It's funny how restaurants can educate you, or literally make you eat your words. Back in the beginning of the New Year, in my annual missive "The Bore," I declared how tired I was becoming of open kitchens. I ended up getting a lot of flack from some chef pals for that comment, who brought up the very valid point that it's nice to see your customer and be able to interact with the room, instead of being locked away in the literal back of house. Point taken.
When I wrote the piece, I was actually thinking of the newly opened ~CONDUIT~ and how I didn't like looking at the garbage and recycling in the corner while eating my winter chicory salad. Just too much kitchen reality. But fast forward: they have since covered the dishwashing and garbage area up with a curtain, and well well well, two of the three times I have eaten at CONDUIT, look who has parked herself at the counter overlooking the kitchen line.
They are great ringside seats, and rather hot ones too (just watch how the crew here chugs water), but I did reconsider my take on open kitchens. Watching the line hustle is one hell of a thing to witness, and really makes you appreciate the dance that goes into making your dinner. So fascinating, it's hard to focus on conversation with your dining partner. It's now probably my favorite seat in the restaurant.
Munch munch munch. (That's me, eating my words.)
This restaurant has brought up its fair share of controversy, from the edgy urban design from Stanley Saitowitz, to its escalated price point in a location that is better known for rock than rabbit. The place is full of glistening copper pipe, the conduit, if you will. One friend has called it a gay prison, while another liked how the pipes assist in segmenting the rather spacious room into various seating areas and alcoves. It's definitely a statement.
God bless the carpeted floor that helps dampen the sound, and it's a pleasure to have some space in between the tables, allowing for actual conversation (the scintillating part is up to you, darlings). I do wish the bar was easier to perch at (hello, the liquors and cocktails here are enough to make me hang out for hours, but the tiny bar and ledge don't really allow for it), and while we're on ergonomics, the bench seating along the back wall can get a mite uncomfortable after a couple hours. (Pillows please, perhaps? Because my booty isn't providing quite enough cushion, although it should.)
Oh yeah, and let's talk about the infamous bathrooms. Again, it's another case of men designing bathrooms women don't like to use (architects/designers behind frisson and Slanted Door, I am talking to you). The opaque glass partitions between the stalls are a bit nerve-wracking to say the least: can that person see me? I can kind of see them. And the communal sink thing, well, it drives me up a wall. I don't like to reapply my lipstick in front of random men. What happens in the ladies room stays in the ladies room. At least the stalls are now designated which are male and female.
Okay, let's move on to why I really go to restaurants: to eat. (And yes, to drink.) I've enjoyed watching executive chef Justin Deering's menu evolve through the seasons, and stylistically the somewhat haute plating and duos and trios that were originally featured have been dialed back a bit. Deering's background at Boulevard and Jeanty at Jack's is apparent with some Frenchie execution and ingredients making appearances here and there, but he has a playful spin on things that is definitely his own.
The starters aren't cheap, most hover at an $11 average, so don't let the Valencia Street address fool you. But the quality ingredients and work that goes into each dish aren't exactly Valencia Street either. One place to begin is with the little gem salad with a creamy green goddess dressing; I've tried a couple variations, once with radish and hazelnuts ($9), and now the little chilled wedges are accompanied by a timbale of Dungeness crab salad ($12).
The wintertime pork belly and squab dishes have made way for a scrumptious execution of quail ($14) served two ways: it's initially cooked sous vide, and then the pan-seared execution is served on a fried green tomato, while the buttermilk-fried piece rests over a magically ripe (wow, in June!) and flavorful purple Cherokee tomato. I liked the little side of bacon and chive ranch dressing, and peppery watercress, too.
The kitchen has come up with some pastas that regulars are not letting them take off the menu, including the homemade tortellini filled with braised oxtail ($12), resting in a broth that tastes like French onion soup (the magic of braising liquid), all topped with a crispy round of Gruyere, a fun twist on the usual au gratin melted cheese topping. The house-made fettuccine dish ($12) also changes--a delicious variation was in the winter, with a decadently deep yellow-yolked egg in the middle, and shaved black truffle on top; now it comes with a beef and pork sugo (on my "to try" list).
About that egg: it comes from owner Sydney Weinstein of Pauline's Pizza next door (they raise eggs for the restaurant), and the Pauline's Pizza garden is also providing most of the greens, like the arugula-like sylvetta. What a cool partnership.
Mains are nicely composed, and the flavor pairings are unique and well thought out. I especially loved the grilled walu ($19) with cannellini beans, fried Castelvetrano olives, and crispy house-cured guanciale, and a recent dish of roasted halibut ($26) with a hearty base of braised artichoke, maitake mushrooms, and fresh greens totally satisfied--nice acidic kick from some Meyer lemon relish, too.
I am missing the trio of lamb ($28) I had back in February (meow on the loin topped with piquillo pepper), but it's the fact that the menu keeps changing with the seasons that will make me want to return. And the menu is also evolving: the apps remain a bit more "dressy," while the mains are becoming more "business casual" and focused on satisfaction, a smidge less on complicated execution.
No, not all the dishes are perfect (I've been served fish a touch overcooked, salad overdressed, pasta underdone, a sauce under-seasoned) but all in all I have found a lot of care goes into these dishes, with ingredients that taste fresh, and respected. And worked out into delicious combinations.
Some folks have complained about portion size, but I have found them to be just right. Perhaps it's all a ploy to help save room for dessert, because we have a new pastry chef star in our midst: Majkin Klare. She is wildly talented, and knocks me out with her bright flavors and artful presentations. Wait until you try her homemade ice creams and sundaes. My friend went nuts over the vacherin, an "adult ice cream sandwich" with strawberry in the middle, while the sundae of sweet corn ice cream, burnt salted caramel, and candied popcorn totally brought back childhood flavors (and enjoyment) to me. All are $8, make sure everyone at the table gets their own so you can taste and compare.
Oh, yeah, and about the bar. The inventiveness continues, under the guidance of bar manager Reza Esmaili, who has charmed me with a number of clever cocktails here, but totally wowed me with the Yerba Buena gimlet ($11), made with Square One cucumber vodka, Hendrick's Gin (yes, homeboy mixed vodka and gin, and man, does this drink rock), plus mint and lime. Well-executed classics are also in the midst, from a Sazerac to a slowly stirred Manhattan ($10). Drink up.
I guess my palate lines up with GM/wine director Brian Gavin's, because I've savored a number of wines off his list, and they all seem to pair quite well with the food. There are a bunch of Euro vinos (and ones from our backyard) to choose from, and anyone can find something to fit their wallet; one night, all the whites by the glass were under $10, nice. And every time my wine has been served at the proper temp. I gotta say, I love all the Schott Zweisel stemware--sexy stuff.
Service is friendly and efficient, and while the kitchen can occasionally get backed up, folks on the floor handle it well and check in. I like the entire team working here--you can tell everyone is working really hard to make it all happen.
One thing to note: there's a valet lot across the street (man, the parking is the WORST in this neighborhood), but the lot says they close at 10pm, so that can be kind of annoying. Just tell them you want to leave your car in the unattended lot if you plan to stay later.
280 Valencia St.
Cross: 14th St.
San Francisco, CA 94103