Tasting menus have become a bona fide San Francisco trend over the past few years, and while I am hardly immune to trends (I could hear my husband’s laughter as I wrote that) there are very few chefs I trust to lead me on a three-plus-hour odyssey through their artistic imaginations. Chef Dennis Efthymiou at Luce at the Intercontinental Hotel in SoMa is one of those, able to connect his homey Mediterranean roots to ancient flavors from around the world, in a way that dazzles visually without being overly showy, stimulates the intellect without empty gestures—oh, and remembers that we’re actually eating here, so tastes delicious as well.
Thus when he invited me to try his new ‘Chef’s Degustation Menu,’ an eight-course (optional 12-course and wine-paired) “magnum opus” showcasing his work in the Luce kitchen over the past year, I jumped. It’s been really cool to follow his journey at the upscale hotel restaurant, as he refines his culinary instincts. He’s a nice guy, too, extending his Greek hospitality from firm, welcoming handshakes to lovingly plated dishes. An opening amuse bouche is a traditional spanakopita amusingly reimagined as a tiny ice cream cone, and one of the menu’s highlights is his “Octopus Garden” lasagna, dolloping a rich béchamel sauce flavored with ancient Greco-Roman garum (fish sauce) atop his grandmother’s family recipe. No matter how far the menu sails into the limits of imagination, Chef Dennis is never far from home.
About that sailing: The marquee dish here, the conversation piece, is “Thalassa”—the Greek word for “sea” and its divine feminine personification in mythology. Spirulina-infused mussel broth forms an emerald body of water in which a perfectly seared island of scallop topped with salsify, sea buckthorn, and nori tapioca rest. I don’t think a dish could be more Mediterranean without a fisherman’s hat involved.
Two dishes in particular brought a sense of ancient adventure. “Secrets” was served as a crisp pitta stamped like an ancient seal and dusted with powdered strawberry and oregano; diners break through the bread to get at the rich stew of Ibérico pork (jamón secreto) and black garlic tzatziki within. The trick is reprised in the exquisite “Ruins” dessert—a wheel of delicate chocolate stamped with Mayan-like art and dusted with gold comes broken over a pudding of ganache, huitlacoche, cacao pulp, and poblano pepper. It’s an Indiana Jones moment that honors the sacred culture of chocolate, reflecting one of Chef Dennis’ obsessions.
Another obsession: foraging. For the aptly named “Foraging” dessert, a pavlova, the chef gathered strawberries, nettles, and porcini and enoki mushrooms, shaping and reforming them all into something out of Alice in Wonderland, or possibly The Smurfs. It was delightful. Also in the realm of tromp-l’oeil fantasy, the “Chef’s Welcome” opening included a “mussel in the shell” in which the “shell” was an edible shell-shaped potato chip. Adorable.
Luce is a wine restaurant, and the pairings were accordingly fabulous, offering light contrasts to the dishes without being overwhelmed or overwhelming. An Azumaichi junta ginjo sake was a swerve choice for the “Thalassa” but ended up being a hit, while a humble 2019 Bodegas Juan Gil Spanish red, paired with the “Octopus Garden,” proved that laser-sharp selection, not price point, is what makes a pairing great. As always, the service is comfy without being stuffy or fussy, and the atmosphere on a Friday night was convivial without being loud. A perfect stretch of time and taste.