Wednesday, January 2, 2013

State Bird Provision's: My dinner at Bon Appetit's Best Restaurant in America

It's no secret that San Francisco is a foodie town and has many establishment's that rival or surpass the restaurant mecca that is NYC. Yet there is something uniquely thrilling when a "hometown" eatery is honored with an award from your favorite magazine. In 2012 Bon Appetit named State Bird Provisions their restaurant of the year. Of course I'm sure the first images that cross through your mind are white table clothes, rows of silverware and wine glasses, $50 entrees, and an executive Chef tucked away somewhere on a world tour. Scratch all of that. Instead the Chef is out on the floor talking to diners and suggesting dishes that are being rolled by on an antique trolley for $3, $6, or $9 a piece, the kitchen is open and casual attire is the uniform for both staff and guest alike. Oh and there is a line at the door at 4:30 just waiting to get on the list to sit at one of the 6 bar stools (or 3 standing spots) staring into the kitchen, being served delicacies straight from the cooks. Recogition does come at a "price", reservations are booked out 2 mo in advance, but walk-in's are still taken every meal just be prepared to wait.
After visiting the de Young museum in Golden Gate park during the day I was excited and eager for the dining adventure that State Bird promised me that evening. Since I decided only a few days prior that I wanted to go reservations were unavailable, but I figured as a solo diner I had a pretty good shot of getting in. I followed the advice of a few Yelpers who said to arrive no later than 5 pm to get in the line up for their 5:30 pm opening. As I arrived there were already roughly 4 parties ahead of me and quickly as many behind. I was glad I brought a book. We waited in the chill night air as sunset fell and the anticipation mounted. The unsuspecting denizens of this end of Fillmore street passed by frequently commenting "Damn dis place must be hella good!, yo what they serve here?" ... they were not met with much reaction from our timid lot.
At last the doors opened and we were shuffled in past the open kitchen and bar seats to the hostess who took our names and sat who she could.

As my un-luck would have it the last single seat went to the guy directly in front of me. The very kind host took my cell number (on her iPad booking system) and let me know it would probably be about 7:15 when a table would be ready. They would text as soon as something opened up. Not deterred as I was fully aware this was a possibility I moved down the street looking for a libation to kill time during the wait.

About a block and a half away I happened to glance around the corner to see cute bistro tables sitting outside what looked like exactly what I wanted. Unfazed by the fact that the fire alarm seemed to be going off I headed in to Fat Angel . (As it turned out the fire alarm had been set off in one of the apartments in the building in which the Beer & Wine bar is located and they had been assured there was no actual danger but the fire department has to come turn it off). Inside was in my mind exactly what I want in a bar. Cozy atmosphere with beautiful pressed tin ceilings, AWESOME list of mostly large format beers (don't get freaked out by the price many are 750 mL the size of a bottle of wine and are meant to be shared) and just enough food on the list to get a great snack or even dinner if you so chose while you drink. Although the menu isn't anything unheard of (artisan flat breads, cheese or charcuterie dsplays etc) it is all yummy looking. Since I'd be having a big meal I stuck with snacking on an order of the sweet & spicy Chinese spiced nuts while making friends with three guys who sat down next to me. It turns out they were also hoping to go to State Bird that night but weren't going to be able to get in till 10 pm! It pays to line up at 5 (and dine solo). It felt like I had been waiting only minutes when I looked down at my texts and saw that I had been paged! An hour earlier than anticipated woo hoo! I bid farewell to my jealous compatriots and quickly headed back down the street. As it turned out the guy who got seated right before me had a flight to catch or something and ate quickly, my luck had turned around!

I took my seat at the bar and began to survey my surroundings. Although modestly decorated when you are seated basically in the kitchen there is no end to the things you can see. The place setting has a wonderful farm house vibe and the menu is strapped to a board indicating the items that can be ordered from your waiter and also leaving spaces at the bottom for them to tally the items you get off the cart or more often in my case from the kitchen.
I hadn't been seated long before the cart made its first lap by. Filled with a variety of succulent and brightly colored seafood options I knew exactly what I wanted to start. 1 raw oyster topped with kholrabi kraut and seasame and some amazing looking Lobster with lentils.

