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Travel Tip: New San Francisco Restaurants

Three newcomers bring a casual vibe to elevated dining

Harvey Steiman
Posted: July 22, 2013

Note: This is an excerpt of an article, The New Face of Fine Dining, that originally appeared in the June 30, 2013 issue of Wine Spectator.

San Francisco's farm-to-table sensibility is stronger than ever. Menus these days are more likely to reflect dishes' ingredients than how the kitchen prepared them. And, like lines intersecting on a graph, restaurants are getting more casual even as the quality on the plate goes up.

New restaurants are also venturing beyond existing dining enclaves. All three reviewed in this report occupy neighborhoods previously unknown as serious gourmet destinations.

St. Vincent Tavern and Wine Merchant
1270 Valencia St., San Francisco
Telephone: (415) 285-1200
Website: www.stvincentsf.com
Open: Dinner, Monday to Saturday; lunch with wine tasting, Saturday
Cost: Entrées $23-$28
Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa
Corkage: $25

St. Vincent Tavern and Wine Merchant is a highly personal effort from David Lynch, former sommelier of Quince in San Francisco and Babbo in New York. The totally unprepossessing space in the far reaches of the Inner Mission now vibrates with the din of happy conversations. Floor-to-ceiling wine cabinets announce the importance of the grape here, and every wine on the list is available at retail price to take home.

Lynch wrote his 2002 book, Vino Italiano (Clarkson Potter), with restaurateur and vintner Joe Bastianich. Although St. Vincent's wine list of 200 pays close attention to Lynch's beloved Italy, it branches out into unexpected choices, such as white wines from Croatia and red wines from Galicia, Spain. The most compelling and fairly priced bottles come from well-known producers in virtually all of Italy's winemaking hubs, both classic and cutting-edge.

The list groups the wines by style, dividing the reds, for example, into several categories: light, aromatic, structured and bold, allowing one to two pages per. There's also a category for aged white wines, which tempts with the likes of Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Clavoillon 1999 ($250).

The ambitious kitchen delivers more than one might expect from a typical wine bar or tavern. Chef Bill Niles, whose résumé includes Bar Tartine in San Francisco, neatly shoehorned complex flavors into a soup of crab enriched with sea urchin. He balanced the bitterness of grilled radicchio with a hint of malt, served with roasted quail. This is artful cooking, with deep flavors and happy surprises. Needless to say, it's all wine-friendly.

Rich Table
199 Gough St., San Francisco
Telephone: (415) 355-9085
Website: www.richtablesf.com
Open: Dinner, Wednesday to Monday
Cost: Entrées $20-$29
Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa
Corkage: $30; waived for one bottle with purchase of a bottle from wine list

The bustling 60-seat dining room of Rich Table hums with an exuberant, shirtsleeve vibe, but there's no lack of ambition on the plate. Evan and Sarah Rich, owners and co-chefs, have solid credentials. They met while cooking at Bouley in New York. After moving to San Francisco, he worked at Quince, she at Michael Mina, and together again at Coi. Their food reflects the sort of creativity, flavor clarity and finesse that distinguishes great cooking anywhere.

From day one, fans have flocked to tables behind the corner storefront windows in a cozy Victorian building, drawn by a menu that overflows with lip-smacking ideas, skillfully executed. Rich Table remains a tough reservation, but two communal tables are set aside for walk-ins.

Grace notes add surprising depth to expertly prepared ingredients. Hints of red miso and bacon enhanced buttermilk-poached chicken—the meltingly tender breast cut into long strips. Among the many successful pastas, bucatini benefited from lichen and bergamot accents in its creamy garbanzo bean sauce.

Toasted seaweed and wasabi contrasted with the buttery flavor of giant Castelvetrano olives. Sardine chips, a house specialty, tucked whole little fish into sliced potatoes, the chip fried crisp while the sardines remained moist inside (a trick the chefs picked up at Bouley), perfect for dipping in a horseradish cream.

Service was informed and friendly, and missed no important details.

