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1601 Bar & Kitchen Is the Best Restaurant You've Never Heard Of

 In SoMa, a humdrum spot is revived with Sri Lankan taste.

 A spread at 1601 Bar & Kitchen.

 

The best San Francisco restaurant that you’ve never heard of makes what I’m pretty sure are the city’s only Sri Lankan–inspired dishes. It is, I know for certain, the sole spot in SoMa that dusts its palate teasers with a ground fruit called goraka and spikes its 15-course degustation menu with Maldive fish and lime pickle. Its name is 1601 Bar & Kitchen, and its chef and owner is Brian Fernando. Like his restaurant, Fernando is not entirely Sri Lankan. The chef grew up in Sacramento on his Sri Lankan–born father’s home-cooked favorites, staples of a cuisine whose toasted curries, savory crepes, and cod cutlets are happy consequences of colonial currents that washed across the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea from Portugal, India, England, and beyond.

Fernando attended UC Berkeley, where he spent five years appalled by the blandness of what passed for food on campus. He recovered from the trauma with a job at Chez Panisse, then worked at a few tapas bars in Spain, followed by 11 years in the modern-French kitchen at San Jose’s Le Papillon. By that point, he had laid the groundwork for a project of his own. In many ways, his history is a fresh translation of a familiar story: The child of immigrants comes of culinary age, only to return to his culinary roots.

Like many chefs before him, Fernando has struggled with the question of just how much of his culture he should mine. In the early days of 1601 Bar & Kitchen, which has been open for over two years, he soft-pedaled its Sri Lankan accents, right down to the restaurant’s humdrum name. He has since reconsidered, at least where his cooking is concerned. While his food remains a far, haute cry from curry in a hurry, his revamped menu speaks more feistily to his heritage: unafraid to throw its elbows, unapologetic about its fire and funk.

 The egg hopper.

That much is apparent from the first bite. Whether you choose the à la carte option or the prix fixe, the kitchen starts you off with a gift that, depending on the night you visit, may be shrimp toasts. Crisp, puffy, sweet and sour, they’re more compelling cousins of the chicharrón. Their sourness comes from a purple shower of powdered goraka, a tamarind-like fruit—one of the many elements in Fernando’s arsenal that you won’t find listed in your Larousse.

Maldive fish is another: Shaved flakes of cured tuna, it looks like bonito but acts more like fish sauce, kicking salt into the sweetness of the onion sambal that accompanies the chef’s egg hopper. If Sri Lanka were ever to designate a national dish, this crepe-like street food would be an ideal fit, and Fernando plays it according to tradition—crisping the rice flour–and–coconut milk batter in a deep pan, nesting a farm egg at its center, and reddening the yolk with chili flakes. You tear off a strip of the crepe, smear it in the yolk, and sop up some sambal. It’s comfortably starchy and subtly spicy, a diner breakfast brought to a better place.

Sri Lankan food is so scarce around the Bay Area that most of us have little reference for it, but no matter: Fernando’s cooking is more interesting than any label. He flatters kale with an earthy dressing of black garlic–citrus vinaigrette, then flecks the tender greens with parmesan and toasted coconut meat. He slow-cooks goat stew and serves it in a small clay pot for two—you dole it out yourself into bowls stocked with curried beets and goat cheese mousse. It’s the chef’s high-end homage to Sri Lankan braised mutton. But to each his Proustian moment: For me, the meat, red root, and dairy medley called to mind a musky version of my grandma’s borscht.

As a kid, Fernando acquired a fondness for food hot enough to melt his fillings. At his restaurant he stokes the flames, but tempers them enough that they wouldn’t alarm your dentist, much less overwhelm your wine. Nifty pairings, from German riesling to Sonoma pinot noir and even a ruddy East Bay ale, make a nimble match for the $85 degustation menu—which, with its 15 mostly exuberant courses, is a stunning bargain by Bay Area standards. On a recent evening, the shrimp toasts and kale made way for a coconut-thickened sea urchin custard that wore a shock wig of fried corn silk; it ceded the stage to a velvety mulligatawny soup that popped with black pepper; and on and on.

Coaxed along by poised, attentive service, meals at 1601 unfold at a gentle pace. The understated backdrop of the dark-walled dining room smacks not at all of Southeast Asia—but very much of South of Market chic. Not everything served is perfect: The cod cutlets tasted pretty much exclusively of potatoes. And certain ingredients repeat so often—lime pickle with the octopus, the kale, and the scallops; coconut nearly everywhere—that even ardent fans might desire a break. But those are minor shortfalls of a sharp and delightfully surprising restaurant—a restaurant, I confess, that I first thought of as a misfit.

It struck me as odd, this generically named place lodged in a dormant patch of SoMa—novelty behind it but not much buzz around it, its chef bent on following his culinary passions if not the laws of supply and demand. Then the food arrived, a sparkling procession that peaked, on my last visit, with curry-crusted steak and tamarind-date chutney succeeded by a Ceylon tea semifreddo, the dessert a lovely denouement. Outside, a plenitude of street parking underscored the point: This restaurant is a sleeper, a beautifully kept secret. Pass it on.

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at 1601 Bar & Kitchen

15-course tasting menu...........................$85
Wine pairings...........................................$58

À la carte
Raw kale salad with black-garlic
vinaigrette............................................... $11
Mulligatawny soup.................................. $10
Egg hopper..............................................$9
Soft-shell crab with kottu roti ...................$16
Hokkaido scallops, goraka,
and champagne vinaigrette .................... $19
Goat stew for two, beetroot,
and goat cheese mousse.........................$34
Ceylon tea semifreddo ............................$8
Chocolate custard with toasted
curry and coconut lace cookie..................$8
Total ........................................................$115

1601 Bar & Kitchen
1601 Howard St. (at 12th St.), 415-552-1601
Three stars


Originally published in the October issue of
San Francisco

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