It's hard to know where to begin to describe these flavors and textures. The oyster was chill and tangy from from kraut with an enjoyable crunch and hints of the fresh seawater. The lobster was perfectly tender and buttery with herbal notes and the lentils added their own soft textural notes. Both were the perfect light refreshing start to my meal. As I enjoyed both my waitress brought my glass of wine and asked if there was anything I'd like to order from the listed items. It wouldn't be right not not try the namesake dish and so I ordered a half of the fried quail (the State bird of CA... get it?) which is served on a bed of onion jam and topped with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Each bite of the bird is a tender little morsel of crisp and savory goodness. As you all know I'm not one to deal with bones... I put that whole sucker in my mouth once i had done all I could with knife and fork. I wasn't letting any bit go. The onion jam is a perfect tangy sweet balance to the crisp breaded and fried bird, helping cleanse your palate to enjoy the next bite. If I weren't trying to eat as many items as possible I could have easily eaten a full order (but of course the point here is to try as much as you can handle, a dream come true).
While I had been waiting for my bird to be ordered the chef in front of me had passed over an offering of a veal and sweetbreads meatball served atop shaved quince and pickled vegetables, since I knew I would have a little time I thought why not!
Tender juicy and meaty each bite of the meat ball combined with a small piece of the quince was a joy. I tried to make it last as long as possible forking off small bites one at a time. I soon got backed up however as my Bird arrived and shortly after my waitress brought over a dumpling with savory broth to which (surprise surprise) I could not say no to!
In all honesty I was in such a frenzy by this point that I had forgotten what exactly my waitress indicated the dumpling was filled with. The sample menu on line indicates it may have been Guinea Hen but as they change things up frequently it may have been something else. There is a nagging in the back of my brain that says it was short rib. Frankly it doesn't matter it was delicious. I tried my best to break it in half with my spoon to be able to enjoy it in two bites and as soon as the dumpling was finished i was quickly spooning as much of the broth out of the cup as possible. Complex and deep with bright notes of lemongrass and ginger along with other distinctly earthy umami flavors I'd like to bath in that broth. I should have just tipped it up and drank it out but sometimes I like to pretend I'm classy. I doubt anyone would have cared.

I knew soon I would have to slow down. The influx of the last 3 dishes had kept me busy but as the cup for my dumpling was cleared away I couldn't stop my wandering eye from peering around at what might be coming out of the kitchen next.
Was it time for a snack? Well sure after all I had had my fresh and bright "appetizer" courses, my meaty "main" courses, why not delve in a different direction. Being plated up at the end of the bar were golden stacks of house made potato chips and the perfectly spooned egg of porcini mushroom dip. At this point I'm not even sure how one ended up in front of me and frankly I didn't care! If there was one thing I ate this night that I am desperate to recreate so I can enjoy it all the time it was the porcini dip. The pieces of mushroom chopped just big enough that you could enjoy the texture, the substance binding them not overly creamy. Perfectly seasoned to spread across the salty potato chips. It was while I was enjoy this that Executive Chef and owner Stuart Brioza stopped next to me to comment "isn't that the best? If I could only eat one thing for life that would be it". I'm sure I mumbled something stupid, let's be honest I was a little star struck. Having read the Bon Appetit article (which was accompanied by a picture of him and his wife co owner of SBP and pastry chef Nicole Krasinski) and overhearing a few of the kitchen staff refer to him as Chef I had put two and two together. I think the indelible image in my head was of of the table knife tattooed on his right forearm. It seemed an interesting choice (since at least from what I could tell that's what it was vs say a chefs knife). Had I been able to interview him I would have loved to ask about it. But alas I'm not that brave and he was busy being a hands on gracious owner and chef helping out the staff getting things ready to be passed around and occasionally working the crowd.

While finishing up my "snack" course I was comfortably satiated and without an overwhelming amount of thought decided it was time for dessert.
My choice was made easy when I read the ice cream sandwich of the moment was filled with eggnog ice cream. My fascination lead me to order a shot of the Peanut muscovado milk as well, it's sweet creaminess to wash down the sweet creamy dessert. Yum. The sandwiches cookies were crisp and a little chewy and really nice texture to hold in the creamy spicy egg nog ice cream all of which drizzled in rich chocolate fudge with crushed almonds. I love the Stonehenge esque plating. I was about 3 bites in when I realized I had made a horrible oversight.... I had not had the garlic bread with Burrata. The horror!!! The expo had just gotten a request for some and called to make 6 or so so they would have a few to pass. He saw the conflict in my eyes, "do you want one?" ..... of course I did. But I was mid way through dessert ...."You could take it home, just box the cheese and bread separately and heat up the bread at home" Genius. Of course my gluttonous little fingers couldn't help from eating about half before I was about to burst and had to box the remainder.
The bread was a knot of light crisp dough (like pizza dough) garlicky and smothered in a healthy portions of the rich burrata cheese (fresh mozzarella surrounding fresh ricotta it is sealed into a ball with cream) and sprinkled liberally with crushed peppercorns and seasoning along with olive oil. Divine. Before I could order anything else I admitted defeat to my waitress and handed over my menu board so she could tally up my bill. As a warning although you are very aware of what you are spending (it is tallied right in front of you while you eat it's not difficult to keep a running total in your head) it is incredibly difficult not to want to eat everything. And with most items being less than $10 a piece it's easy to be seduced into adding "just one more". Frankly I think this is an amazing way to dine and my dream of how a restaurant would run, my only disclaimer is be prepared to spend money so that way you can have the best time possible! If you come with another person (or two) you are afforded the luxury of trying more items by sharing but most are not that big and many you will probably be too greedy to share much of!

This I think may be my best dining experience to date. This unique approach to serving food was transcendent for me (being the lover of small bites that I am) a choose it yourself tasting menu of complex
 flavors and experiences. The fact that the open kitchen takes up the front 1/4 of the space is a fascinating design concept and quite the show for a home cook like me. Something particularly intriguing that I couldn't help noticing (with my restaurant background) was that the kitchen staff looked very different from many I had worked in. These were all culinary program grads.... and they all spoke English as a first language. Is that here or there? Probably not. But in a Bay Area restaurant is definitely unique.

It should go without saying at this point that I am dying to go back again soon. With so many other things to try and new creations all the time this is one that will keep me coming back again and again!

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