The eclectic, compact, ever-changing wine list fits on a single large card, organizing its 100 or so selections into white, rosé and sparkling wines on one face and reds and large-format bottles on the flip side. They are listed by price, arranged in tiers at $45, $55 and $65, plus a few posher bottlings.

178 Townsend St., San Francisco
Telephone: (415) 828-7990
Website: www.saisonsf.com
Open: Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost: 18- to 20-course menu only, $298 and up; wine pairing $148
Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa
Corkage: $50; limited to wines not on the list

Saison opened Feb. 1, a long fly ball from AT&T Park in a row of repurposed brick-faced warehouses that mostly house Internet startups. Behind its frosted glass doors, an oasis awaits. The first clue comes when sommelier Mark Bright welcomes every guest with a taste of Krug Champagne Grande Cuvée. Bright, sommelier at Michael Mina when it won a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2005, partnered with chef Joshua Skenes when Saison originally opened as a once-a-week pop-up in the Mission District in 2010.

The new location ups the ante with a large, renovated industrial space, a longer menu and a hefty price tag. The only menu, which changes nightly and brooks no substitutions, starts at $298. Tax, tip and a $148 wine pairing push the bottom line well north of $500 per person. That's more than such high-flying restaurants as Alinea in Chicago, The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., or the much-lauded Brooklyn Fare in New York. (The bar area at Saison offers a shorter $88 menu, tailor-edited to the customer's preferences.)

The restaurant's design integrates the kitchen with the 18 seats it serves, basically making the entire restaurant a chef's table. Even if sight lines keep the contents of the bowls and plates out of view, individual chefs often walk their creations right up to the table to serve diners.

Skenes, once executive chef at Chez TJ in Mountain View, Calif., and Mina's Stonehill Tavern in Southern California's Dana Point, centers his cuisine on seasonal ingredients, mostly but not entirely local. Smoking, grilling and wood-roasting infuse almost every dish, even the sturgeon caviar on an early appetizer course. But don't expect slabs of meat. His plates are almost dainty—a slice of this, a carefully placed leaf of that, sauce applied with a teaspoon or a small squeeze bottle. These juxtapositions convincingly place texture and flavor combinations in bright relief.

The printed menu identifies courses with one-word titles such as "brassicas," "bird" and "beef," which barely suggest what's to come. A rich dish designated "toffee" applied beer foam, burnt sugar and slivers of smoked olives to pieces of foie gras, to spectacular effect. A series of raw fish and seafood bites simply titled "cru" included a freshly opened live scallop, so naturally sweet, perched on Asian pear and celeriac puree, and a bite of blue sea robin imported from Tokyo's Tsukiji Market, topped with a perfect crunch of fried bottarga. One of the most arresting dishes, "vegetables" arrayed on foraged greens understatedly dressed with anchovy vinaigrette, was meant to be eaten without utensils.

Skenes' best dishes demonstrate what a transcendent experience Saison can be, but a nagging inconsistency suggested that it needs time to find its footing. Vinegary acidity overcompensated for the richness of pork belly and Parmesan in a truffle tart. A coupe of sweet pumpkin puree clashed with the lightly smoked sturgeon caviar on top of it, although an acrid flavor evident on one visit had been corrected on the next. On balance, execution and refinement improved in the three weeks between my visits. Skenes also looked more focused, a hopeful sign.

Bright's 3,000-wine list, which relies on collector connections, brims with current and older vintages of Burgundy and Bordeaux. The $148 wine pairing deploys a different young, lighter-style wine with each course. I particularly liked the polished, complex Philippe Colin Chassagne-Montrachet 2009 with the brassicas, a lithe, peppery Napa Valley Syrah 2010 (made for Saison) with a beef dish, and a honeyed, opulent Château de Malle Sauternes 2005 that set off an impeccably risen pine nut soufflé for dessert.

In its previous incarnations, Saison succeeded by interpreting ingredients of the season with flair but without trying too hard to show off. With spacious digs and a deep wine cellar, and Skenes' rigorous attention to detail, Saison seems destined to become one of San Francisco's culinary landmarks. It just might take a while to get there.

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