Bibb lettuce salad.
I like old things. Textured wood floors with a 100-year-plus patina. Wallpaper. Charlie Parker. And aged wines. (Quite.) These are just a few details that hail from another decade on the list of charms ~HEIRLOOM CAFÉ~ has to offer. This 49-seat restaurant has somewhat quietly opened in a discreet corner location on Folsom Street in the Mission, not exactly restaurant row. It has a warm, vintage feeling that works well with its classic Victorian bone structure that dates back to 1900.
Only half the seats are allocated for reservations, so if you try to waltz in, you’ll likely be seated at one of the two large communal tables, or at the marble counter overlooking the open kitchen. The vibe is relaxed and comfortable—with jazz playing and soft candlelight—making this an on-point date two restaurant in my book (it strikes the right balance of atmosphere and activity). But it was also a perfect spot to bring a friend who was visiting from out of town to, and give her a spoonful of our San Francisco dining style. Like Delfina, Bar Jules, Universal Cafe, Zuni, and Bar Tartine, Heirloom falls into step with our city’s emblematic modern-classic, studied-casual vibe.
Owner Matt Straus has opened an entirely personal restaurant. He oversees the menu in an executive chef role, but he’s also the wine director, assembling the kind of list that makes industry folks happy, and wine geeks quiet for a while as they read it over and plot which old Vouvray they’d like opened (be sure to request the list of older vintages). Straus has been assembling this cellar for over eight years—yup, before there was even a restaurant business plan written up—so come thirsty. It clocks in around 150 labels.
The menu is one of the sparest ones I’ve encountered in the City. I’m talking pared down: a few starters, a pasta dish, a fish dish, an off-the-menu burger that should just be on the menu, and some cheeses. And there’s a three-course prix-fixe menu for $50, which is a good deal considering it includes two glasses of wine. (You can order dishes off the prix-fixe menu à la carte, so there, your options just increased by three.) If you have food issues or need a lot of choices, maybe you should just consider a liquid diet here.
The house kindly sends over a small dish of Marcona almonds and meaty Castelvetrano olives for you to snack on, but olive juice dampens the almonds, so I recommend eating the nuts first. Starters and salads are seasonal, like slices of soft bread topped with thick slices of heirloom (natch) tomatoes ($11), Sweet 100s, a small dice of pickled fennel, cucumbers, feta, and arugula. Now, is this something I could totally do at home? Yes. But would I have a bottle of Franck Peillot Vin du Bugey Montagnieu Brut chilled and ready to go with it? Not likely. Well, unless I was Mrs. Straus. Or truly letting the restaurant be the “living room away from home” it aims to be.
A petite arugula salad ($12) was contained and wrapped with a few slices of prosciutto—like a hatband—with tender-crisp pole beans, flakes of Parmesan, and a base of roasted fig that had the capacity to overpower everything on the plate if you got too much on your fork—but once we figured out the ingredient balance, it worked. (The figs are currently swapped out for pickled dates.)
The kitchen makes delicious, tender gnocchi ($16), which came in a hearty dish with housemade fennel sausage, shucked sweet corn, and fresh porcini, which had run out, so let’s just imagine them—this is what can happen when you dine toward the end of service. Sadly, this is where I encountered a growing personal dislike of mine: pan-seared gnocchi. If you can have the magic touch to make such silky potato gnocchi, why are you gilding these lilies in an oily pan? (Piccolo rant over.)
The fish soup ($20) was firing on all cylinders, with pieces of tender California seabass and salmon hot tubbing in a bowl of saffron, tomato, and pastis broth, topped with a healthy dollop of aioli. The soup also had the most delicious fingerlings, and my favorite touch, some caramelized roasted fennel. I just wanted a shellfish fork to maneuver the clams and mussels out of their shells with any semblance of finesse. Then again, wines are decanted into empty Straus milk bottles here, so shellfish forks might be too dainty a consideration.
One evening, the prix-fixe menu ($50) yielded a huge, flowering Bibb lettuce salad, the leaves artfully stacked like a Georgia O’Keefe bloom. It was light, cool, crisp, and bedecked with a flurry of herbs, like mint, chervil, chives, parsley, and tarragon. I j’adored this bright salad with its just-right vinaigrette; a fresh pairing with the 2008 Qupe Marsanne.
Next, the New York steak came sliced, dolloped with a clever currant pesto (complete with pine nuts and garlic), resting atop a bed of Rancho Gordo yellow-eye beans with wisps of charred escarole. The steak was satisfying, but a bit overdone for my (true) medium-rare loving heart—and I think if you’re going to have steak on the menu, you gotta have steak knives. (I also wanted some purse hooks underneath the counter—my little white leather bag never had “I want to sit on the floor of a restaurant” in her list of wants. But being slung on Marcia’s arm while grooving to some late night disco on the dancefloor? Yes, you betcha.)
An extra-mile touch, however, was when we requested some bread—my friend said the beans were so good she wanted to sit in them, but we decided that soaking them up with some bread was the wiser option—and we received slices that were lightly grilled with a quick brushing of olive oil. Thanks, you shouldn’t have!
Dessert was a ginormous plum and white nectarine crumble that came out screaming hot, cuidado. I had a fonder and gentler encounter with the olive oil cake ($10), served with little pieces of strawberry, mint, and a fascinating black pepper syrup—but I think I’d like it even more if it was a dollar or two less, compared to other $10 desserts around town. But there’s always the option of the fresh-baked chocolate chip and walnut cookie ($2), with the homey touch of oatmeal in the batter (very mom-style, that).
With all the communal seating here, it makes it quite easy to come by for a couple cheeses and a glass of wine. Or the bacon onion tart ($11) and a bottle. Or, bonsoir, the rich and decadent off-the-menu burger ($12), which has Epoisses fiendishly mixed in with the meat, plus a slathering of sweet onion jam and a layer of arugula. You have to love Epoisses to enjoy the funk of this burger—and since Epoisses is on my last meal list, you know I was way into this juicy mutha seeping into its squishy English muffin bun from Sconehenge Bakery (it’s a very tall patty, so you really get to chomp it).
The food is straightforward with a few touches of flair, unpretentious, and yes, can be a bit imperfect. But the restaurant has the kind of atmosphere that makes me not want to be nitpicky, and I can see things getting tightened up in time. I still enjoyed myself, quite, and would happily (and plan to) return—the wines from Straus’s cellar are calllllllliiiiing meeeeee. It’s also a pretty room during the day, so I’d like to check it out for their Friday lunch or Saturday brunch.
Service is engaging and helpful, and if you request the older vintages list, you just may get Matt tableside for any special wine queries (he has to look after his babies, you know). There can be a few missteps, like the staff getting a little frayed with a very busy house, or a wine that needs more chilling before it can be poured (there are 21 by the glass, so something is bound to fall through the cracks, sometimes). Kind of like an heirloom tomato—it can have a few flaws, but still be oh so sweet.