January 30, 2007

Why does the Mission get all the love? I swear. Anyway, I am crazy jealous about this one: come spring, ~SPORK~ will be opening in the old KFC space on Valencia. The project is from the creative mind of Bruce Binn (the former chef de cuisine of Citizen Cake, who has a long resume that includes Slow Club, Delfina, Mustard’s, Postrio, and some stints in New York, including Lupa). His partner in the project is his cousin (by marriage) Neil Jorgensen, who has managed Saturn Café in Santa Cruz, and has recently been ramping up his knowledge about the back of house at Manresa, Range, and Bar Tartine.

Spork’s motto is “Tasty Food,” and they are taking the Cal-American menu seriously but having fun with it too. Think “short order fine dining.” Binn and Jorgensen want to elevate the reputation of the spork—they think it’s been misrepresented in the past. Their plan to serve amuse bouches on them is sure to help. Besides, we already had a Spoon, and Tablespoon, and Fork—now
it’s time for Spork!

Dishes being discussed: chips and fish, a composed salad layered with house-made potato chips, smoked trout and roe, crème fraîche, shallots, and black pepper, a nod to classic caviar accouterments; the inside-out burger, a fork and knife burger with two thin patties of natural beef on the outside and a soft sponge bun in the center, with a quenelle of grilled onions, organic cheddar, butter lettuce, house fries, and pulled dollops of condiments (like aioli) on the plate. Additional dishes being discussed: sticky ribs, Chinese-style fried chicken, pastas, and one of Binn’s personal faves, an open-faced turkey sandwich made with quality ingredients. Other potential touches: house-made rolls, and ground-to-order French press coffee. One definite: beer and wine will be available.

The space will have 48 seats, with a rounded nine-seat counter and booths, featuring a utilitarian modern diner/coffee shop/roadside diner look that’s more about being funky and vibey than kitschy. Eric Heid of Martin Heid Design will be tricking out the space (he also did Range). Dinner to start, with most definitely lunch and brunch to follow soon thereafter. Plus that outdoor parking lot might end up yielding some alfresco options come summer. 1058 Valencia St. at Hill, between 21st and 22nd Streets.

And then to rub it in even more, over on 16th Street will be ~BAR BAMBINO~, a café and wine bar. Even though proprietor Christopher Losa has a Spanish background, he is a total Italophile, and is putting his years of working in the restaurant biz in Boston and numerous trips to Italy to serious work. Losa took his inspiration from the numerous neighborhood bars in Italy (my friends and I used to call them “man bars”) where folks just hang out, talk about soccer, drink some wine, graze on some simple bites, and check their Totocalcio scores. In America, this variation of the “man bar” will have to morph because tons of women will be kicking back and drinking wine in there—they aren’t home doing the laundry and making lasagne, ha ha.

Bar Bambino will be open from late morning until late evening, serving an array of items off their “pane” list (panini for $8.50-$12 made on custom bread from Della Fattoria, plus crostini, tramezzini [I had no idea about the history of the name of one of my favorite Venetian snacks—check this out, and bruschetta) and all kinds of love from the “salumi and formaggi” counter. Yes, counter. There will be a variety of meats from small artisanal suppliers Losa has sourced (one is from Petaluma, another in Geyserville), some so obscure they don’t even have company names. He’s also getting some meats from the high church of salumi up in Seattle, Salumi. You’ll be able to enjoy salumi on premise, or you can get it sliced up nice and take it home. Or if you are like me, you will do both.

The menu will also include 6-7 pastas, and 4-5 entrée-style dishes, and 8-10 sides, many made with ingredients from local farmers. Lizzie Binder is heading up the kitchen. She was at Jardinière, then in Australia for five years, and most recently working as a private chef. Coffee is courtesy of Ecco Caffé in Santa Rosa—there will be two types of espresso, northern or southern style, and drip available too (this is the first place in SF to serve their coffee). The wine list will include 150 wines that are 100% Italian with no regional specificity and moderately priced, many in mid $30s to low $40s for a bottle, and $6-8 by the glass. Losa said he’d be more interested in people being able to come by once or twice a week instead of once or twice a month, hence the friendly price points. Bravo.

