CA state bird with provisions. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
The kitchen counter standing “seats,” and the cart getting ready to take a spin. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Steelhead caviar chips and dip. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Rock shrimp and mussel “salsa” salad. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Duck liver mousse and almond biscuits. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Green garlic fry bread and burrata. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Brunch: nested egg with the green garlic bread and spicy tomato fondue. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Coffee ice cream sandwich with hazelnut streusel. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Milk chocolate sesame crunch with clementine-cocoa jam in one of Stuart’s handmade bowls. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
The kitchen counter. Photo: © tablehopper.com.
Homecomings are sweet, both for those making the happy return, and those who expectantly awaited the comeback. In the case of husband-and-wife chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, many fans of their unique and very personal culinary approach wondered when they would reappear after the closure of the mythic Rubicon. After having a baby, and cooking at private events for the lucky clients who could afford them, the talented duo has triumphantly returned to our city’s cuisine scene, opening their restaurant in an unexpected place (an ever up-and-coming stretch of Fillmore Street), with a quirky name, ~STATE BIRD PROVISIONS~, and with a format unlike any other in the city. I wouldn’t have expected anything less from this avant-garde couple—the entire concept very much reflects who they are, their tastes, their beliefs, their love of community, their creativity, and their talents.
The restaurant’s subtle signage means you’ll just need to look for the street number—you’ll know you’ve found it when you’re looking through the large window that frames a pastry and prep station, with Nicole and one of her assistants most likely rolling out dough or cutting up cookies.
You’ll see Stuart (always ready with a warm smile) near the long Boos butcher block counter that flanks the gleaming open kitchen. Demand is already so high for seats in the dining room that the team added four standing-room-only positions at the kitchen counter—if you want to rubberneck and watch the kitchen closely (and be served by chef himself), these would be your stand-up seats. (Stuart tells me some people start at the counter while waiting for a table to open up, but once they get into their meal, he said not one has opted to sit down once a table opens.)
The walls are covered in pegboard throughout, lending a crafty feeling, and artist Ehren Reed has been adding string art to various sections, including a cute little cobweb in the corner of one of the skylights (more artwork is being added in coming weeks). The dining area in the back is intimate, 45 seats total at the two- and four-top custom-made tables. As you’re sitting there in your comfortable vintage chair with spindly legs that magically don’t screech on the concrete floor, perusing the tight and European-leaning wine list (I enjoy starting with a glass of the Gaston Chiquet Champagne, but you’ll also find a choice selection of beers), this is when things flip into high gear.
Your server will present you with a short list of cooked-to-order options from the kitchen, but I recommend sitting tight and seeing what comes to your table first. You are about to be courted throughout the evening by a variety of dishes, whether they’re wheeled up on a dim sum cart or presented to you by a tray-laden server; each display will have a little sign with the price, and your server will give you a quick rundown of the dish. It’s an exciting, interactive, and engaging way to dine. You’ll need to pace yourself, because it’s very easy to suddenly have a table overflowing with plates and bites—which isn’t such a bad thing, but it is a little bit of an ADD way of dining, especially the first time you go.
Diners who prefer a more passive-aggressive way of dining (ha ha) by ordering an entire meal in one fell swoop after they have all their questions answered and dietary needs met, well, it’s time to shake off the control freak shackles. Here, it’s about being openminded, choosing what looks good as it comes to your table, being capricious, and sharing bites and plates in a fun and communal fashion. And you can forget pairing your beer or wine with the courses—just get a bottle of something off the food-friendly list and be done with it (but I would like to make a request for a sparkling rosé on the list). It may be a little tough to carry on an intense conversation because you’ll be seeing a fair amount of your friendly server (everyone here is really nice).
The kitchen is a total workshop—dishes are tweaked and come and go quickly on the menu, which encourages diners to return often, but is potentially disappointing if you get your heart set on something. There are all kinds of kitchen projects, from pickles to house-cured meats to a vermouth GM/wine director Mary Christie is working on with another employee. Even the staff aprons have a pottery worker-chic look to them. Fun crafty fact: most of the ceramic dishes were made by Stuart.
So, let’s eat. The cart is like a mobile appetizer unit, with the fuel for the cocktail party of my dreams (and hopefully yours). It might be proffering oysters on the half shell (2 for $5) with extra virgin olive oil and daikon, or the “chips and dip,” thin housemade potato chips with a layer of electric orange steelhead roe ($7) draped over a hearty dollop of zippy horseradish crème fraîche. Another enjoyable pick was a Mexican shrimp cocktail-like dish of rock shrimp and mussels ($7) poached in lime, jalapeño, and cilantro, and tossed with a tomato “salsa” made from canned Dirty Girl tomato purée spiked with lime, garlic, and jalapeño, and then spooned over a bowl of tender lettuces, shaved raw vegetables, and tortilla chips.
With the majority of dishes you’ll find the flavors are sophisticated, but the presentations aren’t fussy or pretentious. You’ll encounter varying degrees of temperatures and textures (including what I like to call state birdseed). The kitchen operates with an expansive and adventurous larder (love all the spices and peppers!), and the inventive yet harmonious flavor pairings divulge the years of experience behind them. The cuisine here is like improv jazz by some cool culinary cats with serious chops.
Ingredients are so market fresh—the best produce you could hope to source—and all in precise sync with the seasons. The food tastes sparkly. The flavors of most dishes are also bright, like the pickle plate ($6) with Prather Ranch beef tongue that’s been pickled for 10 days and then boiled like a dreamy pastrami, paired with vegetables that have either been lacto-fermented (watermelon radish) or pickled in vinegar (cauliflower, onions) and then dressed with a warm oil bath. (Yeah, let’s just say I’ve ordered that dish twice.)
