as a disincentive for restaurants to improve or rein in prices and does a disservice to the handful of legitimately talented local chefs who end up having to share the spotlight with those less deserving. Luckily, I suspect there's a good number of knowledgeable diners who are able to see the naked truth. The truth about Teté is that if it were to make its food more consistent, and cut prices just about in half, it could qualify as a pleasant neighborhood restaurant.