Bacon: the cornerstone of the Standard American Diet and the decade's trendiest ingredient for just about every dish from bánh mì to beignets. What usually stands as a greasy breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) indulgence has lately emerged in San Francisco's fine dining scene.
The only catch about this bacon? It doesn't come from a pig. SPQR executive chef Matthew Accarrino has created a bacon made with white sturgeon worthy of the restaurant's one Michelin star.
At 2 PM, the SPQR team is busy at work prepping for evening service. The dark lacquered tables have yet to be set. Curious pedestrians on Fillmore Street peek into the restaurant's open front door. Donning a white T-shirt behind the marble chef's counter, Accarrino slices up the golden-skinned product.
Unlike chick'n cutlets or Boca Burger patties, Accarrino's "fake" bacon isn't trying to imitate something it's not. It's not a thin, crispy meat strip dripping in grease, but a thicker cut of tender, smoky goodness that happens to be made the same way as the restaurant's pork bacon.
"This has been cured with molasses and brown sugar and salt, and then hot smoke," Accarrino tells me as I try a sample.
What may sound like a headline-grabbing hipster food stemmed from good intentions.
For years, Accarrino has been sourcing fish for SPQR from Passmore Ranch in Sacramento. The lauded freshwater fishery helmed by Michael Passmore rears white sturgeon, black bass, striped bass, catfish, and silver carp.
But wait—aren't we supposed to be wary of fish farms?
"Farmed fish used to have a really negative connotation. It's almost gotten to the point where no fish you can get is wild," Accarrino says. "Farmed sturgeon used to be really muddy and brackish, almost, and based on refinements in diet and refinements in aquaculture, and working with the water—which we don't have a lot of—it's gotten better."
People like Passmore are to thank for these refinements.
"When a farmer or rancher is doing their best, the results are superlative because they have given what they are raising the absolute best environment and inputs, which result in the best flavors, textures, and quality," Passmore tells me. "Not sure why anyone wouldn't want that? My chefs sure want it!"
Those chefs include the names behind top California Michelin-starred restaurants like Benu and The Restaurant at Meadowood, both of which hold three stars.
Accarrino works personally with Passmore to create his own caviar for SPQR. Like all chefs, Accarrino didn't want to let the rest of the quality white sturgeon go to waste.
"We like having the caviar, which means we like using the fish. We wouldn't buy one without the other."
Accarrino roasted the fresh fish for some dishes, but sturgeons are huge, especially for a 50-seat restaurant like SPQR.
"The largest sturgeon on our ranch right now are nearly 200 pounds (our broodstock)," Passmore tells me about his fish, "but what we regularly harvest for Matthew are in the 20- to 30-pound range."
Accarrino found a simple solution for the issue of abundance.
"We were making our bacon one day and thought, Why don't we cure [the sturgeon] like bacon? sounds like a good idea, right? So that's how it came about," Accarrino tells me.
The new bacon offers guests a gill-to-tail dining experience.
"We've had dishes where we've served the sturgeon bacon with the roasted sturgeon and the caviar all from the same fish. It's a pretty unique opportunity." As we talk, Accarrino is plating smoked sturgeon "bacon" salad with beet cake, pickled red beet, and beet green. With a few whisks of his tweezers, the delicately assembled salad is complete. Shades of pink and red swirled around the sturgeon on the ceramic plate. This was, hands down, the most elegant way I'd ever seen bacon presented.
"All of my food is totally simple, which is to say that it focuses on a few flavors," Accarrino explains. "This is beets, horseradish, and sturgeon. That's really it."
There was a lot more going on beyond Accarrino's description, however. There was candied horseradish, sturgeon bacon, a sturgeon remoulade made from the "less attractive pieces," raw shaved beets, roasted beets, pickled beet puree, a steamed beet cake, beet shoots, and a shimmery puffed skin.
"The other form of sturgeon we have here is basically a chicharrone," Accarrino says. "We dry the skin and then fry it—it puffs very similar to pork skin, which I thought was a good synergy with this notion of bacon. People always get a kick out of this because they don't immediately understand what it is."
It was difficult to get every element together for one bite, but I did my due diligence. The beet cake and the sturgeon bits came together like a sandwich—albeit a fancier deconstructed sandwich. The salad had an exciting range of flavors and textures for a dish that initially looked like beet on beet on beet. And of course it did. There's a reason SPQR has been awarded a Michelin star every year since Accarrino took over the kitchen in 2013.
While pescetarians and the religiously observant rejoice over Accarrino's porkless work of art, bacon purists have not been forsaken. They can still get their fill of the actual stuff at SPQR. Smoked fettuccine with sea urchin and smoked bacon, anyone?
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in November, 2015.