3316 17th Street San Francisco
It's a funny part of town, Mission Dolores. Mildly gentrified (as far as you can gentrify given San Francisco's constricting building codes), home to some of the more exciting and innovative clusters of restaurants and other eateries. Walk a block in one direction and you find the magnificent Basilica Dolores; walk a couple of blocks in the other direction and you are in gang territory. Walk about four or five blocks in a slightly different direction and you're at Folsom Street (and I'm not going to provide any links about Folsom Street). Kind of like Brunswick Street in Fitzroy but with more basilicas and gangs and somewhat less junkies.
So there we were, off the Jumbo about ten hours, desperately lagged and ensconced in the flat of our dear friend Lexington's neighbours. We'd been for a little walk to familiarise with the neighbourhood, been up for a look at the view from the Legion of Honour Museum (it was rainy and foggy, so that would be an authentic SF experience). And Lexington had us booked in for dinner at Maverick, which would prove to be a treat.
But make sure you know what direction you want to walk.
Maverick is a smallish double-shopfront restaurant, started some years ago (2006?) to do modern takes on American classics, or so Lexington tells me. While there is still some emphasis on local produce, the "American classics" thing has kind of faded away with several changes of chef, and what is left is stylish modern food, good technique and flavours but not overly fussy. A great balance.
The restaurant itself is fairly small, warm and cosy inside from a chill drizzly spring evening. Small tables, warm dark reds and browns as colour highlights, generous table spacing, not overcrowded, professional fit-out but not with that over-architected feel a lot of modern places have. The staff the night we were there were pleasant, very professional, clearly knowledgeable and passionate about the food and wine.
Dinner started with a small amuse of a fennel cordial spritzer. I don't think I've ever had a sweet amuse before and it wouldn't have occurred to me to make one, but this was light, fresh, cleanly flavoured, aromatic and well balanced. A hit, I say.
Remember a few years back when the Americans were annoyed at the French, and hardcore patriots were eating "Freedom Fries"*? One of Maverick's cocktails is the Freedom 75, a take on the French 75 which is a cocktail of champagne with gin, lemon juice and sugar. So we had to try them and, another combination which wouldn't have occurred to me turned out to be very nice indeed.
* and "Freedom Toast" for breakfast one assumes
Lexington's appetiser was a salad of baby beetroot (gold and what I think of as the traditional red) with frisee, pistachio puree, crumbled pistachio with a slight burnt sugar component, and powdered feta to give it a salty kick ($12). Lots of technique, great mix of textures and flavours and yet not overdoing it.
My appetiser was burrata cheese (that's a type of mozzarella mixed with additional fresh cream) with boquerones (pickled white anchovies), finely shaved asparagus, some crostini and a little garnish of pine nuts and olive oil ($12). Again, cream cheese and pickled anchovies - not an obvious mix, but the creaminess was more a foil to the asparagus and the crispy bread than to the anchovies, which came in as a sharp and salty cross-taste that balanced nicely.
The Perigueuxse chose the "Baltimore Crab Fluffs" ($12). She has been a huge fan of crab cakes ever since her first trip to Washington DC, as indeed am I, but getting a decent one in Australia? We have been routinely disappointed. So all the more happy were we to see some here. It was a light fluffy crab-cake mixture in a light batter, deep fried to give a firm outside and a juicy crabby inside. Elements on the plate included precisely rolled shaves of cucumber for crunch and cool, scatters of frisee ("winter chicory" on the menu) for bitter, and a remoulade for creamy, acid, salty and mustardy. A fine dish.
Lexington, being mostly vegetarian (although she can be led astray by the peer pressure of such unevolved reprobrates as me, as you will see as the week goes on), had the Pea Agnolotti ($20) as her main/entree (trying to be bilingual here). The agnolotti were filled with house made mascarpone and spring peas, served with pea tendrils (and a few little peas along with them) in a broth flavoured with spring onion, parmesan, some chili and some shiso herb. It was a dish of simple ingredients but and complex flavours without being over-rich. Lexington let me have a little taste.
The Perigueuxse's entree/main was Sonoma Duck Breast ($23) served with duck merguez sausage on the corners of the plate providing a smoky-hot accent; poached and grilled baby fennel providing an architectural lift and an aromatic presence on the plate; and smears of medjool date and kumquat purees bringing a sweet balance to the rich game and grilled vegetable elements. It was a great dish; my only criticism is that the thin ends of the fennel had been reduced to a dried inedible chewiness through the cooking process. But that's a minor quibble in the face of excellently cooked duck and splendidly balanced sauces.
Your dear old Ecumer felt the weight of tradition on his shoulders. Southern Fried Chicken ($24) with dirty red rice, broccolini and red eye gravy was calling out and had to be answered. And I'm glad I did. Two pieces of chicken (one breast with wing, one Maryland) had been floured, spiced, egged, breaded and cooked in a skillet until they were perfect. Crisp on the outside, impeccably juicy on the inside. It was an extravagant serve; I saw a couple at the next table sharing it as a main, but Lexington and the Perigueuxse were busy with their own mains so I soldiered on, plucky trooper that I am when it comes to pan-fried chicken.
The broccolini was forgettable (in no way bad, I just don't care for broccolini), the red eye gravy was thick, rich and hearty. The dirty rice was not dirty rice as I know it; there was no liver, no gizzards, no scallions. But it was a nice mix of white rice and red rice cooked together to form a nice thick base for the chicken and gravy. Let's call it an interpretation and note that it was good.
We were full, we were jet-lagged, but the lure of dessert is always with us. Particularly when they look a bit exciting. The Perigueuxse and I shared a Chocolate Tres Leche cake ($8) with spicy chocolate ice cream. The cake, whose three milks, in case you were wondering, are cream, condensed milk and evaporated milk, was a dense (but not heavy) but soft sponge, moist with a decent dark chocolate warmth to it and a litle of the syrup pooling underneath on the plate. The ice cream had an assertive kick of chili and other spices, and a wafer-thin nutty praline brought crispness to the dish.
Lexington chose the Thyme-shortbread ($8) served with Meyer lemon curd and mascarpone. Politeness (and fullness) prevented me from lunging across the table to taste it, but I remember she was impressed with the savoury dimension the thyme added to the sweet biscuits and with the lightness and delicacy of the curd and cheese.
So there we go, first meal out on this trip to the Golden State and it was just excellent. Out we went into the drizzly, chilly darkness to get home and some rest.