Smoked trout, celery root latke.
Liberty duck breast.
Page mandarin sorbet.
Interior photo by Jesse Friedman.
I was sinking my choppers into such a soft, fluffy, flavorful piece of whole wheat and honey bread, and realized, yup, this place is different. It made me think of my mom’s homemade wheat bread, and right then, I felt at home.
Which is exactly the feeling ~BAKER & BANKER~ is after. Service is attentive and friendly, and the husband-and-wife duo of Lori Baker (pastry chef) and Jeff Banker (chef) regularly circulate the 49-seat room like the good hosts they are. The former Quince location has always had a cozy feeling, and now it feels more masculine and den-like, with lots of dark wood, leather banquettes, and a carpeted floor. There’s also a slightly industrial touch, with exposed ceiling pipes overhead and pendant lamps with Edison bulbs. It’s definitely more lit up than the dusky lighting I was used to at Quince, and the vibe is decidedly neighborhood-y. There’s a small six-seat bar in the back, but it’s tight if you’re bigger than a size four, so I think it’s a better waiting-for-my-table spot than dining-at-the-bar seat.
Banker’s market-driven New American menu shows an interest in Japanese ingredients (find me a chef who isn’t), with luggage stickers from places like Italy, France, and Thailand. It feels very San Francisco to me, without being fusion-y. My guest and I luckily got to try the spicy crab spring roll off the chef’s tasting menu ($55). It was an explosion of flavor: ponzu, sesame, frizzled shallot, yuzu, chervil, chive, mint. I was sorry it was only an amuse—I could have eaten six of them. Yeah, watch me.
I love seeing, nay, tasting innovations, like the spectacular beet reduction drizzled around the edge of the house-smoked trout dish ($12). Why haven’t I seen this more often? I started imagining all kinds of uses for beet reductions, starting with dessert. The hearty dish was almost like a Jewish breakfast, with flaked trout piled on top of a celery root latke sporting a healthy swath of horseradish crème fraîche. The dish became a touch soggy, but was super-satisfying the way it all melded together, brightened with acidity from pickled beets and shaved fennel.
The grilled Star Route little gem salad ($10) featured another ingenious touch: shaved sunchoke. The nuttiness of the brown butter hazelnut vinaigrette and the Parmesan cheese made a memorable combo, playing against the slight smokiness from the greens. A great salad.
We also tried the salad of tender Monterey calamari a la plancha ($13) with fresh chicories, hearts of palm, and fried chickpeas. I can see how everything was meant to fit together, brightened up with three kinds of citrus (ruby and Oro Blanco grapefruit, and Page mandarin), but with all the citrus, I feel like it tipped on the “too many ingredients” scale.
A few of the dishes perhaps border on one too many elements, but in the end, Banker knows exactly what he’s doing: the flavors groove. Sometimes we have to shelve our super-simplified Cal-Ital palates. The upscale preparations are interesting and clever—the food here has its own thing going on. And it’s obvious there’s a lot of technique and prep going into each dish. I also wonder if he is living at the farmers’ market, because it’s apparent how fresh and seasonal everything is. I’d totally bring someone visiting San Francisco here.
My Liberty duck breast ($25) was one of the better duck dishes I’ve had in a while—the fat was perfectly rendered, and the meat was cooked to the right temp and texture. Seasoned beautifully, too. Just ducky. The hearty and juicy plating included meaty shreds of duck confit, Chantenay carrot purée, parsnip gnocchi (another twist on the usual), spinach, and an intriguing whisper of licorice root and orange zest in the sauce. There was also a scattering of parsnip chips to keep the textures varied.
There are six mains in all, from a seared black bass ($26) with a Thai shellfish risotto, to a bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin ($24) with semolina Spätzle, Savoy cabbage, and a dried cherry reduction. My friend was happily feasting on his braised lamb shoulder that came on a bed of creamy polenta—the plate was punched up with black olives, a flourish that we both adored. It was the kind of dish that forced my friend to proclaim, fork in hand, “I will never be skinny.” I ate another bite of my decadent duck in solidarity.
After tasting the “I have no control, please stop me from eating all of this” bread at the beginning of the meal, I was primed for Lori Baker’s desserts (all $8) at the end. Release the hounds. The Page mandarin sorbet rocked my world—it was such a creamy sorbet, not icy at all. It was almost like a 50/50 bar. Brilliant. I just wanted the price brought down a dollar considering the heft of the other desserts.
The kumquat-prune sticky toffee pudding is initially the kind of dish whose sweetness could make your teeth hurt, but then the tart blood orange sauce cuts into the sugar—it was a smart twist on an old-fashioned favorite. And then there’s the XXX-triple dark chocolate layer cake, a barely legal layering of flourless chocolate cake, chocolate cheesecake, and devil’s food cake. When the slice is served, the table next to you will visibly covet your dessert—you’ll see. The Four Barrel French press coffee would have been great with the decadent cake, but was a bit weak (pressed too soon).
Be sure to peek at the blackboards for some wine specials—our snappy server was also very helpful in making pairing suggestions. The ambitious wine list by Collin Casey (he was last at La Mar) is full of Old World selections—many of them natural wines—and even has a few of my Italian favorites on there. I understand his POV, but considering how local the food is at the restaurant, I do think a little more California representation would be welcome on the list—and I can imagine some customers would like a few wines they have to think less about. I also had a hard time reading it—the right-justified formatting was challenging.
The crowd was a hodgepodge—some Pac Heights folks (they can appreciate the spendier bottles of Burgundy and Bordeaux on the wine list), couples on date night, industry folks checking it out… And it’s exactly the kind of scene the restaurant should have. The room was lively and social—you could almost ask your adjoining table about their dinner.
You can tell a lot of care has gone into this establishment, from the well-chosen silverware and glasses to the pretty tulips and server training. Baker and Banker both have a lot of restaurant experience in San Francisco, and they really wanted their restaurant in this location (Banker used to work here as a line cook when it was The Meetinghouse). As I sat and surveyed the room from table 14 (a swell corner table for two, by the way), it felt nice to see them manifesting their dream. Good for them.
This first impression was only based on a one-time visit—but I will be back. My lamb-loving friend will, too. I’m sure any of the small kinks I’ve mentioned are the types of things that will be fine-tuned in time—the owners are paying a lot of attention.
Note: at some point later this year, the duo hopes to open a tiny walk-up counter downstairs where you can pick up a few items like sandwiches and baked goods, plus coffee and cakes. They’re waiting on permits for now—you can keep up with the news in my column, of course.