Verbena

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The entrance to Verbena. Photo by Carmen Troesser.

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The walnut bar. Photo by Carmen Troesser.

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Sprouted seed bread, chevre, beet sauerkraut. All food photos: © tablehopper.com.

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Artichoke, pickled green tomato, garlic, pine nut.

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A half-order of the carrot dish.

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Sardine, cauliflower, Viking potato, horseradish, steelhead roe.

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Koji quail, Sonoma grains cooked dirty, Bacio di Satana brown butter.

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Molasses ginger bread, carrot sorbet, IPA caramel.

When word spread that the team from Berkeley’s Gather was opening a restaurant in Russian Hill, I wondered what exactly they had in mind for us city folk. They did a bang-up job transforming the former Rex Café/Marbella into an attractive and warm space (thanks to Abueg Morris Architects), with high ceilings, a raw-edge walnut bar (with a brick wall and plenty of bottles of choice spirits behind it), a glowing shelving unit lined with pickled and preserved vegetables, and there’s even a room on the mezzanine that’s perfect for your next group function.

Since you end up sharing plates here, it wouldn’t be my first pick for a business dinner, but it’s ideal for friends catching up or a date (although the lights are dialed a little high). Then again, I’m glad the lights are a bit bright, because you don’t want to hide chef Sean Baker’s beautiful plating (served on some gorg pottery from Jered’s Pottery). And while the dishes look very “NorCal now”—little landscapes artfully composed with dollops and petals and powders and oils—the cuisine here is so very flavorful. It’s not tweezer food art for Instagram—it’s food art that’s meant to be visually appreciated as it hits the table, and then eaten and heartily enjoyed.

Each dish is complex, with many components and preparations, and it’s hard to ascertain from the menu exactly what you’re going to get (though the servers are very well versed on the details). It’s adventurous and fun. Flavors are more loud talkers than careless whisperers here.

The sprouted seed bread ($7) is a must. While it sounds like a biodiesel Volvo-driving, kombucha-swilling hippie dish, the warm bread (which is incidentally Baker’s wife’s recipe) is supremely delicious (it has a ping of heat). You’ll end up scooping up the housemade chèvre and dehydrated beet and sauerkraut powder with it (much more fun than trying to politely slather it all on with a knife). My dining wingman said the flavors were so satisfying, like he was eating a vegetarian version of an In-N-Out burger (side note: he may or may not have smoked a little herb before dinner).

There’s a dedicated section of vegetable dishes, and on my two visits I ordered some of the same plates, which keep evolving and are getting even more dialed in (portion size is also being tweaked, favorably). The artichokes ($14) have a sublimely tender texture and smoky kiss, a zip of acidity from the pickled green tomato, and the pine nuts have a freshness that will make you take note. Yeah, pine nuts.

Carrots ($12) take on mega flavor, thanks to their sous vide bath in carrot juice, lemon verbena, and Aleppo chile (grown on Lindencroft Farm, which Verbena has an extremely tight relationship with—they grow many things exclusively for Baker). It’s a sophisticated dish, with a creamy nettle, parsley, and smoked cashew cloud, and dollops of date purée that can almost veer the dish into savory dessert territory. (I was just looking for some crunchy texture in that dish.) I would easily go back for the homey brassicas ($23) with cheddar sauce and lentils and just make that my own meal for the night.

Anyone who digs pickled herring should try the Nordic-esque sardine ($15), pickled in an intense and short brine, packed in oil, and essentially served raw, with fried cauliflower, dressed crème fraîche, horseradish, dill salsa verde, steelhead roe, and fried potato.

On the meaty part of the menu, the tender meatballs ($16)—made with chicken, pork, and ricotta—take a run through the Mexican part of the pantry, served in an ink-black mole with hominy. A new dish, the lamb sausage ($18), gives us Morocco, Italy (with the Castelvetrano olives), and cilantro all in one fell flavor-packed swoop. Wanna mash up the South and Japan? A favorite (again, I ordered it both times) is the koji quail ($29), two plump birds marinated in koji and buttermilk, grilled on the robata, and served on risotto-like dirty “rice” (actually, wheat berries), and yes, there are chicken livers in there. You are gonna pick up those little legs and chomp every last piece of succulent meat on them (unless you’re a table of vegetarians).

Dining at Verbena, I am reminded of the international pantries that State Bird Provisions and Bar Tartine pull from (the pottery and the pickling here are also simpatico to those two). And like those other two much-adored places, Verbena has the kind of menu that will always be changing, depending on the seasons, and what the kitchen is having fun experimenting with. As a diner, it keeps me coming back.

The desserts by Amy Pearce are equally creative (and complex), like the peppery molasses gingerbread ($8) with a carrot sorbet and IPA caramel. Savory elements appear in other desserts as well: turmeric shows up in marshmallows, parsnip or nettles become ice cream—all with delicious results.

Seats at the bar are coveted—and with tasty cocktails like the Emerald Remedy #2 ($11; gin, Pimm’s, Chartreuse, celery, and lemon), it’s clear why. The wine list (overseen by Michael Ireland, previously at French Laundry, Quince, and The Restaurant at Meadowood) is very producer-driven and, unlike the hyperlocal ingredients on the menu, international. You’ll find quality bottles on the list, and some of the more affordable selections will provide a better deal than doing a night of by-the-glass selections, which average around $13 per glass (just something to note if you’re watching your ducats). The staff is well-equipped to make great recos and pairings, no matter which route you go.

As you make your way to the heavy Spanish wooden doors to leave, servers and floor managers will warmly say good night. If you’re at all like me, you’ll reply with a “see you soon.”

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2323 Polk St., San Francisco
(at Green St.)
415-441-2323
verbenarestaurant.com
$$$
Sean Baker, chef

Cuisine

  • American (Contemporary)
  • Californian
  • Vegetarian-Friendly

Features

  • Bar Dining
  • Private Dining Room
  • Wine List
  • Bar