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Eating Out of Tune

Black Cat is trying to revive jazz in the Tenderloin. But its food could use some resuscitating.

SLIDESHOW

Black Cat’s ground-floor bar.

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The rabbit potpie.

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Make your way along a scurvy stretch of Eddy Street, through one of the city’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods, and you’ll cross paths with Black Cat. A jazz and supper club, it’s a curious creature: a nighttime destination that aims to transport you to a bygone, more romantic Tenderloin even as the bouncer stationed at its entrance strives to keep the current Tenderloin at bay. There are things you might enjoy about the stylized journey that lies beyond its threshold; I just recommend that you eat before you go.

This is not the first Black Cat to spring to life in San Francisco. The original, a bar, opened in 1911, and though it died in the early 1920s, its name has been defibrillated several times since. The latest to resurrect it are Khalid Mushasha and Fritz Quattlebaum, the latter of whom is the San Francisco–based controlling partner of a New York restaurant group. They’ve set out to capture the sultry atmospherics of the ’50s and ’60s, when a Tenderloin night owl might have dined on oysters and champagne while soaking up a show by Miles or Mingus.

The address they selected is a split-level locale that used to house two restaurants simultaneously, one Chinese, the other Vietnamese. On the ground floor, the space is anchored by a bar and done up with dark walls, dark wood tables, and gothic light fixtures, an aesthetic that could be described as glampire.

Stairwells in back lead to an underground dining room and lounge that shoot for throwback sex appeal and hit their target with the help of a bronze bar, burgundy velvet banquettes, and cabaret tables clustered close to an intimate stage. 

On nights when there’s live music, the shows begin in the 9:30-to-11 window and feature a range of accomplished jazz performers. Dinner, which is orchestrated by chef Ryan Cantwell (Zuni, Chez Panisse), is equally eclectic—you might even say chaotic—with a menu lurching from deli-inspired dishes like potato latkes with salmon pastrami to chicken cacciatore, then back to a brisket-on-rye patty melt. In an ideal world, the oddball mélange would yield a lovely fusion. But in Black Cat’s world, it’s a jumble of discordant notes. 

My first indication that all was not well came on my first visit, when I stepped past the security guard at the door, slid onto a blue leather barstool, and asked the barman to gin me up an Invisible Gin. Like every cocktail I tried at Black Cat, this one (starring gin, amaro, lemon, pineapple, and ginger) was delicious. Not so the bar snack I paired with it, a plate of patatas bravas undeserving of any bravos. The potatoes arrived crisp-skinned but undersalted and undercooked, with a pimentón aioli that might have saved them if it had carried even the faintest kick. Deviled eggs, their yolks spiked with mustard, bacon, and capers, their whites coated in fried green herbs, spoke to the menu’s better angels—but those voices barely registered above the off-pitch din surrounding them.

While the ground-floor space, with its high ceilings and large windows, is a pleasant enough place to brave Black Cat’s menu, the downstairs antagonizes it: The dim lighting, though fit for jazz, does the food no favors. It certainly doesn’t flatter the bacon-wrapped, fig-studded chicken-and-pork terrine, which takes on a gray pallor and is served too cold for its flavors to open up. Yet moody lighting can’t be blamed for the pork-and-beef meatballs. Made with ricotta, they could in theory be light and moist, but in practice they resemble chew toys. They’re served in an arrabbiata sauce that tastes very much like the marinara sauce that pools around the spinach-and-wild-mushroom lasagna. The latter is one of Black Cat’s more smartly composed dishes, though on the night I had it, it was lukewarm on the surface, almost chilly in the middle. 

It’s hard to know what, exactly, is the source of the problems here. Service feels disjointed, in part because staffers tag-team tables. Orders get lost or miscommunicated. On each of my visits, dishes I hadn’t ordered were set down before me, while others I’d requested got badly delayed. 

Still, there were a few bright moments. King salmon, with whipped celeriac, was perfectly cooked, as were grilled Monterey Bay squid tossed with baby kale, bacon, and pickled shallots and doused with a chimichurri dressing that provided a nice garlicky bite. I could also discern some virtue in the delicate golden pastry dome that crowned the rabbit potpie. Unfortunately, the pie it sheltered was mostly hollow, and the braised meat and shelling beans that made up its stringy filling were memorable only for their blandness—country cooking’s version of Kenny G.

I’d like to say that dessert brings an improvement, but then I’d be spouting falsehoods about a leaden lemon cake and a muted chocolate tart whose equal could be found in any number of store-bought iterations. The latter came with crème fraîche and grated lemon zest, but even those grace notes couldn’t jazz it up. 

But the jazz itself at Black Cat is another story. It’s a welcome addition to a downtrodden neighborhood that has been struggling back to life, assisted by a growing number of restaurants, bars, and clubs. And in one respect, at least, Black Cat has contributed to that revival: As a music venue, it really cooks.

 

The Ticket: A dinner for two at Black Cat
Deviled eggs.................................................$10
Patatas bravas..............................................$6
Chicken-and-pork terrine...............................$15
Grilled Monterey Bay squid...........................$16
King salmon, whipped celeriac......................$19
Lasagna.........................................................$16
Rabbit potpie..................................................$16
Dessert:

Dark chocolate tart........................................$8
Lemon cake...................................................$8
Drinks:
Invisible Gin..................................................$13
Martinez........................................................$14 
TOTAL.........................................................$141

Black Cat
400 Eddy St. (at Leavenworth St.), 415-358-1999
1½ stars


Originally published in the December issue of
San Francisco

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