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Dec 9, 2014 13 min read

An Intimate First Look at The Progress, Opening Within a Week

An Intimate First Look at The Progress, Opening Within a Week
Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski. Photo: ©
Table of Contents

The second album. In the world of music, it can come with a sort of curse (the sophomore slump) if your first was the breakaway hit, the chart burner, the soundtrack to the summer. In the restaurant world, things are a bit more open-ended. The second can be better, faster, stronger than your first (thanks, experience). Or it can be the moneymaker, the pet project, the homage to your heritage, or the casual little offshoot. Or in the case of ~THE PROGRESS~, it can be the concept you originally wanted to launch with, but strategically held on the back burner for some years, letting it steep and develop until the time was right.

This space has been sitting vacant the last couple of years, quietly waiting for its close-up, while State Bird Provisions blossomed and blew up next door. Owners Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski have been busy tending to their culinary wildfire. But slowly and surely, the entire building has become an integrated whole, with The Progress to the left, State Bird Provisions to the right, and now above, a new butchery room, pastry room, and a (distant) future event space.

The fortuitously named Progress Theatre opened in this Fillmore location in 1911, and now, a different kind of theater is unfolding: a poignant, flavor-saturated viewing (in CinemaScope!) of Part II of our NorCal New Wave (NorCal Nouvelle Vague?), starring Stuart Brioza as our Jean-Luc Godard (or maybe our Jean-Paul Belmondo), so our dear Nicole Krasinski can be our Jean Seberg, because they leave so many of us breathless.

The alchemy these two create is potent, and it isn’t something you can pin down like a butterfly. It doesn’t want to be boxed and classified (“Blue Morpho”). Ask them for details about The Progress and you can have a circuitous conversation for 20 minutes. You almost feel guilty for prying. But later on, Stuart will drop in with this: “The menu is about the enjoyment of what we want to cook.” He mentions past travels, past meals: “We are cooking from our past, while informing the future.” Progress.

And Stuart and Nicole also don’t really want to talk too much about themselves—they want you to talk to their team, their partners in the work. In my 12 years of interviewing chefs, it’s so rare to have someone shove the light off themselves so authentically. Stuart and Nicole are proud of who they craft and create with; it’s like they don’t want to be the obvious favorites in their family.

Is it the new California culinary commune? Their restaurant house does have an air of bohemianism to it all, but with a firm foundation of expertise and insight—and drive. A love of tinkering, improving, pushing. Collaboration. Talent. Good people. Soul. Progress, powered by curiosity and creativity and play. Pretension is not invited.

Walking into The Progress, you’ll see the first new addition to the house: the inviting and quietly elegant bar. There are some seats and tables flanking the front window, made of a milky glass that refracts the lights outside and the silhouettes of passing cars and people into an ambient cinematic backdrop. The bar manager is Bryan Hamann, most recently at Monsieur Benjamin, and previously at Starbelly and RN74. His menu exhibits the same zeitgeist as the kitchen: experimental and handcrafted and creative, from his Negroni made with umeboshi vermouth (the salty notes bring an aperitivo-like vibe to the drink, whetting your appetite), and The Mezzanine, an homage to the space’s former theater incarnation that brings mezcal, housemade banana liqueur, a nocino rinse, lime, and allspice into a smoky yet unexpectedly bright cocktail.

He will be there at 5pm daily with his talented and friendly bar team, before the dining room opens, ready to greet you with cocktails that are either twists on classics or original creations ($10-$12). There are 12 seats at the bar, plus plenty of counters where you can stand (meet your new waiting room) and a little niche with two tables.

The main dining room has 54 seats, and the 23-foot vaulted ceiling makes such an impression. On the right is a wall of exposed lath, with a curving portion in the middle that resembles the hull of a vintage ship. The ceiling is a lacquered and bright white, charmingly revealing the imperfections of its century-old surface. To the left are banquettes and tables, and to the right, four booths with curving steel benches tucked under the “hull.”

