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A Quiet Riot

At Nightbird, Kim Alter conjures a tasting menu that forgoes showboating for low-key confidence.

SLIDESHOW

Slow-cooked quail egg.

(1 of 6)

 

Cubes of brioche with butter.

(2 of 6)

Variations of corn.

(3 of 6)

Tomato with oyster.

(4 of 6)

Pins and Needles from Linden.

(5 of 6) 

Nightbird’s dining room.

(6 of 6)

 

Of all the first-world problems I encounter in this job, few call for the playing of a smaller violin than complaints about the “tyranny” of tasting menus. I first came across that usage a few years ago in a rant by a prominent food writer who railed against elaborate prix fixe meals by casting the chefs who made them as ego-driven despots and the folks who paid for them as a subjugated lot; their only role, poor souls, was to sit back and admire the culinary pyrotechnics. Other critics, including Pete Wells of the New York Times, have since added their own gripes: Tasting menus take too long, and what a drag it is to have one’s dinner interrupted by Homeric dissertations on every morsel.

Such unspeakable suffering may partly explain the privileged rebellion under way in San Francisco. Although the city still makes room for a few autocrats presiding over their Michelin-starred fiefdoms, many diners have set down their sauce spoons and tilted their pitchforks against the old regime. They still want fine food, but they want it fast and casual, prepared as their dietary quirks demand.

To this movement’s righteous agitators, I say, long live your cause. But I also urge you to consider the benign dictatorship of Nightbird.

The new restaurant, in Hayes Valley, serves a $125 five-course tasting menu. The price tag and quantity aren’t exactly modest, but they also aren’t grandiose. The waitstaff aren’t given to disquisitions. The climate isn’t one of worshipful silence. The evening comes and goes at a reasonable pace.

The food is composed and creative but unflashy; it may even leave you feeling that it could stand to make a bigger show of itself. It is prepared by Kim Alter, a chef whose résumé abounds in boast-worthy names like Manresa, where she worked for David Kinch, and the Daniel Patterson Group, for whom she opened both Plum and Haven.

But Alter is a far cry from a diva or a despot. On a recent evening, she seemed almost apologetic as she delivered a course of rabbit roulade. Redolent of vadouvan, it was encased in smoky bacon and served with roasted summer squash and pickled and charred peaches. It was cosmopolitan but homey—not the sort of dish that needed anyone’s forgiveness.

The chef’s humble manner contrasts with the self-assuredness it takes to open a restaurant like this, especially one where the food is not so flamboyant that it demands you visit. At $250 for two, Nightbird can’t pretend to be a casual corner haunt, the kind of place you drop by on a whim, but it also doesn’t puff its chest and pose as a magnet for trophy hunters. As a business venture, that makes the restaurant risky. But as an evening out, that adds to its appeal. There’s a quiet confidence to Alter’s cooking, and that beats voguish swagger.

Consider her amuse-bouche of slow-cooked quail egg and brown-butter hollandaise: Though my server didn’t mention that the egg sat in a nest of fried leeks, she didn’t need to; the dish spoke clearly for itself. Crunchy and creamy, it called to mind the world’s most refined onion dip. 

In the tomato-and-oyster salad that followed it, the tomatoes commingled with oysters ravigote, a plucky shellfish dice punched up with minced shallots and gherkins. Fragile leaves of crispy sea lettuce overlaid the medley, and dashi broth pooled underneath it. It was a summer garden party, held beside the sea.

The dining room, like the dining, is smart and restrained, the wood tables left bare, the chair backs upholstered in blue velvet. Just beyond the kitchen, a doorway leads into the Linden Room, Nightbird’s companion bar, which pours impeccable contemporary cocktails in a beautiful, low-lit, art deco–fied space. I could picture Philip Marlowe here, making eyes at a femme fatale while trying to muster the courage to order a drink called I’m Really Into Amaro Right Now. 

The first time I ate at Nightbird, I showed up early for a whistle wetter, figuring—you know, tasting menus—that I was in for a late evening. Roughly an hour later, I was nearly midway through my meal. The dish before me was billed as “variations of corn,” which turned out to be less a name than an understatement. At its heart were crisscrossed spears of roasted baby corn and a tangle of fried corn silk, which was in turn speckled with huitlacoche, the inky corn fungus. Elsewhere on the plate I found corn pudding, a gelée of roasted corn stock, and a scattering of toasted sorghum that resembled tiny popcorn. “Cornography,” a friend remarked, but it was far more sweet than sexy. It needed something hardcore, preferably a dash of chili heat.

If that sounds like the grousing of a whiny one-percenter, wait till you hear my quibble with the butter-poached lobster, which was perfectly cooked and yet about as unexciting as lobster can be when served with charred chanterelles, hearts of palm, and shaved summer truffles. All soft textures and earthy flavors, it seemed too easy, a high-end but low-risk dish.

Dessert was more gratifying. It began with a scoop of champagne granita studded with roasted strawberries, perfumed with tarragon, and set in a bath of orange consommé. That palate-cleared the stage for a star performance by an ensemble cast of dark chocolate sorbet, salted pluots, and cocoa nib crème. It was a dish worth cheering—if, of course, Nightbird were the kind of restaurant that asked for your applause.


The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Nightbird 
Prix fixe menu (per person).............................................$125
Soft-cooked quail egg, fried leeks, brown-butter
hollandaise
Tomato, oyster, dashi, sea lettuce
Variations of corn
Lobster, hearts of palm, chanterelles, summer truffles
Rabbit, peach, summer squash, vadouvan
Chocolate sorbet, salted pluots, buttermilk, cocoa nib
Cocktails........................................................................$13
Pins and Needles
I’m Really Into Amaro Right Now
Total..............................................................................$276

 

Nightbird 
330 Gough St. (at Linden St.), 415-829-7565
3 stars

 

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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