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Flour + Water, the Bay Area Restaurant, Celebrates 15 Years

Co-Executive Chefs Thomas McNaughton and Ryan Pollnow discuss the month-long anniversary tasting menu, a greatest-hits collection from the pasta-focused San Francisco landmark.

Ryan Pollnow and Thomas McNaughton

Ryan Pollnow (left) and Thomas McNaughton of Flour + Water in San Francisco. Credit: Carter Himaya

It’s fitting that Flour + Water’s 15th anniversary celebration features a “Greatest Hits Menu,” available throughout May at the landmark restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. Music has always been at the core of its ambiance, second only to its incredible pastas.

Now, the extensive list of seasonal and shape-driven pasta creations from the past decade and a half are being whittled down to the hits, those dishes that were fan favorites among the many great offerings at Flour + Water. Co-executive chefs Thomas McNaughton and Ryan Pollnow have created a tasting experience ($135 per guest, with wine pairings for $65 per person; à la carte is also available), featuring classics such as 2012’s Morel Tortellini in Brodo with nettles, mushroom broth, and pine oil.

tortellini in brodo
Morel Tortellini in Brodo with nettles, mushroom broth, pine oil, a 2012 dish from Flour + Water that is part of the 15th anniversary tasting menu. Photo: Carter Himaya

In an interview with Appetito, McNaughton and Pollnow sound thrilled about the chance to showcase Flour + Water’s best examples of Italian specialties adapted with Northern California’s famed fresh produce and other ingredients. “We want to look back at the classic hits that, over the course of 15 years, helped build Flour + Water,” McNaughton says. 

Pollnow adds that it’s a chance to revisit pasta preparations that the chefs loved creating, but which are short-lived in part because of a dogmatic approach to avoiding signature dishes. “There's only a handful of dishes in the pasta program during the history of Flour + Water that have ever come back. And it helps push the creativity and evolution of the restaurant by not repeating season after season.”

Of course, there have been a lot of seasons over those 15 years, and a lot of pasta shapes—almost 100, in fact. Some of the dishes these pastas are used in evolve subtly, as with the aforementioned tortellini, which gets a tomato water brodo when tomato season reaches its peak in Northern California. Or they get more of a makeover, as with the corn + crescenza cappelletti, which has appeared in different iterations from the opening in 2009 through today. 

pasta dish from Flour + Water
Corn + Crescenza Cappelletti from Flour + Water. Photo: Carter Hiyama

The tortellini and cappelletti versions will be showcased throughout May, along with other classics and remixes, including Black Truffle Sformato with potato crumb and parmigiano crema; Taleggio Scarpinocc with aceto balsamico and parmigiano reggiano; Squid Ink Corzetti with clams, veal sausage, snap peas, favas, and chili; and Grano Orso Cappellacci di Briganti with veal polpettini, English peas, and preserved lemon.

“Texture plays such a large role in food, but especially in pasta, and all these different shapes really invoke a different texture to the finished dish. Even eaten with the same sauces, it's different,” McNaughton says.

The chefs’ relationship with farmers means that they have access to hyper-seasonal ingredients, which not only allows them to get creative, but to hone in on dishes that will enhance their evolution. Pollnow explains, “Sometimes it does create a challenge to narrow down the concept of a dish or a particular day's menu. When you're thinking that broadly, you almost have to give yourself a box to work out of, and luckily for us and how we create the menus, the farmers’ availability lists and what we see at the farmers market [help] narrow down the box. For instance, fava beans just came in, so we're going to make fava bean pasta. That eliminates 80 percent of the shapes that we were thinking about.”

Talking to the chefs, it’s evident that Flour + Water is a thinking person’s restaurant in many ways, as much a laboratory for ideas in the kitchen as a pure hospitality endeavor. McNaughton talks about borrowing from other cuisines and using non-traditional ingredients. “I always say that if you pick up Flour + Water and you put it in the middle of Rome, It would probably be a total failure,” he says with a laugh.

Flour + Water exterior
Flour + Water is celebrating its 15th anniversary in San Francisco this May. Photo: Carter Hiyama

Maybe so, but in San Francisco, the chef duo lead a veteran, innovative band that’s comparable to Radiohead, continually reinventing itself but still releasing hit after hit, growing an audience of loyal followers. Their team includes an 11-year member of Flour + Water who is selecting the wine pairings for the anniversary menus, Sam Bogue, and McNaughton’s co-founder in the company, David Steele, a renaissance man who is also a financial adviser, artist, and Managing Partner of the long-running music festival Noise Pop. 

Since opening its doors on May 15, 2009, much has changed in San Francisco, which has become one of the world’s best-known tech hubs in that time, and even within the Flour + Water Hospitality Group, which has grown into a Bay Area juggernaut. The group includes the trattoria-like Penny Roma, Flour + Water Pasta Shop, Flour + Water Pizzeria in North Beach, and a partnership with heralded cocktail lounge Trick Dog. They also have a critically acclaimed (including by Appetito) dried pasta brand.

poster for Flour + Water restaurant
San Francisco artist Lil Tuffy created a poster to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Flour + Water.

Flour + Water has become an important part of the community, supporting not only music and musicians but artists and nearby institutions. For the anniversary celebration, they’ve enlisted Mission artist Lil Tuffy to make one-of-a-kind screenprints of the menu artwork—a nod to the rock posters that have been a part of the San Francisco cultural landscape dating to the 1960s Psychedelic era. The art is for sale at Flour + Water, with proceeds benefiting the local public high school, John O’Connell Technical.

Besides enjoying the Flour + Water’s greatest-hits pastas, guests will experience the usual full-album playlist at the restaurant. While the chefs may not commit to a trademark pasta dish—though McNaughton discloses that there’s always a few orders of Taleggio Scarpinocc hiding in the kitchen in case a regular orders it—posting the night’s selection of albums, always played in their entirety, has become a sort of signature in itself at both Flour + Water and Penny Roma. 

“We don't want it to sound like we're pressing play on a Spotify station, even though that can be curated,” Pollnow explains. “It's not quite as thoughtful as picking albums that match the different moods throughout the night. Music and environment plays such a part in the enjoyment of a restaurant that we want to take that as seriously as the rest of it.”

Or as McNaughton describes their approach, “We wanted to have a rock and roll atmosphere, but refinement on the plate.”

It’s a formula that’s worked for 15 years, so why change it now?


2401 Harrison St, San Francisco, CA 94110, 415-826-7000, @flourandwatersf, flourandwater.com

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