In the back is the kitchen, open and alive, with some softly smoky notes coming from the custom J&R wood-fired grill (Stuart had J&R turn its rotisserie into a kind of smoke box, where ingredients can bask in the wafting smoke from the grill for hours, without being traditionally smoked).

Above the kitchen is a mezzanine with a round chef’s table that seats eight—kitchen staff will serve the initial courses to those diners. There’s another mezzanine in the front of the restaurant with two tables (seating 16-20 total) that will be opened in time. It’s apparent that they’re looking forward to serving large groups.

Like the kitchen, the dining room is all about craftsmanship (and like State Bird, Wylie Price is behind the interior design). The notable woodwork, by Kelly Best, includes the bar and curving-edge tables made from a cypress tree that fell in the Presidio (of course sourced by Evan Shively) that feel so good to touch. The wine table is another beautiful piece, with such soft edges and the grain masterfully matched down its center seam. Best also made the angular chairs that have a good heft to them, the white oak floors, and the bannisters, with posts whose tops mimic the curving shapes of the ceiling.

The entryway has textured walls (Stuart carved a pattern into the plaster with a trowel), and the metalwork is by Luigi Oldani (he’s behind the bar stools). Counterpoints to these industrial touches are the terra-cotta-esque tiles reminiscent of an old French farmhouse kitchen floor, and smoky topaz lights blown by Alex MacDonald (Palanquin). The crane neck lamps curving off the steel beams in the dining room are originals made by Luigi and Wylie, plus they made the bases to the tables. Every element reminds you we live in a community of craftspeople, and there’s nothing like custom work. And then you go to the restroom, and you are transported to a glitter galaxy. Whoa, I just took a left at Albuquerque. Fun!

Are you ready for dinner? Let’s do this. Where State Bird is all about feeling like a culinary cocktail party of your dreams, with waves of canapés, The Progress is more like an adventurous family meal. Your table can choose from five dishes ($54 per person), seven dishes ($68), nine dishes ($82), or the imperial menu ($108). There are three different sections (plus dessert), grouped by lighter to meatier dishes, around 15 in all; and there are add-ons too, like oysters.

You’ll need to form a quorum at your table about which dishes to order (you will check off little boxes on the menu) since they will be served in a communal fashion. Yes, it’s the next generation of share plates, since the kitchen will be paying keen attention to how many people are dining at your table and tailoring your dishes accordingly. They will be portioned and plated, beautifully so, designed to visually inspire (without too much tweezering) and be an easy interaction. There will be no cutting of an ingredient into a little bite and trying to get the garnish divvied up just so before you pass a tiny share plate. Because that’s not fun. And it’s not like a tasting menu, with one dish (often tediously) coursed at a time—dishes will come out together in waves. And they will come out with urgency.

The meal starts with an opening salvo of snacks that will set the tone for what’s to come. On the first friends and family night, the abundant plate included a potato croquette with garlic aioli, housemade lap cheong sausage with toasted peanuts, pickled and raw turnip with whipped goat cheese, and a squid ink cracker with smoked trout. You can eat that turnip with your hands, or you can scoop it up with a little spoon, or spear it with a fat toothpick. It isn’t about everyone having their own dainty plate—it’s about your table getting in there together. It’s about breaking down barriers at the table with a shared experience. Stuart says: “It’s about the simple act of joy when you’re sharing food.”

And it’s also unabashedly about pleasure that’s a bit gleefully gluttonous. Nicole charmingly notes: “We don’t like to have people wait for food. We want to hit it fast and let you taste right away! It makes you excited for the rest of the menu.”

My first dish at the friends and family night was a bowl of different radicchios, golden beets, watermelon radish, and fresh housemade ricotta with a surprise of jalapeño-spiked mandarin gelée at the base, topped with popped amaranth and chervil, which segued quickly to a geoduck clam “cocktail,” cool and lively with the bright notes of carrot.