The 45-seat space is “crisp but textured” and “rustic modernist”—it’s being tricked out by Aidlin Darling Design, and will feature a glass storefront enabling you to see all the way to the back of the space, with two communal tables that will seat eight each, dark oak floors, chairs and casework, zinc tabletops, a large bar that will seat 15 sporting a white marble top, plus an enclosed and landscaped patio in the back that will seat 20 (this place is gonna blow up). There’s also supposed to be a pair of amazing light fixtures made by some local artists that look like suspended cases of wine with light bulb filaments in the bottles. Optimistic opening is slated for March. Open 11am-midnight, closed Monday, 2931 16th St. between Mission and South Van Ness, 415-701-VINO.

The Italian-fest continues: just across from the Transamerica Building, the old Elisabeth Daniel/Tartare space reopened this week as ~CHIAROSCURO~, an Italian restaurant and lounge from Roman import Roberto Scaccia. The name is Italian for “light/dark,” and refers to the artistic use of strong contrasts, like Caravaggio for you art lovers, or “Rembrandt lighting” for you photographers out there. Scaccia is a total cinephile, so his inspiration is the black and white films of the Italian Neorealismo movement of the ’40s and ’50s (think De Sica). He wants the room to feel like a street in Rome or a terrace from the coast—he actually bought the chairs from the now-closed Enrico’s and painted them off-white and gave them black seats—total Neapolitan style.

The eclectic contemporary style features tables made of chalkboards, poured concrete bench seating, a communal table, two big lanterns reminiscent of Roman street lights that cast an amber glow, plus iron arches with climbing figs. A rotating display of plants is behind the banquettes: this month it’s cactus, next month will be lavender, another month will be basil, or lemon, etc. My favorite detail: Scaccia will only have female servers, dressed in black Sophia Loren-style dresses and tango shoes. (The owner is Italian, what can I say?)

So enough of the set, let’s talk about the food. Both chefs, Damiano Neris and Vanessa Musella, are from Sardegna, but they will definitely be highlighting Roma (Damiano most recently was cooking in Rome—S.P.Q.R., baby!), with monthly specials that will rotate through all regions of Italy. Lunch service includes salads ($5-$10), pastas ($10-$16), and sandwiches ($7-$9) made with focaccia or there’s one piadina on the menu too (an Italian flatbread)—I can’t think of anywhere in San Francisco that serves piadina. (Anyone?) Dinner includes pastas (available in two sizes, most are $8/$13-16) like gnocchi alla romana or trofie with calamari and eggplant, mains like beef loin with grape must ($22), home-style deep-fried fish ($19), and a tasting/“degustazione” menu will be offered (either fish or meat). All the pasta and bread are made in-house. Lunch is served Mon-Fri 11am-3pm, and dinner is Sun-Thu 5pm-10:30pm, and Fri-Sat 5pm-11:30pm. 550 Washington St. at Sansome St., 415-362-6012.

Good news: Mike Selvera is back in the kitchen at ~BAR CRUDO~. I swung by the other afternoon to say hi, and it was good to find him there. Check it: he even said he has baby conch on the menu. Welcome back, Mike.

As of last week, escrow closed and everything is all set: Scott Holley of Yabbie’s Coastal Kitchen and Steps of Rome has taken over ~EOS~ in Cole Valley—he bought it from Arnold Eric Wong, who owned the restaurant for over ten years. Danny Guerinni, who was Wong’s chef de cuisine, has taken over as the executive chef (he’s been at EOS for five years) and now has the new challenge of leading the kitchen. Holley plans to focus on operations and is leaving things status quo. Wong, meanwhile, is going to be busy with three Bs: bacar, his bakery (Raison d’ Etre) and he mentioned wanting a baby at some point soon (he was recently married). 901 Cole St., at Carl, 415-566-3063.

