~BARAKA~ has been a Potrero Hill (and citywide) favorite for a number of years--it's where both Ola Fendert's and David Bazirgan's dishes enchanted me years back, giving me my first taste of Argan oil, and I will never forget the revelation of mint tea with toasted pine nuts floating on top, and the dreamy orange blossom beignets. It can be tough when a chef inherits a legacy of previous chefs' menus, loaded full of favorites the neighborhood would stage a revolt over if ever taken away. When I dined at Baraka in August 2007, I remember being impressed with the direction executive chef Chad Newton was taking the French-Moroccan-Mediterranean menu in, but honestly, the restaurant itself was looking shabby, with tired upholstery, chipped paint, a beat up menu (the wine list cover fared even worse), let alone the wine list itself, with very few choices that rung my bell.

And then poof! New owners! The whole place got a much-needed freshening, with new dishes, flatware, and stemware, the menu was redesigned, the interior got a paintjob, plus new pillows were on their way. A few things still needed attending to: the bathroom was jealous of the main room's fresh paint, and when I was there again in December 2007, the interrogation-worthy light above the front door still needed a cover. I'm sure the owners have all of this on their list, and are crossing these things off one by one. Who knows, that door light could very well be the picture of ambiance right now.

Fortunately, the wine list also got some attention and is more versatile and food friendly, and whoa, Newton's food really seems to shine after the restaurant's Tim Gunn-worthy makeover. He's very passionate and committed to the restaurant, and to making his guests happy--it's nice to see (and taste, hello).

Classics that continue on the menu include the crowd-pleasing pistachio-crusted goat cheese ($9), or the quartered dates ($8) stuffed with chorizo and Cabrales cheese, with a crispy exterior wrapped in prosciutto--the dates come topped with a salad of frisee, sultanas, and pine nuts that helps cut the richness of these wicked bites. There are also the lamb meatballs ($9) sporting a nice firm texture, delicious with their wading pool of goat yogurt zhoozhed with mint and cumin.

So, now that we have the stalwart faves out of the way, how about Newton's additions? I recommend starting with the soup of the day--in the summer, it was a corn puree topped with lavender honey, while in the winter it was sunchoke with the inspired undertone of maple and the tang of sherry vinegar. Oh, and don't fill up on the addictive fresh bread served with complimentary (though a bit chunky) hummus.

The summer also brought pole beans ($9) coated with dill crème fraîche, and topped with frizzled shallots--almost a cold and classy variation of the old school green bean casserole with Lipton onion soup mix, ha ha! It was actually the perfect summer salad, creamy and cool, salty and crispy, with lightly dressed sweet 100s on the side.

There are plenty of crudos around town, swing that cat, but the hamachi crudo ($14) here is especially scrumptious: slices of hamachi are topped with a parsley emulsion (translation: foam) and a sprinkling of smoked sea salt, plus the brill addition of cubed and crisp Brabant potatoes, along with crème fraîche nestled underneath. There was a touch too much salt, but the way all the elements played together was so on point. Hearts.

The house-made potato gnocchi ($10) dish rotates with the seasons--in the summer it came with peas and smoked ham, while the winter delivered braised oxtail, tender roasted cippolini onions, grated fresh horseradish, and a Parmesan emulsion. Yes, I know, another foam, but it nicely infused the flavor of the cheese into the dish, with flavors that bordered on a hearty and delightfully rich stew. The sear on the toothsome gnocchi reminded me of the ones I've had at Postrio, and since Newton got his start in the Postrio kitchen, well, there you have it. In this case, the sear actually helps the gnocchi stand up to their juicy surroundings.

Mains include a most rocking dish of roasted black cod ($22) that rests on a bed of shelling bean ragout and Tuscan kale, all brought together with a caramelized onion sherry jus. It's the kind of dish that could single-handedly get you through the winter. Even the classic seared ahi ($25) gets perked up with a caraway crust, smoky chunks of Hobb's bacon, apple, frisee, and whole grain mustard butter.

I know I'm fired up, but not everything passes with flying colors--on one visit, the poached then seared octopus ($11) was under-salted and mushy, and the flavor-bereft couscous needed to follow the lead of the couscous at Aziza (well, all couscous does, really). Desserts also needed some triage--the orange Ligurian cake was "something has gone very wrong" dense, but one bite of the chocolate bread pudding dish's cashew brittle with the roasted banana helped to save dessert.

People tend to sink right into this sultry space, with its red walls, banquettes lined with brightly colored pillows (plus pillowed iron chairs), exotic/gypsy-esque music, and dim lighting with candlelit tables and niches, and there's a dramatic candle chandelier overhead. This place is also tiny, don't get me wrong, so while it's good for a date, it's not good for a quiet date--tables are very close together, and the volume can climb.

There are lots of couples dining here, plus double dates; singles can happily find a space at the bar in the back. If you're in a group, the prime group table to score is the alcove with curtains and room for six--great for girls' night out. It's also worth noting this not quite a good place if you're in a rush--things can move at a leisurely pace here.

This chef is one to watch--I look forward to seeing even more innovations happen on Newton's menu as he continues to evolve his style, source different ingredients, and try even more combinations. His time as an opening sous chef at Redd up in Yountville assuredly helped craft his elevated technique and vision. He "gets" flavor, and what tastes good together without muddling or overpowering the individual elements. Which is why I'd inquire about having him put together a tasting menu if you'd like to go that route--it could make for a delightful tour.

Early birds and bargain hunters will be stoked with the three-course prix-fixe menu ($25, or $35 with wine pairings, Sun-Wed 5:30pm-6:30pm, Thu-Sat 5:30pm-6pm). There is also a separate room downstairs with room for 25, totally a swell spot for private parties.

So when all the Valentine's Day madness is over, scoot yourself on over to Baraka for your next date night--it could be with anyone, really, because the real date is with the food.

288 Connecticut St.
Cross: 18th St.
San Francisco, CA 94107


Sun-Thu 5:30pm-10pm
Fri-Sat 5:30pm-11pm

Apps $8-$17
Entrées $17-29
Desserts $6-$8

This place is now closed.

288 Connecticut St. San Francisco
(at 18th St.)