The duck neck dumplings ($6) were reminiscent of a homey Eastern European sensibility, the tangy wrappers made with sour cream, encasing a rich yet pickled meat filling inside. And then you taste a spoonful of the broth made with braising liquid and a hit of butter and the pop of sauerkraut juice. And then you pause. I am not one to leave broth like that in the bowl—my guest and I each took a turn drinking the final drops from separate sides of the bowl like it was a chalice with a magic elixir (because it was).
One presentation that ended up leaning too far on the bright and acidic scale was the char-grilled chicories ($6) with yogurt, dates, and almonds. After everyone at my table took a bite, I ended up bringing the entire serving home and using it as a filling in a decadent omelet the next day with Gruyère. Yeah, that’s how I roll.
The namesake CA state bird with provisions is so succulent and savory: the tender quail is marinated in buttermilk and then dredged in a generously spiced flour of pumpkin seeds, breadcrumbs, chile powder, cayenne, and paprika. For those who quibble with teeny tiny quail bones, fear not, because it’s served primarily deboned, except for the leg and wing. The ribbons of Parmesan on top add a bass note of umami, and the provisions in the bowl are sweet and herbaceous onions that also lend an element of tartness from the lemon juice that the onions were cooked in. The whole thing is a flavor bomb of fabulous. You can get a half bird ($8) or whole ($16)—I’d be tempted to order a whole one to go, because those would make for some mighty fine leftovers (just ask me how I know).
A trout dish ($9/$18) with garum brown butter and hazelnuts blew my mind one night (the fish was so beautifully fresh), and the depth from the garum (think Italian fish sauce) was hypnotizing; this dish keeps changing on the menu.
The fried green garlic bread with burrata ($8) delivers all the evil you’d hope it would with a name like that. The tangy bread (made with sourdough starter) is layered and ropey and twisted, providing a warm nest for the scoop of creamy Di Stefano burrata that’s spooned into the middle. The evil bread also shows up at brunch ($12) with a poached egg perched on top, spilling its bright orange yolk into a spicy tomato fondue. Yup, this is how addictions start.
Another sinister bready item that stopped my table in its tracks was the duck liver mousse with almond “biscuits” ($5), financier-like biscuits made with duck fat instead of brown butter, toeing the sweet-savory line. Damn, kitchen, take it easy on us with all this crazy deliciousness!
The cuisine is playful, like one night when we were offered fork bites ($3): each fork held a piece of Brokaw avocado rolled in citrus salt, toasted fennel, and breadcrumbs, served with pomelo and house-cured guanciale. It was like your chef pal had his back to you for a moment, and then turned around to hand you a fork and said, “Try this.” Yeah, my dining partner and I were silent for a moment over that one.
Save room for dessert, pal. Nicole Krasinski’s desserts always intrigue me with their earthy flavors, savory elements, and engaging presentations. And at these prices, you’ll be tempted to order a full dessert spread. (It’s worth noting that each meal I’ve had here, I end up spending about $55-$60 total, and leaving completely sated.)
The “world peace” peanut muscovado milk ($2) is so named because it’s “liquid happiness,” as the team lovingly refers to it. Nicole toasts the peanuts, steeps them in milk, cream, and sugar, cools the mixture overnight, lightly purées and then strains it, creating in essence a massive extraction of peanut bliss into a little glass, with muscovado syrup lingering at the bottom. Order a round for your table.
A coconut cake ($5) ends up spending some time on the plancha alongside some meaty dates that impart a smoky-sweetness to the dessert—what a winner. An Earl Grey panna cotta ($4) is charmingly served in its own metal mold (instead of being flipped over), topped with cooked pieces of lemony-apple that make it evoke a comforting cup of tea, but in dessert form. The feuilletine-studded texture of the milk chocolate sesame crunch ($5) is going to haunt you, along with its toasty notes. You’ll also find ice cream sandwiches ($5), three-bite wonders made with coffee, or rosemary, or pear ice cream.
If you come for Sunday brunch, you’ll cozy up with Nicole’s toasted Parmesan, thyme, and black pepper bread, so right with a soft scramble of eggs ($13), with rabbit sausage, sweet caramelized onions, and pimentón-spiked yogurt.
I really enjoyed the space during the daytime brunch hours, with the soft light streaming in from the skylights. The room can have a muted yellowish hue in the evening that reminds me a bit of being in an office in the 1970s. It’s not the most flattering, but stylistically, it kind of works with the vintage light fixtures and speakers playing a mix of jazz, Kings of Convenience, and Broken Bells. The crowd tends to skew a bit older, in the 40-something designer/architect/creative class camp, and on each visit I have seen a number of industry folks coming in to say hello and check out our city’s new, shiny toy.
Since seating is limited, here are a few tips. You can try your luck making a reservation via Urbanspoon on their website, or you can line up before the doors open at 6pm and hope for one of the walk-in spots. If you miss your chance at the first round of tables, you can put your name down and go have a beverage at the neighbors that are all within one block, like Fat Angel, Social Study, 1300 on Fillmore, and Yoshi’s. Sunday brunch, also a good time to come in. And then there are those standing spots at the kitchen counter, which aren’t for everyone, but for those who love food and people and play, you should be all over them. Kind of like this special restaurant, one that San Francisco can proudly add to its roster of contemporary NorCal stars that diners will be watching and noticing (and loving).