While State Bird Provisions is known for its savory pancakes, The Progress plunked down its own weapon of mass deliciousness: their version of roti, with tender and elastic and lightly blistered folds, insouciantly placed on the plate (actually very carefully) like crumpled sheets on a bed. It comes showered in black truffle from Burgundy, with sunchokes (both pickled and raw), a truffled buttermilk ranch dressing, and rosemary oil—it’s earthy and frisky and demands to be eaten with gusto. The food was so vibrant, with texture apparent in every dish.

It was tremendously insightful to be present at lineup, when the kitchen describes and walks the staff through the complex dishes before service. The technique and number of ingredients that go into each dish are staggering. I could barely keep up with my pen as Stuart walked the staff through the preparation of the (Don Watson) lamb scaloppini and every component on the plate—the pea greens, the sauce, the cipolline, the crumble on top—let alone be able to commit it to memory to recite to guests later.

Stuart’s right-hand man in the kitchen is chef de cuisine John Becker, who worked at Boulevard and helped open Prospect with Ravi Kapur. But John has spent the bulk of his time in New York (nine years) cooking with Michael White’s group (Ai Fiori) and Alain Ducasse (Gilt and Alain Ducasse at the Essex House). It ends up he was a culinary fixer of sorts for Stuart and Nicole whenever they had New York appearances, helping them find kitchen space and cooks for their events.

John is inspired by the creative process of making The Progress’ menu approachable and scalable and is enjoying the new scope of ingredients he gets to utilize after being in such a strict Italian pantry (how’s it going, sake lees). He says it’s good to be back in the bounty of California seasonality.

I asked him if he had a favorite dish on the opening menu, and he tells me how their creamy pork broth (with miso sausage meatballs, pumpkin mochi, kimchi, fresh-grated pumpkin, black butter, fresh pumpkin oil) was inspired by a late-night meal in New York’s Midtown at Pocha 32 almost two years ago. He brought Stuart and Nicole to try the boodae jungol, which comes terrifyingly loaded with kimchi, spam, hot dogs, pork, ramjun noodles, rice cake, mushrooms, vegetables, and the kicker: mozzarella cheese on top. Stuart was justifiably suspicious. But after that bowl hit the table, everyone started digging in, each bite or spoonful yielding a new surprise. They ended up calling it treasure chest soup, and wanted to transport some of that joy and delight of finding little treasures in your bowl to this new dish of their own.

Like its name, the cuisine at The Progress is meant to be an evolution of State Bird—symbiotic, but different. Of course you can note the bloodline. There are no regional specifications, and each dish is massively layered in flavor—even the simplest ingredients are always touched in some way, whether they are lightly pickled or lingering in the smoke box by the grill all day. The menu will evolve hour by hour, this week, now, and forevermore. It’s what they do.

Expect more composed desserts at The Progress—Nicole and Mikiko Yui (who has been promoted to co-pastry chef) will be assembling smaller tastes and garnishes that play well together, and riffing on themes like honey. Nicole wants the desserts to be an easy landing pad after experiencing so many flavors during dinner.

You’ll have your choice of ice cream or sorbet for dessert (you’ll actually have your very own bowl, no more sharing), with a plate of accompaniments. The friends and family menu featured a prune poached in jasmine tea syrup that is tempura-fired to order, slices of a buckwheat honey and yuzu-poached pear, and agar jellies (including a poppy seed and ricotta whey jelly), with greengage plum jam, and a sabayon-like dollop of creamy goodness on top. It was sophisticated, fascinating, and the many notes (like sweet, acidic, earthy, floral) and flavors combined to form a love letter to fall (while reminiscing a bit about summer).

