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Peasant Food for Kings and Commoners

Duna takes diners on a delicious road trip through Eastern Europe.

SLIDESHOW 

Duna’s smokedpotato flatbread (left) is best eaten with an assortment of dips.

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The restaurant’s interior is meant to invoke the Danube region’s sylvan landscape. 

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The chicken paprikas is served atop a bed of spaetzle.

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A few months back, Cortney Burns and Nick Balla shifted their focus from an experimental Japanese project to an arty Eastern European–themed endeavor. If that makes them sound like self-serious film school students, fear not. Burns and Balla are chefs, best known for their work at Bar Tartine. Their transition involved shuttering their spin-off restaurant, Motze, a quirky Japanese-inspired joint in the Mission district, and then, three days later, opening Duna in the same space.

Duna is the Hungarian name for the Danube River, which spills from its source in the Black Forest through Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, and other territory that is tricky to defend in Risk. The kitchen at Duna runs through similar terrain. To travel its metaphoric waters is to drift into a world of paprikas and pickles, spaetzle and red peppers, all tended to carefully but in ways that don’t come off as fussy on the plate. “Peasant cooking,” a staffer told me, “elevated with noble ingredients.” Though I can’t vouch for its aristocratic status, much of the produce is grown on local small organic farms, and the meat and seafood are of the conscientious kind. The dishes they give rise to are rustic and robust and mostly boldly flavored, often smoked or braised or preserved, and, just as frequently, rocked by blasts of garlic, smacked with herb-flecked sauces, and vivified by vibrant vinaigrettes. It is heartfelt, homey cooking in the truest sense, by which I mean that even on occasions when the food misses the mark, it leaves you sated and ready to forgive.

Duna is open five nights a week. Sundays are set aside for $58 family-style suppers with Let’s Go guidebook titles such as “Road Trip to Southern Bulgaria” and “Budafok, Hungary: Above the Danube.” The rest of the time, the restaurant roots itself back in San Francisco with voguish take-your-name counter service and attentive follow-up on the floor. “Fine-casual dining” is the term of art for this, though Duna offers a tech-y upgrade: If you decide, after ordering, that you want something else, text the kitchen and out it comes.

What I soon wanted more of were the dips, which make up the bulk of the appetizers and could easily form an entire meal. These assertively seasoned mezes include a pumpkin seed purée; a creamy liptauer cheese, spiced and stained pink with paprika; an earthy white-bean number, crowned gold with toasted garlic; and a preserved-eggplant dip, spiked with salted loquat, that could pass for a smoother, sexier baba ghanoush. Not since my college days, when I did my scavenging at off-campus potlucks, had I gorged myself so eagerly on so many spreads, the difference being the heightened quality of the food and the absence of combative freshman semiotics majors.

Alongside these starters, smoked-potato flatbread is required eating. Twice as thick as pita and as pliant as pizza dough, it is cooked on a griddle, but its woodsy traces make you think of campfires. It’s great at mop-up duty, and for sopping up the dressings on the chopped salads. One of those salads, a medley of tomatoes, feta, and cucumber, is called the Sofia, as in the capital of Bulgaria, but if it introduced itself to me as the Athens, I wouldn’t ask for its ID. More interesting is the Budapest, a smoky, piquant jumble of mushrooms, tomatoes, toma cheese, peppers, and paprika-seasoned sausages that bleed red into a cider vinaigrette. What you don’t get with the flatbread, you’ll want to slurp up with a spoon.

Not much was done to the former Motze interior, which strikes a minimalist farmhouse pose. On the walls dangle plants and spindly branches, intended, I was told, to evoke the sylvan landscape that flanks much of the Danube. If they do that trick for you, your imagination is more engaged than mine.

The real transportive power lies with the menu, which moves from spreads and salads to more substantial “peasant classics” that are chicly humble—or maybe humbly chic. Take the lentil croquettes. Close your eyes and you might guess “falafel.” Open them and you see the little fritters are gathered in a large bowl with fashionable companions, including roasted Padrón peppers, turmeric-tinged cauliflower, and a creamy, saag-like spooning of chopped spinach—all partying beside a pool of yogurt. A peasant dish, perhaps, but with a passport. Another entrée—chicken paprikas—has more obvious ties to the restaurant’s target region: My Romanian grandma used to make it. Duna’s rendition, with spaetzle, mushrooms, and a smear of sour cream, is a lot like hers, with twice the flavor and half the fat.

There’s a certain retro romance to this sort of cooking—the food of simple country folk, brought to the city and cloaked in urban cool but still radiating its traditional warmth. At some places, the reach for this balance can feel forced. But not at Duna, and especially not at the ticketed Sunday suppers.

Though each week’s family-style menu has its own theme, these meals hit many of the same notes as Duna’s midweek cooking. The food arrives in courses, abundantly, on platters. If you want more, the kitchen will oblige. On my Sunday visit, we set off on that southern Bulgarian road trip and were treated at the outset to the smoked-potato flatbread and assorted zesty dips, and to a lamb tartare, sprinkled with preserved lime powder, whose silken texture was more memorable than its mild taste.

Not everything was perfect. The crimson broth in the fisherman’s stew was timid, in spite of all the feisty-looking paprika in it, and a lamb sausage stew, prepared in a clay pot with chickpeas and peppers, fell short of expectations: The beans were undercooked, and the flavors of the stew spread surprisingly thin. Assuming it would taste better the next day, I took it home and was glad I did.

But nothing could save the fig-and-apple crepe, which was dense and leaden and not exactly welcome after a full-bodied meal brimming with bread. Better was the frozen custard with roasted nectarines, dusted with a black-sesame crumble that could have been mistaken for crushed Oreos.

By then, our party had been plenty well fed, in portions too generous for one sitting. There was wine on the table. The dining room echoed with chatter and clatter. The kitchen bustled, but nothing seemed rushed. At a table behind us, a silver-haired man raised a glass in toast. It was getting late, yet I felt no urge to leave. Life is a river, and we were on a sweet break from its hectic flow.

  

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Duna

Smoked-potato flatbread . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $4
Pumpkin seed dip . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $4
Liptauer paprika cheese dip . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $5
Preserved-eggplant dip . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $4
Sprouted-white-bean dip . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $4
Budapest salad . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $14
Lentil croquettes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $16
Chicken paprikas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $19
Frozen custard, black-sesame crumble, nectarine . . $6
Cherry and fennel sorbet with pistachios . . . . . . . . $5
Pomebandit albariño . . . . $35 for a 500-milliliter carafe
TOTAL . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $116

 
Duna
983 Valencia St. (Near 21st St.), 415-484-1206
2½ stars 

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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