Student chefs in showcase at Bistro 10UN 

The debate rages about whether an aspiring chef should shell out big bucks to go to culinary school or learn on the job.

Successes from both camps abound. The self-taught Alice Waters and the academy-trained Michael Mina embody the potential of each path.

The student-run Bistro 10UN at the new International Culinary School at the Art Institute of California aims to straddle both.

Two months ago, the bistro opened with a two-day-a-week, $15 prix fixe lunch menu that reads as temptingly as many from established restaurants, particularly because of its emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients.

For the students, the operation approximates the experience of running their own little restaurant, though at these prices, the usually daunting bottom line is a mere afterthought for both student and diner.

The small sixth-floor dining room, with a glassed-in kitchen at one end, holds 12 tables outfitted with white linen, heavy silverware and comfortable chairs.

Restaurant manager Zubin Desai, the only professional on premises, greets guests warmly — and reassuringly — at the door.

Then the students take over, bringing warm, soft rolls which were sweet and moist one day; a little dry and crumbly another.

One thing I have learned about student-run restaurants is that consistency varies from visit to visit, even on the same dish.

On the first visit, a pureed carrot soup scented with celery was too thick, but perfectly seasoned.

Peeled asparagus in a salad were almost raw and I thought that big cold cubes of exceptionally tasty student-cured bacon should have been crisp. This was a salad that would have been better served warm.

Lemon zest, maybe a bit too much, gave a vegetable stock-flavored risotto lavish with spring peas and favas, a flavor lift, while grilled, julienned radicchio cleverly contributed heft and meatiness.

Beer-braised short ribs, actually a boneless hunk of meat, were not quite moist or tender enough, though the sweet and sour gravy had barbecue flair.

A delicious, crisp-edged semolina cake — not sweet potato grits as advertised on the menu — and fabulous, red pepper spiked broccolini accompanied. By the way, we ate every bite of every dish.

I came back the following week to have a romaine salad drizzled with creamy blue cheese dressing and mystifyingly cold hunks of student-cured pancetta.

A slice of gelatinous, bland rabbit terrine was redeemed with delightful quick-pickled vegetables.

A generous hunk of sautéed halibut, a tiny bit overcooked, got lush, buttery, spring vegetables (though the asparagus were again underdone), and a delicate leek-flavored custard. Again, we cleaned our plates.

Desserts bore the same profile of strengths and weaknesses as the savory courses.

Bistro 10UN guinea pigs, the customers, get a satisfying, fresh, mostly tasty meal with some technical flaws, especially in texture and temperature. Seasoning and presentation get an A, and the menu writing, I thought, was downright professional, even if the students couldn’t quite execute all their good ideas.

The current menu culminates June 18, and the whole cycle starts again on July 15, with new students and their own new menu.

I went at the beginning, and judging from the full dining room on my second visit, it might be prudent to reserve. Word is out that Bistro 10UN is a lot of fun.


Bistro 10UN
Location: Art Institute of California-San Francisco, 10 United Nations Building, sixth floor, 1130 Market St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 276-4048;
Hours: Noon to 2 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays
Price range: $15 for three-course meal
Recommended dishes: Halibut with leek custard; pea and fava risotto; romaine salad with blue cheese; almond financier
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express
Reservations: Accepted online

Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at

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