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Dinner, Meet Dogma

The Perennial is designed to make minimal environmental impact. But that doesn’t always yield maximal pleasure.

The Perennial dining room.

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The potato confit.

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The yogurt semifreddo.

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I have met the city’s most environmentally conscious salad, and it is…a salad. More precisely, it is a small cluster of greens with the carbon footprint of a beslippered ladybug. Its main ingredients are raised in an Oakland compound on beds that sit near a giant fish tank. The fish fertilize their aqueous environs and the greens indirectly absorb the nutrients, the beneficiaries of a farming system meant to reduce water use and waste.

After the lettuce is picked, the leaves travel across the bay to a mid-Market kitchen, where they’re tossed with locally grown avocado and toasted buckwheat, streaked with a purée of watercress also grown in that Oakland tank house, and smacked with vinegar infused with geranium of the same provenance. The result—a delicate green tangle on a lovely acid trip—ranks among the most successful dishes at the Perennial, a new restaurant that aims, with mixed results, to be at once an exercise in virtue and an enticing place to eat.

Remember Grandma’s rule that you shouldn’t discuss politics at the dinner table? Good luck imposing it on Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint, the wife-and-husband team known for the modern-California-focused Commonwealth and iconoclastic-badass Mission Chinese Food. Where both those places are charitably minded, the Perennial thinks even bigger: It wants to save the world. 

The restaurant, which puts former Mission Chinese chef de cuisine Chris Kiyuna at its kitchen’s helm, serves your supper at the center of a larger conversation involving cows and methane and atmospheric particulate matter. The goal isn’t just to get you thinking; it’s to run a restaurant with minimal environmental impact and a business model built on a closed production loop in which kitchen scraps are composted into bins of larvae and worms, which are then fed to fish, which then fertilize the leafy greens.

If brain power alone reduced harmful emissions, the two-year planning effort that went into the Perennial would have restored the Greenland ice sheet. What it’s yielded is a small beachhead in a very big battle against global warming. Physically, the restaurant’s ethos is expressed in a space embellished with recycled tile and wood milled from fallen trees, invoking an Eastern monastery mated with a Scandinavian spa. Settle into—or, more accurately, sit quite upright on—a hard-backed chair and suss out your options. A $63 four-course prix fixe is available, but everything can be ordered à la carte in what the servers describe as “sustainable portions.” 

That’s an accurate term for an appetizer of shelling peas: A palmful comes scattered in a bowl and shadowed by a cloud of crème fraîche speckled with ground chicory root and spent coffee. The combination tastes of spring, but it’s gone even faster than the season. Pumpkinseed bisque, a rich, nutty soup poured tableside over crisp sunchokes, Asian pear, and lemon oil, is equally fleeting, as is a pickled-mackerel starter: You’re allotted just a few delicious bites of fish, which you spoon up with sweet braised turnips in a bath of ham hock consommé. If eating food like this really helps protect the planet, then I’ll happily make that sacrifice.

But where some of the other dishes are concerned, I’d rather spend the money on solar panels.

Case in point is the pork jowl with sliced fennel: The sodium-forward cut of meat is doomed by the presence of improbably salty daikon. The pastured lamb, which appears as a roast chop and a braised shoulder accompanied by cardoons and hen of the woods mushrooms, is likewise hobbled by a black garlic jus so overbearingly briny that it’s hard to believe anyone in the kitchen could have sampled it sober and still released it into the dining room.

Few ingredients that were born with legs strut their finest stuff here. A confit of smoky yams flatters pork loin and belly, but the meat itself is tough. Ditto the grilled skirt steak, bisected by an intractable tendon. It’s worth noting that the restaurant gets its cows and lambs from farms that use carbon-trapping practices. Yet when the beef tartare has this many knuckles, admirable environmental practices don’t seem quite as appetizing. 

There are better ways to ease your conscience. Take, for instance, the trout, its mild flesh an ideal partner to parsnips, mussels, and bone marrow broth. Or smear some pork ciccioli—think Italian lard—on a hearty slice of Kernza bread, which gets its name and flour from a carbon-absorbing perennial wheatgrass.

Cocktails and desserts are also consistent strengths, from the salted lime collins to the yogurt semifreddo with pineapple sage and fennel. In keeping with the restaurant’s ideals, the former uses locally distilled gin and ice from a water-saving ice machine, while the latter’s herbs come from the rooftop garden.

Whether the Perennial itself is sustainable is another matter. Every restaurant is a work in progress, and this one seems more so than most. Without question, it serves a lot of food for thought. But one thought I had, during my less ecstatic moments, is that cerebral cooking goes only so far; eating right is not always the same as eating well.

 

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at the Perennial

Kernza bread with pork ciccioli,
pickles, and butter...................................................$11
Shelling peas with spent coffee,
chicory root, and crème fraîche...............................$9
Pickled mackerel with turnips and
ham hock consommé............................................. $12
Aquaponic lettuces..................................................$11
Potato confit with clam bagna cauda..................... $14
McFarland Springs trout with
parsnips, mussels, and bone marrow broth.......... $24
Yogurt semifreddo with
pineapple sage and fennel.....................................$11
Salted lime collins................................................. $12
Marmalade cobbler............................................... $12
TOTAL...................................................................$116

Perennial
59 9th St. (near Market St.), 415-500-7788
Two stars


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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