I have to hand it to chef/owner Loretta Keller, it's one of the most successful restaurant reinventions in the city—like a tranny who went from being known for a continual Liza shtick to suddenly rocking it as Beyoncé. It does make me wonder if a few others around town could follow suit (restaurants, not trannies). For those of you who remember the space as Bizou, it's been cutely situated on a corner in SoMa since 1993, filled with cheerful light during the day and offering a somewhat urban view of cars zipping by in the evening. The building itself has always struck me as tres charmant, with little planter boxes under the windows, and it's a cozy size. After the two-month remodel, Keller smartly kept a few Bizou favorites on the menu so she didn't have a riot of her regulars on her hands, but overall the look and vibe of the restaurant couldn't be more different. And the name makes me happy to say it—it sounds racy. Vroom.
The mostly mid-century styled space features a predominance of wood (did you think I was gonna say velvet?), like teak tables that can actually hold a fair amount of the small plates you'll be ordering, comfy and always-sexy Thonet chairs, and a wood-slat divider separating the bar area from the dining room that looks almost sauna-like. Tables are nestled close to each other, very close, but this way you can scope what your neighbors are eating—it's almost impossible to not chat with them at some point. (Maybe that's just me, though. Chatty Patty, here.) The artwork works, there are little flashes of cobalt blue here and there, and the lighting is flattering. It all feels quite clean and urban, and yay, you're not in IKEA.
I've eaten here at least three times over the past year, and I have to say, the food definitely continues to improve. (Prices also seem to have climbed a few ticks here and there.) Service is mostly responsive and always friendly, and the restaurant manages to pack in an interesting and eclectic mix of city folk, from industry peeps dining out on a night off (and swilling the fab organic cocktails, natch) to hip homos to MILFs out on the town who want a somewhat chic place for dinner that is fun but feels more like a restaurant than a bar. Speaking of, I've heard the bar can get going in the early evening with SoMa workers after they punch the clock. But in actuality, it always seems to have a lively vibe, with lots of conversation sometimes punctuated with a little silliness (again, the cocktails).
I send a number of folks here when they have the tricky task of pleasing both carnivores and vegetarians alike, without one or the other getting shortchanged. The small plates menu of seasonal Cal-Mediterranean dishes features a nice smattering of vegetarian options, so I took a veggie pal visiting from L.A. here recently, and she was thrilled. A can't-miss dish is the signature fried green beans ($6). There's a reason they are a signature. You'll get a pile of piping hot green beans fried in a perfectly light batter, with a dipping sauce that can rotate—I've enjoyed dipping them into a kicky aioli, tasty. In past visits I also ordered the COCOmole "tacos" ($4), five petite tortilla chips topped with the famed beef cheeks in a mole sauce and a dollop of avocado puree on top. Little delectables custom-built for popping into your mouth, and for $4, sure, bring it on.
Once you leave the "small starts" section, prices do ramp up (maybe it's COCO500's zippy name that forces the quick acceleration?)—salads clock in around $11, so pay attention if you are on a boo-jay. Do not let the term "small plates" hypnotize you: small plates rarely equate to cheap (dang!) unless you only order a couple. I have tried to reconcile with the spring pea ravioli ($13) twice, but alas, they just don't manage to charm me. Especially since both times they have shown up lukewarm, and this last time, the unheated plate did not help the situation. The actual dough is tender and good, but there's just too much of it for me. Meh. We are through.
But here's where things get wicked tasty: the squash blossom flatbread ($9) is beyond scrumptious. I am craving it now. A thoughtful display of blossoms melted delightfully into the cheese, and the kicker, a drizzle of some truffle oil. Yes, a total cheap-thrill ingredient, but man, does it work. Beautifully blistered cheese and crust. (Are those enough superlatives for you?) Funnily enough, this past week there has been a battle of the COCO500 flatbreads discussed among some local food bloggers —I'll have to come back to meet the contender, the cured salmon pizza ($13).
One advantage to dining with a vegetarian—you eat a lot less, and much more cheaply. Well, we actually blew our cash on cocktails—more on those later. We didn't venture in the "a la plancha" section, which features dishes like roast chicken ($18), or P.E.I. mussels ($11), all cooked on heavy steel with very little fat. A dear friend recently wrote to tell me how he was gettin' all crazy for the beef cheeks ($15) from the "wood oven" section, but asked me to question the cornmeal-y crust they appeared to be deep fried in. I have no answers—I was eating vegetables on this last visit.
Instead, my veggie pal and I ordered up some sides, like gigante white beans ($5) and sweet white corn ($6) from the "california dirt" section. I remember being enthralled with the sweet corn the last few times I visited, but this time it had some shiitake mushrooms nestled in there, whose funky musky flavor really overpowered the corn. It was like a pretty girl on a date with a dirty hippie. The gigantes were a touch mealy, such is the nature of this beastly bean, but the Mediterranean flavors of the Davero olive oil and melted Parmesan cheese on top helped win me over.
Desserts seem to vary, but lately, the Greek yogurt ($5.50) with orange blossom honey has been getting rave reviews, and the night we were there, we had a strawberry "brûlée" ($7) studded with a mound of the most exquisite strawberries I've tasted in ages. Reminded me of little wild berries morphed with my grandma's, which I remember plucking off bushes on her deck (always be a berry benchmark for me).
Overall, as you can see, the food is quite approachable and "safe," so you could even bring pickier eaters here and they'll eat well. (I tend not to dine with picky eaters, but I know they are out there.) The ingredients are all top-notch, so fresh, and quite balanced. If you're looking for groundbreaking food, you might want to head elsewhere. But sometimes you don't need the adventure, and that's when COCO500 is just right. There are touches of rustic indulgence for those craving it (veal marrowbones, beef cheeks, cheese), but overall it's lighter, clean, simple food. It would also be a perf destination for a fun date, a girl's night out (well, maybe about four of you, tops—not the best place for large groups), and I have some pals in the area that dig it for lunch.
Oh, and the cocktails, ba-damn. They're made with organic ingredients, and smaller-production spirits. So, no, they are not cheap. But they are very very good. The mint julep ($9) packed a serious wallop (thank you sir, let's do that again) and the COCO500 ($10) with Thai basil, Kaffir lime vodka, lime, and seltzer is what I'll be craving on the next warm evening. Actually, a number of the cocktails are spot-on for that, as rare as those evenings are. (Sigh.) So the next time you have a first date with a vegetarian or a dinner with some picky pals, you know exactly where to go (and no, it's not hell).
500 Brannan St.
Cross: Fourth St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
Small plates $9-$19