The ladies are so fired up about their new ice cream machine—we tried a haunting honey-cocoa ice cream, resting on a base of huckleberries poached in rose hips, with a touch of olio nuovo and a final flourish of gold leaf. (Because why not? Decadence is fun. And Nicole likes sparkle.) I also got a taste of persimmon sorbet, so beguiling, which has me eager to have my own bowl—it’s like Nicole is a forest nymph who has private conversations with fruits and gets them to divulge their secrets.

And the dishes! The platters! The bowls! It’s a big part of the experience. Such beautiful pottery, all handmade by Mary Mar Keenan (MMclay), who shares a studio with Loring Sagan (and Stuart made his pottery there as well), just behind the original Blue Bottle kiosk/garage on Linden. The five glazes are all in natural tones, like dove gray and taupe (actually, the much-more evocative moonshadow and white chamois), and everything was fired at a really high temperature (I was schooled about cone 10), creating durability and a unique texture and pattern. They hold temperature so effectively. It has become a collection of tableware called The Progress Collection, which you can purchase, and here’s a great interview with her about it.

We need to round out this epicurean experience with a bottle of something special.  As mentioned previously on tablehopper, wine director and general manager Jason Alexander has emerged from the wine world and returned to the restaurant floor with this project. He has been friends with Stuart for 13 years, and they are both grooving on recently entering their 40s—Jason is keen and ready to contribute his perspective on progress in the world of wine.

Obviously it’s an exciting time in California right now, and his list will reflect that, with about 50 percent of the selections pulled from our crop of Californian winemakers who are pushing boundaries and exploring new expressions. The remainder of the list will look worldwide, to places like the Loire (and even the Canary Islands), where young winemakers are doing their own thing, and highlighting exciting wines, unusual wines, and personal wines with a story and soul.

For now, there are about 120 selections, which will grow, with lots of bubbles, and some racy rieslings that finish bone dry. There will be a tight by the glass selection, with nightly selections poured en magnum, likely a sparkling and a red, and other fun presentations. Value is important, with bottles mostly ranging in the $30s, $40s, and $50s. But considering Jason’s polished background (Cyrus, Gary Danko), there’s also going to be a curated list of cellar selections, featuring great properties and vintages, and yes, some values there too. (You can’t have progress without some classics.)

Joining him on the floor is Betsy Ross (Jardinière, Aveline) and Diana Peschel. Warmth and genuine hospitality are hallmarks of this house, and you’ll be in the best of hands for this new experience.

Dinner service begins nightly at 5:30pm (the bar opens at 5pm), and will run until 10pm Sun-Thu and until 11pm Fri-Sat.

The opening is targeted for Tuesday December 16th, or possibly sooner, it’s hard to pinpoint. You can keep an eye on The Progress’ website to see when their OpenTable reservations open (people, please, don’t crash the system). Follow along on Twitter for updates.

A sincere thank-you to Stuart and Nicole for allowing me to document and experience the first meal at The Progress. It was so personal, and a privilege to witness their process.

Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski. Photo: ©

Friends and family dinner service in full swing. Photo: ©
Busy plating in the kitchen. Photo: ©
Chef Stuart Brioza leading staff lineup. Photo: ©
The bar. Photo: ©
The salted plum Negroni. Photo: ©
The dining room’s booth seating. Photo: ©
A view of the steel-backed booths. Photo: ©
Banquette seating and skylights. Photo: ©
The view looking out from the chef’s table mezzanine. Photo: ©
The intimate chef’s table. Photo: ©
The second mezzanine (opening at a later date). Photo: ©
Configuring, plating. Photo: ©
A plate of snacks. Photo: ©
The radicchio and ricotta dish. Photo: ©
The sunchoke roti dish, freshly plated in the kitchen. Photo: ©
“Treasures” hiding in the bowl before a pork broth is poured over. Photo: ©
Lamb scaloppini. Photo: ©
Jasmine-poached fruits, greengage plum jam, and ricotta whey, and honey-cocoa ice cream. Photo: ©
General manager and wine director Jason Alexander. Photo: ©
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