Dirty Habit

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Leather & Lace cocktail. All photos © tablehopper.com (except where noted).

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Oysters on the half shell.

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Mezcal-cured salmon.

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The outrageously good chicken wings.

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Lamb belly buns.

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Octopus with eggplant, cherries, and pine nuts.

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Corn cremeux with pickled blueberries.

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Jackfruit panna cotta.

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Seating in the dining room. Photo: David Phelps.

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The spacious and comfortable outdoor patio. Photo: David Phelps.

I’m the first to admit it (and I was pretty clear from the beginning) that I hated the name of ~DIRTY HABIT~, the new incarnation of the former Fifth Floor space at the Hotel Palomar. And you know what? I still don’t like the name. I have zero problem with eating lamb belly bao with impunity and putting away spiritous cocktails on a weekly basis—there’s nothing dirty about those habits to me, it’s good living. But just because I don’t like the name (or the cheesy image of the woman on the website), well, those things do not diminish the enthusiasm I have for the restaurant’s kickass chicken wings, cocktails, and new outdoor patio. So here we are.

Kudos to the Kimpton Group, because it has proven to be a wildly successful turnaround and concept change. Like, whoa. The place is going off every Friday like a house on fire (the 10-foot fire feature on the patio seems to fit right in). We don’t have a lot of patios in the city, and this one is shielded from the wind, heated, and nicely tricked out with all kinds of low-slung seating options, so it’s crazy popular. Things can get nutty, and on a warm night, prepare for A Scene. They actually had to get some bouncers to help keep things under control on the busy weekend nights. (Are we in da club? I’m just trying to enjoy my drink and smoky fondue.) But earlier in the week, you can expect a calmer scene, although the upbeat music is still all about “let’s party!” You can also run into a long wait (one to two hours for a table), but you can grab a drink at the bar or they’ll call your cell.

Executive chef David Bazirgan has made the shift from tasting menus to rather sophisticated “bites” (as the menu states), and you can see his visits to the farmers’ market and ingredient sourcing shine in them (I couldn’t believe how exquisitely ripe the figs were in a dish he made with bleu d’Auvergne spuma, vadouvan and almond toffee, and housemade jamón). Oysters are plump, served at the perfect temp, and shucked properly (the other night they were creamy Shigokus from Washington). Octopus ($16) is cooked just right, paired with a smoky and spiced eggplant purée (deepened with squid ink), seared Japanese eggplant, dried and fresh cherries, and quality Italian pine nuts that are translucent from some time in a vinaigrette—a creative and fascinating dish.

Mezcal-cured salmon ($14) was like a lightly boozy gravlax, with dill, mint, and a precise dice of pickled nopal, but some bites of the serrano chile can be a bit too feisty for the fish; hamachi tartare ($17) struck me as too expensive (and not served chilled enough). I also had issues with a couple of the salads, I think they could be more exciting when compared to the layered flavors in the other dishes (especially considering vegetarians don’t have a bunch of options on this menu).

Some of the heartier bar-style dishes really, truly rock, starting with the irresistible chicken wings ($12)—I had to have them on both of my visits. They are quite engineered: they are cooked sous vide with ginger and then fried in potato starch. They remind of a really dry Korean-style fry, but they’re tossed with a sticky sauce with soy, chile, and Korean rice vinegar, and topped with pickled jalapeños, cilantro, and togarashi threads, plus a final flourish of lime and fish sauce. Yeah. Hold me. They also don’t get mushy as they sit—they remain crisp until you clear your plate.

You also have to try the steamed buns with lamb belly ($6 each)—the way the pillowy housemade bao soak up the juicy and fatty (but not toooo fatty) lamb with exotic spices like star anise and cardamom is pure pleasure. (It’s the most-ordered dish.) The crumbled and slow-fried Szechuan pepper-spiked peanuts inside remind me of the Huang Fei Hong peanuts I love that a reader turned me on to (my own dirty habit, ha-ha!), a clever addition.

