By Karen Solomon
When visiting my mother in Fort Lauderdale while in college, my boyfriend and I bought ourselves one of the most expensive meals we had ever paid for. We ventured to the Mai Tai and what turned out to be a thatched-roof tourist trap with hula dancers and flame eaters, potent Scorpions made with bottom shelf liquor, and Hawaiian food so unappealing that we longed for something that would have been as good as Chun King from a can. Eighty dollars later, and one meal wiser, we swore to never dine at another island-inspired tourist spot.
On my visit to Forbes Island, I packed a Cliff bar in my purse just in case I found myself stranded on the “island” (in truth, an enormous converted free-floating ferro-cemented barge) and forced to sustain myself on what was for me a bad memory of tourist-quality food. The former fantasy land home of self-made man Forbes Thor Kiddoo is now 500-square feet of manmade sandy beach, bamboo huts, and a 40-foot lighthouse on a one-of-a-kind mammoth houseboat – just a hula shake away from the Mai Tai in my mind.
I didn’t know what to expect when I boarded the boat that takes visitors to the restaurant – the dining experience on Forbes Island begins not in the dining room, but on the pontoon boat from Gate H at Pier 39. Three-and-a-half minutes or so after boarding, I arrived. I prayed that I wouldn’t be greeted with an “Aloha” (I wasn’t). It’s the same sea lions, Coit Tower, Wharf view, and tourist attractions that, as a local, I wouldn’t normally seek out during the summer months. And yet in spite of myself and my internal cynicism, I found that I was having a good time.
This feeling of cheerfulness wouldn’t go away as we debarked. A quick tour of the island’s tiki bar, dolphin stained glass accents, thick palm grove and garden, and impressive waterside view succeed in creating a tropical vacation feel.
We descended into the dining room – a classic, nautical galley that is dark and intimate with heavy wooden beams and pillars, white Grecian sculptures, sea shanty-inspiring oil paintings, and chandeliers reminiscent of Disney’s Haunted Mansion. Dominating the submarine room is a mammoth gas fireplace center-stage to warm visitors ill-dressed to deal with a San Francisco summer.
Just as the experience of the island surprised me with its beauty, its bounty, and its pleasure, so, too, did the fruits of the Forbes kitchen. The Caesar salad ($10) is a dense stack of Romaine, shingles of Reggiano Parmesan, and a handful of croutons tossed with real anchovy, a whisp of potent garlic, and a thick dollop of coddled egg. The wild mushroom ragout ($11) was so gentle that the name is a misnomer – it was more of a tame companionship of shitakes, criminis, and gnocchis doused with sumptuous butter, soy sauce, wine, and chives. This alone was more than enough to conquer. Though the table was already equipped with a marvelous crusty baguette for soaking up the jus, the dish came with cards of white toast and goat cheese as an alternative.
A dark ambience and rich food often connote winter naps, yet despite the heft of the first course, the leisurely “island time” service, and the increasingly romantic twinkle of the low lighting, we greeted our entrees with gusto. Evan Turner, the chef de cuisine since last December (in spite of what is printed on the menu) created a wonderful rack of lamb ($34) – perfectly fleshy and pink, with the subtlest of game in its flavor and a tender resistance to its bite. It was served teetering over a few mashed potatoes and an olive and fresh artichoke demi-glace. Roasted peppers and sweet caramelized onions give the dish a memorable Mediterranean flair.
Also tasted was the daily fresh special – today, an oversized piece of Ahi tuna with fingerling potatoes, roasted fennel bulb, caponata, and an artichoke and olive tapenade surrounded by a pure tomato coulis (A.Q.). The stunning piece of fish – suitable for mounting on one’s wall not just for its weight, but for its cut and girth – was overcooked and underseasoned. Though it was described as seared, it was cooked through with just a touch of pink in the middle – more medium-well than rare. But it was saved by the succulent, tangy, and briny caponata of eggplant, sweet onion, raisins, pine nuts, and capers sheltered beneath, and the accompanying fennel, roasted until sweet and mellow. Together, they worked as a team to deliver a satisfying meal.
The wine list was on par with our expectations. Only a half-dozen or so choices by the glass are offered, and while most bottles are the big names from Napa and Sonoma, they are affordable, with many around $35. For a splurge they offer Dom Perignon for $185, and Harlan Estate, California 1997, for $485.
Dessert cannot be passed over. Despite the fact that they do not have a pastry chef per se, Hector (only his first name was offered by two of the staff) makes most of the desserts under Chef Turner, and he does so quite well. The crème brulee is cloud-light, effortlessly creamy, and laced with a delightful finish of ginger. And the house Napoleon was a wonderful assembly of fresh berries, touched with the sweet and tart of a raspberry sauce and a generous scoop of sweetened marscopone cheese – the two together were a light yet decadent ending.
Forbes Island is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday, 5:00pm to 10pm at Pier 39, M-1, San Francisco. For reservations or to arrange for private parties in the 60-seat dining room, 27-person Tahiti bar, or the two-person private dining area in the wine cellar, contact manager Pierre at (415) 951-4900. For more information, visit www.forbesisland.com.
Karen Solomon is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.