Orson

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Burrata with rhubarb.

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BBQ pork ribs.

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Grilled corn, summer squash, leek pizza.

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©2010frankenyimages.com

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©2010frankenyimages.com

[Be sure to read the update at the end of this review--the menu has changed significantly.] Are you naughty or nice? Are you chocolate experienced, or just fairy experienced? Do you like to be teased? Wanna explore, or explore deeper? If you're eating at ~ORSON~, you better be prepared to answer all of those flirty inquiries, because everything from the drinks menu to the desserts are gonna ask. The blushing part is up to you. Like a saucy film, or Ghesquiere's latest avant-garde collection for Balenciaga, Orson has been earning its fair share of discussion and debate--raised eyebrows and whispers galore. Hey, everyone, look at the new kid! His mom puts boudin noir on his pizza! Oh yes she does.

I've eaten here three times, and like a good restaurant, each time I'm noticing how it continues to evolve, featuring all kinds of dish refinements, wording tweaks, and menu changes, big to small. It's like, heck, when do I write this place up? I came to the realization that I don't think it's ever going to stop changing, that's the point. The place is full of food inventors, and they can't be stopped.

This restaurant is not for everyone, let's just say it. My parents would find the two-level historic warehouse space cold, too industrial, too much like a "weird" gallery, and the rowdy mix of beats ranging from LCD Soundsystem to Aerosmith to Goldfrapp to Pink Floyd would seriously put them over the edge.

My budget-conscious pal paying off his college debt and 2007 taxes would be stressed with the prices on the menu, but I'd be able to steer him to what to order and he'd be happy: asparagus, chicken sausage, farro with crescenza--there there, all that came to $28, that wasn't too much now, was it? Here, eat some of my duck fat fries. Shhhhhh.

Some hungry orthodontists in town from Connecticut for a convention? Hrm, could be too hip, too challenging, unless they want a little walk on the wild side. As for my buddy who wants a pork chop and potatoes, well, if that's all you like to eat for dinner, then no, this place won't make you happy. (And now you know why I don't like to go out to eat with you very much, either.)

Elizabeth Falkner and chef de cuisine Ryan Farr have dreamed up a menu that would make Orson Welles proud: it's borderline epic. Pages and pages, dishes and dishes. (Which are now being consolidated onto one large page, another wise refinement.) I totally feel like I'm dating this restaurant, learning what I like each time, enjoying some surprise kisses and nibbles on the ear, and coming back for more.

The food here is layered in preparation, using many modern techniques, and cloaked in a certain amount of plotting and planning, building serious intrigue. (It's not all serious--it's also playful.) The seasons are a major driver on the menu--dishes are tweaked accordingly, week-by-week. So it's really not a one-time date. Well, perhaps for some people.

Let's hop to it--my favorites: the trio of pork buns ($7) stuffed with porky bits (like trotter and shank) sealed in a savory dough that reminds me of a soft version of my mom's breadsticks--you dip these rustic and golden little buns in a maple sherry gastrique, stuff them with Fresno chilis and cilantro, and then quickly wonder where they all went; the clever cold-smoked tempura egg ($8) encased in a nori batter shell that you break open and the yolk luxuriously runs into the scallion broth--vegetarians, rejoice; charred hamachi ($11) with a brûlée of sugar, chili and salt, paired with cooling avocado, kicky radish, and cut with citrus vinaigrette; the supple house-made chicken sausage ($14) with a boudin blanc texture and candied pistachio topping that made my heart beat faster (was it the flavor, or the fat?--hmm, don't answer that); the lightly cold-smoked trout ($15) cooked sous vide and served on a bed of black rice, and further smoke-a-riffic with house-smoked bacon--great dish for ex-smokers who want a fix.

And then you ride your horse to flavor country (as it charmingly said on my receipt): the grilled kama for two (hamachi collar, $32) is pure fish decadence--meaty, juicy, spicy, salty, herbal, and smoky, with tang and verve from the yuzu, spice, and togarashi (Japanese seven-spice chili) marinade. After being grilled, the collar is then flash broiled with a puree of herbs and oil. Seriously, how much more flavor can that kitchen work outta and into that fish? (Hold me.)

This is sh*t I could never, ever make at home. This is exactly the kind of food I go out for.

The "companions" are all top of my list to go on a movie date or a weekend away with, like the melt-in-your-mouth carrot dumplings ($6) made from a puree of Chantenay carrot and a (shhhh, it's a secret) Japanese starch, packed with full-tilt carrot flavor. But my fave was the earthy farro ($5) cooked in cabbage broth (you'll find some ribbons of cabbage), plus dollops of crescenza, and the bite of little fried lentil bits. Such texture. Craving. It. Right. Now.

The menu reads a bit cryptically, usually with three to four items listed, like a culinary haiku of sorts that is meant to be evocative. Or then there's just the super simplistic "roasted pig" ($17). That's it, two words. It's all you need, really. (Savvy servers can give you the complete breakdown of every dish, so just ask--they're used to it.)

Promise me you'll at least go out on a limb with something--be daring. Like the silky quenelle of Parmigiano pudding with pepper jam, and cocoa nib explosion (read: pop rocks). It's pretty funny to watch your dining companion grinning with pop rocks firing at will in their mouth. And for $5, almost harmless to play with (better skip the chaser of carbonated soda, ha ha). Heck, you can always order the "safe" (but delish) black cod ($15) prepared sous vide with tender butter beans and served with saffron rouille.

My favorite perch is at the 30-seat horseshoe bar, made of gorg reclaimed marble, with a funky-modern light fixture hanging above, like an exploding icicle. No brainers to start with off the "tease" menu: the duck fat fries with brown butter béarnaise sauce, the light-fry tofu with an understated house kimchee (don't be afraid--it's delicate) made with bok choy that just hits the mark, and the pork candy, aka the chicharrones ($5 each/three for $13).

