Since opening its doors in 2009, San Francisco’s famous pasta palace Flour + Water has undergone a complete remodel: from the chairs to the tables to almost all the walls (the original mural in the back remains), the restaurant feels familiar and shiny and new all at once. If you’ve never been you’ll never notice, of course, but as the old saying goes: the devil’s in the details. Take the hand-plastered walls, for example, which intentionally are raked in waves to symbolize the wedges of Parmigiano used in the restaurant. Now that’s attention to detail.
What hasn’t changed — but rather, evolved — is the restaurant’s perfect pastas, prepared with tradition, adorned with what’s in season, and elevated and orchestrated in its highest form: the pasta tasting menu. Where else can you eat through 14 courses — five of which are centered around pure pasta? Only in paradise, perhaps.
We chatted with co-chefs and partners Thomas McNaughton and Ryan Pollnow to learn more about the restaurant remodel, as well as some favorite standbys, from drinks to desserts, and more.
Resy: You guys opened way back in 2009 — why remodel Flour + Water now?
Thomas McNaughton (TM): In the last year, as we formed Flour + Water Hospitality Group, we were able to step back and look at 20th Street as a whole. We were able to think through how we wanted to evolve our offerings here and with the Pasta Shop and Penny Roma. We are so fortunate to have had Flour + Water for the last 13 years and want to be around for at least 13 more! We opened the restaurant with such a tight budget. It was a lot of reclaimed plywood with Edison bulbs. We want Flour + Water to be timeless and be just as proud of the space as we are of the food.
Conceptually, how have things changed? What’s the vision?
TM: The remodel is meant to reflect the juxtaposition of rock ‘n’ roll and refinement, as well as where we want to take Flour + Water in the future. We’re still a neighborhood restaurant where you can drop in and get a really great plate of pasta or pizza, but we’re growing up and the new design speaks to that. Flour + Water has never had the intention to be a fine-dining restaurant. We want elevated techniques based on time-honored traditions. We always seek refinement on the plate but want to create a boisterous environment. Wear a suit from the office, but if your office is a painter’s studio and you are covered in your day’s work, we want you to still feel comfortable. Come as you are. We want to have fun and we want our guests to too.
Is it just a touch-up, or will it be wildly different?
TM: It looks wildly different but familiar in layout; we really went for it and completely renovated the interior, but at the same time it was important to stick to the same convivial feel of the old. We worked closely with Lundberg Design founder Olle Lundberg and principal Gavin Knowles to bring our Flour + Water 2.0 vision to life through design inspired by the idea of craftsmanship. They found textures and materials that mimic the feel of the raw ingredients we work with in the kitchen.
Will there still be a bar and communal tables? What about the upstairs Dough Room — is that still a thing?
TM: The communal table was redesigned from Lundberg’s metal shop and there will be seven seats at the new bar. It’s really important that these seats and part of the dining room are left open for walk-ins and a waitlist. Our Dough Room is still rocking and turns into a kitchen table at nighttime that sits up to 14 guests. Our new Test Kitchen was also completely renovated. We built it to house my and Ryan’s culinary library, offer office space for the kitchen team, to shoot videos, and help develop the food for the restaurant group. It’s my favorite part of the project. This will also turn into a private table that sits eight and we will soon develop specific programming for the room. Dinners where me and Ryan can cook tableside and our wine director Sam Bogue can host events.
What will the menu look like?
TM: We’ll continue to change the menu on a daily basis. We’ve created nearly 60 different pasta shapes over the years and will continue to create dishes that honor the craftsmanship of Italian tradition, but also have some unexpected element that speaks to our perspective, as well as our Bay Area location.
We’re doing à la carte and will have our pasta tasting menu, so guests have the option to make their own experience. We have expanded the pasta tasting menu to offer more bites of non-carb things to begin, and then five different pasta textures, and then into dessert. It’s served in six courses, but could be up to 12 plates of food. We have eight starters, two of which will come from the new charcoal spiedini grill, eight pastas and two pizzas (one white and one red), and three desserts on the a la carte menu. The price point of the a la carte menu is roughly the same as before factoring in all the craziness that has happened over the last two years as it relates to cost of goods.
The sleeper dish is Parmigiano Reggiano ice cream with extra vecchio balsamic and hazelnut crumble. It gives the budino a run for its money.
On the drink side of things, will that also change?
TM: While the program before the renovation focused entirely on Italian wines, we now branch out first and foremost into the world of Champagne with a few of our favorite grower-producers now dotting the list. Additionally, taking a page out of the success of Penny Roma’s opening, the wine program at flour + water will also focus half of its list into the categories of natural wines, and more classic wines, to open the door for all types of wine drinkers.
Another thing to look out for is a small reserve list that will now be available each night at flour + water by the scan-through of a QR code found on the wine list. These concise eight selections represent beverage director Samuel Bogue’s journey through the world of wine over the last 15 years, with many vintage gems cellared in house peppered in with rare wines purchased at auction. Small quantities of some of Italy’s greatest wines can be found here on a more consistently rotating basis.
Can you tell us more about Ryan’s history/relationship with F + W? When did he start, and how long has he been with the team?
TM: Ryan started at flour + water as a chef de cuisine in 2012, and has led each of the restaurants within Flour + Water Hospitality Group individually as well as a partner in the entire group. Together, we now oversee the culinary operations and creative direction for each of the restaurants. Myself and Ryan collaborate on all designs for the Group both inside and out of the kitchens.
Speaking of Ryan — let’s do a rapid-fire. What are your five essential pantry items?
Ryan Pollnow (RP): Agrumato lemon oil from Abruzzo, fennel pollen, Calabrian chile, shio koji, and balsamic vinegar.
Favorite dish on the menu, and why?
RP: Today’s ricotta — every day we snack on ricotta when it gets made, as it’s draining. It never hits refrigeration. That’s our breakfast — we slab it on some bread. By far the most simple and straightforward dish.
Ideal order for two?
RP: Tasting menu. For two people you’re hitting 14 dishes, so…there’s lots of variety there.
Favorite bar nearby to grab a cocktail before and/or after dinner?
RP: True Laurel for a cocktail before, and Trick Dog after.
RP: I’m a sucker for a French canelé, dark on the outside almost to the point of burning the sugar, and a custardy soft inside with a visual amount of vanilla seed running throughout the entire thing.
Part of the world you’d want to travel to next for food inspiration?
RP: I’ve never been north of Emilia-Romagna — so hitting Lombardi and Piedmonte for inspiration, and anywhere with a beach for rest and relaxation after Penny Roma and flour + water 2.0.
What’s the most underrated kitchen tool ?
RP: The Kuhn vegetable peeler — they’re less than $3 and they’re the best peeler for any job.
What can we look forward to in the near future from the F + W restaurant group?
RP: At this point we have bases covered — so for now it’s polishing the stone, hunkering down and refining what we do. We also have the test kitchen where there are public-facing events and private dinners — it’s our true testing ground for new dishes. But I also see it as a place where employees – front of house and back of house — could sit down, write business plans and start their own thing.