The pork croquettes ($12) were awesome, paired with pickled mustard seeds with urfa chile, diced nectarine, and a raita sorbet to counter the richness (we’ve got some pig’s head going on here). I don’t have the room to write it all here, but there is so much technique behind all these dishes, people have no idea.

There are a couple of larger, beefy dishes, like the dry-aged rib-eye ($35) with béarnaise and the rather decadent DH burger ($18). Both came out medium rare as requested, but both needed a bit more seasoning to really pop. Fortunately they also come with the really delicious thick-cut fries—you may remember these from Baraka? Russet potatoes are baked, cooled, and then wedged and fried the next day, and come with a crumbly smoked paprika exterior, even tastier dunked in the harissa aioli (which is also the spread on the burger). Oh, and don’t let that burger sit for long: its many fillings (including wonderful bourbon-y onions) make it a wet one, which would be mitigated if the kitchen would toast both sides of the Firebrand challah bun that wants to disintegrate quickly.

Pastry chef Francis Ang is doing some inventive desserts, including the can’t-miss and beautifully textured jackfruit panna cotta ($8), with lime granita, rum gelée, and mint foam. I think the cremeux ($8) has evolved nicely—now it’s made with corn (cooked with Korean barley tea), pickled blueberries, and Parmesan ice cream (Ang was inspired by a Filipino dessert he had as a kid: corn and cheese ice cream!). Both times the macaron ice cream sandwich ($8) has been too challenging to eat, a shame because the flavors of almond and cherry are so good—Ang is still dialing that one in.

You’ll want to explore bar manager Brian Means’s extensive cocktail list. I am way into the flavor of sherry in my cocktails, so I was all over the earthy Dirt Nap ($10, Noilly Prat dry vermouth, porcini mushroom, Lustau “Don Nuno” oloroso, King’s Ginger liqueur) and the aptly named Leather & Lace ($12, James Pepper rye, Lustau “Peninsula” palo cortado, Licor 43, tobacco bitters). The Marigold (Cuttysark Prohibition Edition, Luxardo apricot, Laird’s applejack, apricot bitters) was beautifully balanced, but my Coffee Break ($11, Appleton Rum, cold brew coffee, Mandarine Napoleon, housemade molé bitters) was a watery finish to the meal. You’ll find barrel-aged cocktails and some big punch bowls to share. The wine list also has plenty of choices in case you need a break from the booze.

Service can be a bit harried depending on how slammed they are and the bar can get pretty backed up. Timing of the dishes can be a little off as well (from the Chinese restaurant pileup all at once, to why am I getting the hamachi with my burger?) but they’re working on it. I can only imagine the “fire in the hole!” pace in the busy kitchen. The small share plate you eat off of can also be too small for some courses—ask for a larger plate if you need one.

Since reservations are only accepted for parties of six or more, that would be the ideal way to go since you can encounter a long wait. There are also communal or large group seating options, from a high-top table at the entrance to on the patio. The loungey inside dining area is a bit too trendy/Blade Runner for my taste, complete with mesh metal panels along the walls and ceiling, swiveling chairs, clubby lighting, Persian-style rugs, and tufted banquettes, oddly mixed with barn doors as room dividers. It’s eye-catching and dramatic, and if I had a hip younger cousin visiting from LA, I’d know exactly where to take her. It’s definitely a scene, and not one I personally want to immerse myself in too often (yeah, I’m getting old!), but I can see the appeal for many. Then again, those wings, a table outside, and a Dirt Nap may prove to be hard for me to resist for long.

This review was based on two visits.

12 4th St. San Francisco
(at Market St.)
415-348-1555
dirtyhabitsf.com
$$
David Bazirgan, chef

Cuisine

  • American (Contemporary)
  • American (New)
  • Bar
  • Californian

Features

  • Good for Groups
  • Outdoor Dining
  • Private Dining Room
  • Bar