In a city flush with caviar and nearly smothered in coral-colored slabs of fresh uni, it’s remarkably easy to get swept up in the pure luxury of San Francisco dining. You can easily find a restaurant to ply you with a dozen courses scattered with shaved truffles and packed with wagyu beef. That’s part of what makes Flour + Water feel like a welcome reprieve. Through a combination of classic techniques and unexpected ingredients, the menu at this Mission District standard strikes a welcome balance between creativity and tradition, as best experienced through the restaurant’s legendary pasta tasting menu.
The 10 courses see seasonal squash and sage squeezed into round arancini and tiny ears of orechetti tossed with veal and Calabrian chiles. In the words of Flour + Water co-chef Thomas McNaughton, it’s an “onslaught of carbs and fat” — in a good way. Then smack in the middle of it all, the chefs present the most perfectly paired-back dish of all, a steaming bowl of golden tortellini en brodo. The bowl of six tightly wrapped tortellini huddle together in the center of a shallow white bowl before your server bathes them in a fragrant broth littered with simmering orbs of luscious fat and oil. The scent of the hot broth lifts into the air, filling the dining room with the woody aroma of chicken and nutmeg; it’s intended to function as a palate cleanser, a short respite for your tastebuds before diving back in for the second half of the meal.
Though the rest of Flour + Water’s tasting menu rotates seasonally, the tortellini en brodo remains firmly in place throughout the year. Co-chef Ryan Pollnow says the relatively classic dish serves to remind diners of the restaurant’s roots, which stretch from the California coast out across the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike the rest of the menu, which gives Italian cuisine a distinctly Californian twist, the chefs say they intentionally keep tortellini en brodo close to tradition. “It’s almost like a reminder to ourselves and to our guests that all of this started in Italy,” Pollnow says.
The restaurant’s tortellini en brodo builds on recipes and techniques McNaughton picked up while cooking in Bologna, where he apprenticed at the famous pasta institution Bruno e Franco. And the sheer simplicity of the dish means it’s as much about the quality of the ingredients as it is about nailing the execution. “When you’re talking about this dish, you have pasta, broth, and two garnishes,” McNaughton says. “Everything has to be in balance, and there has to be an intensity of flavor because there’s nowhere to hide.”
First and foremost, there’s the broth. Though Pollnow describes it as a “classic chicken broth,” the restaurant amps up the texture by taking chicken stock that’s been fortified with vegetable scraps and transforming it into a French-style consommé. Then it gets poured over kombu, imparting a subtle complexity and a little bump of umami. The final touch is a smidge of salt. McNaughton explains that giving the broth that extra boost of flavor via the seaweed isn’t an arbitrary decision but rather a nod to the fact that food from Bologna tends to lean hearty and savory. And the broth isn’t where the umami ends.
The tortellini filling starts with mortadella, a specialty of Bologna prized for its fatty texture. Made primarily from flavorful pork cheek, it gets ground into sausage along with prosciutto and “a shocking amount of Parmesan reggiano,” McNaughton says. To bind it all together, the chefs rely on eggs. The last piece of the puzzle is a smattering of warming spices. McNaughton says warming spices, in particular nutmeg, play an important role in the cuisine of Bologna, and the savory application here perfumes the filling with a familiar, comforting smell, bolstering the soothing quality of the dish.
The pasta itself is made in-house daily and is egg yolk-based, typical for the Bolognese region. The Flour + Water team incorporates both whole eggs and extra egg yolks, making for an incredibly rich dough. The tortellini starts cooking in salted water, but finishes in the broth; similar to how you might finish cooking pasta in the sauce it’s served with. The filling goes into the tortellini uncooked, allowing the natural sauce and juices to remain trapped inside the carefully folded dough.
Finishing touches include two simple garnishes: a drizzle of olive oil and scant shavings of Parmesan cheese. The oil pools atop the surface of the dish, almost glittering in the low light of the dining room.
McNaughton says even though the restaurant does do seasonal riffs on the dish — for example, during the summer the tortellini may be filled with airy ricotta cheese and swim in a cool tomato broth punctuated with cherry tomatoes — he’s sworn to never serve tortellini in anything but brodo. Pollnow adds this dish is “the biggest example of confidence in ingredients ever.” It’s one of the rare almost-constants across the restaurant’s ever-changing menu, a testament to Flour + Water’s respect for tradition. “In autumn to winter, we will always have tortellini en brodo on the menu,” McNaughton says. “That’s how important it is to us. And we’re not going to evolve it. It is a complete thought.”