Seems an electric car set off a fire at the ~WARMING HUT~ in Crissy Field, check out the full story here. Power and dog walkers take note: they’ll be closed for a couple weeks or so.

~MIKE YAKURA~ has left Sutra and is now cooking at ~SPARROW~ in the Gramercy Towers. Yakura has totally changed the menu (more Cal-Asian, less French Asian) and has new staff in place too. Feel free to swing by the counter at the exhibition kitchen and say yo (you may remember him as Mister Mohawk in a recent episode of Top Chef). In fact, if you are totally up a creek and trying to decide where to go for V-Day, odds are good you’d be able to snag a table here since it’s in the most random spot in the world. (Take my word for it.) At least the food will be better now. 1177 California St., 415-474-2000.

Now, I can’t believe how many stories I have “sitting in the ’hopper” that I can’t really write about at the moment, so they have to wait until I get back—but just to give you a small tasting spoon, one in particular that is going to have some info released soon is the Mint Plaza project, between Market and Mission and Fifth and Sixth Streets. There’s going to be a lot going on there, but here’s a teaser of one place that is opening: the ~CASTILLOS OF LIMON~ are opening a restaurant at 418 Jessie. More soon!

Yo, noodle slurpers: according to Chowhound, there’s a new ramen joint called ~GENKI RAMEN~ in the Richmond on Geary near 4th Ave. Check out the postings on Yelp.com for some deets on what to eat—it sounds pretty decent.

From a tablehopper reader (sorry, didn’t have time to research this before leaving, and there isn’t a phone message): “I noticed this ominous sign as a walked by ~SUSHI ZONE~ yesterday. Something cryptic like, ‘Starting Monday we will be closed until further notice’.”

Some chef changes over at ~BISTRO 1689~, one of the latest restaurants to join the Noe Valley neighborhood (it’s been open since July). I spoke with the owner, Benny Cheung, and he confirmed that chef Scott Drozd has resigned, and taking his place is Eric Kuhne, formerly the chef de cuisine at West Shore Café in Lake Tahoe. 1689 Church St. at 29th Street, 415-550-8298.

Last night I was supposed to hit the 7x7 magazine ~FIRST ANNUAL EAT + DRINK AWARDS~, but this column needed to be written instead (aren’t you glad I have my priorities straight?). With readers supplying the votes, Gary Danko cleaned up in three categories (Best Overall, Best Service and Best Maître d’), NOPA won Best Newcomer (surprise! ha ha), Delfina won Best Italian and Best First Date (Hey, why hasn’t anyone taken me there on a first date? That’s one mighty nice first date, jeez.), Absinthe won Best Restaurant Cocktails, and there are a bunch of other categories. I have to say, there are a few (slightly dubious) winners that made me think they had all their friends and coworkers stuff the ballot box, but then again that’s what it sometimes takes to get some notice in this town, so let’s just leave it at that.

Okay, the one thing about my vacation that is seriously chapping my hide is I will be in a plane somewhere over the ocean when the ~TOP CHEF~ finale airs. I can’t believe I am missing the damned finale. My money has been on the punk Ilan all along—I would have preferred the hunk, Sam, but all along I’ve been feeling the Mono monkey is gonna close it. Gail seems to have a thing for the Wolverine’s cooking, but in the end, I think Colicchio’s roots are gonna sway him to vote for Ilan in the end. Unless Marcel poisons Ilan with some foam. And Ilan recently left Casa Mono, which has tongues wagging. But enough of my observations, because TONY is in the hizzouse. Check out what Mister Bourdain has to say about the Top Chef contestants on Michael Ruhlman’s blog. Yes, yet another reason why I adore this man—he seriously cracks me the hell up. Oh, and this just in: if you want to ruin the ending and see who wins, click this link to a wicked spoiler posted on Eater LA.

Got a hot tip? You know I’d love it (and you). Just reply to this email! I’ll read it when I get back, thanks darlings!