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Southern Baptized

In a vast space in the Presidio, chef Joseph Humphrey tries to make Dixie into something hospitable.

Joseph Humphrey was raised in Tallahassee, Florida, but he built his reputation in the Bay Area, at the Restaurant at Meadowood and Cavallo Point. At both of those resort venues the chef shrugged off the constraints of his corporate surroundings and let fly with spirited, modern Cal-Med cooking that earned him raves. At Cavallo Point, Humphrey was awarded a Michelin star; at Meadowood, he received two.

     At his new venture, Humphrey finds himself in another outsize space. But this time around he’s the chef and owner, and there’s an intimate connection reflected in the name. It is called Dixie, and it sends Humphrey in search of his southern heritage. In this way, it’s also fittingly situated in the Presidio, a corner of the city that’s been working hard to find its own identity too.

     In the nearly 20 years since the army moved out, the former military base has given rise to bungalows, a bank, and a bed-and-breakfast. It now also houses Lucasfilm and the Walt Disney Family Museum.

     In short, it enjoys the outward makings of a neighborhood but not the inner soul of one. And that is part of Humphrey’s challenge. In launching Dixie, the chef has embarked on a personal project in one of the city’s least personal locations.

     If you drive to Dixie—and due to its rather remote location, odds are you will—you’re apt to wind up parking in the underground garage beneath the Letterman Building, then climbing a concrete stairwell and navigating corridors that lead, eventually, to the restaurant’s side door. It’s convenient but more redolent of a trip to the multiplex than of an evening excursion for a refined meal.

     Once inside the restaurant, you come upon set dressings—a banjo, a rocking chair—that hint at life below the Mason-Dixon Line. There is also a copper bar, where bartenders pour refreshing Shade Trees (vodka, black tea, lemon, sugar), strawberry mint juleps, and other lively cocktails best pronounced with a syrupy drawl. Otherwise, though, the dark wooden space feels jumbo and generic, just as it did in its prior incarnation, when it housed a small-plates restaurant called Pres a Vi.

     Not that this may matter to a lot of clientele. Humphrey’s most captive audience is the happy-hour crowd. In deference to them, the top of his menu is given over to superb southern-inspired snacks such as sugar-glazed grilled shrimp, honey-drizzled hush puppies, and pimiento cheese curds. You can also get crunchy pork cracklings, sprinkled with nori and shaved country ham, and conversationstopping deviled eggs, enriched with fried chicken liver in lieu of bacon bits.

     Of course, there’s nothing wrong with booze and bar food. Yet Humphrey clearly harbors more inventive ambitions. On much of his menu he’s not just whistling Dixie—he’s riffing on it freely. He splashes Miyagi oysters with hot-pepper vinegar and spikes sweet corn soup—poured tableside over abalone ribbons and butter lettuce—with smoked jalapeños and gumbo filé. In Humphrey’s hands, chicken with dumplings is presented sparely on a plate, the dumplings stuffed with ricotta. For chicken and waffles, the chef’s bird of choice is actually quail, perfectly crisped in a bronze batter and set atop a garlic waffle and a nest of spicy cabbage slaw. Like much of the cuisine, it strikes a nimble balance: high West Coast cooking with a Low Country lilt.

     And, like the chef himself, the food deserves better surroundings. In a more intimate setting, there’s little doubt that Humphrey’s talent would shine even brighter. But when it comes to spaces, the larger one is, the harder it is to sense what a chef is all about.

     Humphrey seems aware of this, and he goes to lengths to connect with diners, as exemplified by his tasting menu, a $72 prix fixe meal that ranks among the better deals in town. The first course—smoked avocado with yams and abalone—is served in the dining room, but as soon as you finish it, the meal becomes a movable feast. A waiter whisks you into the gleaming kitchen, where you’re given a glass of sherry and a slice of country ham, then seated at a kitchen counter, where you meet the chef. You nibble and sip there happily until the second course arrives. And it’s a stunner: acorn grits with a poached egg, duck cracklings, and sea urchin butter. The dish is nutty, creamy, briny, and beautifully inventive.

     The tasting menu is an intimate event, enhanced by sublime cooking—just the kind of experience the chef seems to be after. But it’s over in an eyeblink, and before you know it you’re ushered back into the dining room, to be tended to by underseasoned servers who don’t measure up to the refinement of the food.

     The desserts, by contrast, are perfectly pitched. They include a delicious dark-chocolate olive oil cake—with chocolate-bourbon mousse and crème fraîche sherbet to cut the richness—and a modernist take on traditional chess pie. Crowned with strawberry sorbet and framed by batons of Szechuan-peppercorn meringue, the pie has West Coast accents but it’s a southern native—dense with cream and cornmeal, as chess pie should be.

     It might even leave you wishing that you were in Dixie, or at the very least that the restaurant had delivered more of Dixie to you.

 

Dixie 1 Letterman Dr. (at Chestnut St.), 415-829-3363, Lunch and Dinner: $$$, 2.5 Stars