You can share a wood-fired pizza with a pal, most are around $14--the menu keeps expanding. I just get too seduced by all the other dishes, gotta try the new pizzas… The house-made charcuterie list includes the scrumptious rye salami and spiced tri tip, but I found all the accompanying mustards a bit distracting, even if one was a cool violet mustard.

It's easy to get all ADD here, and I say you better embrace it. If you fight it, you're going to be no match for dessert. Pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez is gonna mess with your mind: blame it on the tuile of candy cap mushroom (was that laced?) with the decadent brûléed chocolate French toast and vanilla jelly ($5)--you can smell this being served across the restaurant. Just wait until you try to figure out what's in the "invisible" dessert ($10).

Not up for full niceness? Don't fret, there are other $5 gems on the "naughty" list, like the maple bacon ice cream in the "you better get your spoon away from my" pigwich, sandwiched in pizzelle. And the stellar 50/50 shot, a dreamy creamsicle-meets-bitters intermezzo that made me christen it an ideal candidate for "Stuff White People Like."

The dessert names alone make me want to try them, like "sundae always comes too late," or "gleaming the cube" (as delicious as it is clever). Villavelazquez told me they actually start with the names first, cool process. I'll keep that in mind for my next column.

Mixologist Jacqueline Patterson's cocktails can be very femme fatale: haunting, perplexing, fascinating, or in the case of the celery or cucumber gimlets, downright dangerous (because they disappear like an adult spa drink). (Note: my kind of spa.)

I dug the edgy staff uniforms designed by Falkner's partner in the restaurant and in life, Sabrina Riddle, with the frayed edges, jaunty tie/scarves, three-panel aprons, and cheeky armbands, like a sporty-looking bartender's vintage sleeve garter.

The space is clubby, with gothic dark elements that have a SoMa naughtiness to them. There are also arty and personal touches, like the canvases painted by Falkner's father, Avery, and there's a video of his in rotation with the other projections above the bar. I'd like to see some adjustments with the lighting--sometimes the space feels a bit too bright, and needs a few additional touches of warmth, like some candles.

I do have some quibbles with the wine list--while the choices are well sourced, the options are too slim considering the explosion of flavor happening elsewhere on the menus. And I'd like at least a couple bubblies to choose from, the place feels like bubbles to me. Some half bottles would be nice since the menu is great for couples dining together. And since we're on gripes, yes, there were a few dishes I didn't care for (octopus salad), or with elements that needed tuning (one night the tai snapper was overcooked). This write-up is monster-sized enough--I prefer to focus on what I liked.

Recent additions to the menu (crazy, there's more!?) include a variety of tasting menus, a côte de boeuf that reaches epic flavor proportions (and is a la Epic Roasthouse in price), and look for a special farmer's menu that will be added on Mondays. There is also a kiosk selling treats and coffee in the mornings.

Welcome to San Francisco's new culinary lab for edgy California cuisine. Are you curious?

*Update: April 6, 2009*
Update 3/30/09: Chef Ryan Farr has moved on, and Elizabeth Falkner's menu has moved to more of an experimental brasserie style. Be sure to dip the duck fat fries into the foie gras mayonnaise that comes with the burger (you can thank or curse me later).

Orson
508 4th St.
Cross: Bryant St.
San Francisco, CA 94107

415-777-1508
website

Dinner
Mon 6pm-10pm
Tue-Sat 6pm-11pm

Bar opens at 5pm

Small plates $5-$17
For two $32 and up
Desserts $5-$10

Updates

06/10: For those who may not have dined here for a while, Elizabeth Falkner’s menu has leaned more toward the approachable, with appetizers like a housemade burrata ($15) butter bomb (loved the unexpected rhubarb accompaniment) and a total pile of meaty BBQ pork ribs ($14) with a spicy hoisin glaze—one bite of the pickled okra and onion will slice through the delightful fatty flavor that coats your mouth.

Yes, you’ll still find Falkner’s playful touches, like the much-discussed explosive Caesar salad ($11) with pop rocks (a bit too deconstructed for my taste), but the real bells and whistles for me are the creative and fresh flavor combinations, especially in the truly gourmet pizzas. Our pick from the list of five enticing California pies included a buttery grilled corn and corn purée, summer squash, leek, and Thai basil number, with cheddar, provolone, and Gruyère, plus shaved pecorino on top. It was a delightful, summery pizza, with an impeccable crust.

My friend went for the Orson burger ($15), a bright pink patty that you want to try different bites of with the side sauces of Cobb relish, steak sauce, truffle mayo, and kimchee ketchup. For my main, I had to try the fried chicken ballotine ($26), which was in essence a large, juicy chicken McNugget, topped with frizzled/fried kale. The side of kimchee provided much-needed acidity against the sides of black-eyed peas and potato purée, inspiring me to construct balanced bites. The chunks of carrots and pea pods weren’t my favorite pairing with the English pea ravioli ($22), however—the vegetables distracted from the gossamer texture of the ravioli. Portions are big, so do try to save room for dessert.

The restaurant keeps evolving, with a creative and clever kitchen that has serious skills, from sous chef Josh Capone’s superlative breads, to the new raw bar on Friday and Saturday nights, with an array of maki and other Japanese dishes. And then there’s the weekend brunch, with decadent plates like a Monte Cristo and house-cured pastrami. Every time I dine here, there’s always a new twist and additions to the menu, keeping me coming back for more tasty surprises.

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This place is now closed.

508 4th St. San Francisco
(at Bryant St.)
415-777-1508
orsonsf.com
$$$
Elizabeth Falkner, chef

Cuisine

  • American (Contemporary)
  • Californian

Features

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