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A Rare Bird

As the Morris takes flight, it proves itself an eminently worthy successor to the Slow Club.

SLIDESHOW

Smoked Pekin half duck at the Morris. 

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The Morris’s dining room.

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The buckwheat doughnuts.

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Among the many wonders of the natural world are the migratory journeys of some western waterfowl. Witness the travels of a duck I encountered a few weeks ago on the outskirts of Potrero Hill. Having come south from a farm in Petaluma, the bird had been brined overnight, transferred to a fridge for five days of air-drying, smoked for two hours, then blasted in a convection oven, its skin turning as bronze as a Saint-Tropez sunbather.

By the time it showed up at my table at the Morris, a small but ambitious neighborhood restaurant that I’d gladly leave my own neighborhood to visit again, the duck had been carved into slices and ringed by an array of carrots, cauliflower, turnips, and brussels sprouts. A short stack of smashed potatoes sat on another plate. Pan-fried in duck fat until golden and crumbly, they were hash browns of the highest form. A small pitcher of duck jus was also on hand: Blended with honey and espresso, it was as welcome and bittersweet as an old home movie. It worked wonders on both the taters and the bird, which was moist and meaty beneath its brittle skin.

You wouldn’t expect to find a duck so worldly or cosseted at your average corner haunt. But the Morris isn’t your average corner haunt.

And the duck is just the sort of dish that sommelier and owner Paul Einbund had in mind when he opened the Morris this past October in the space that used to house the Slow Club: a crowd-pleasing showstopper that would anchor the menu and make people talk and then return for more, not unlike the roast chicken at Zuni or, for that matter, the burger that the Slow Club made its signature. With Coi veteran Gavin Schmidt helming his kitchen, Einbund set about creating the kind of hybrid most neighborhoods covet but rarely possess: a corner joint with panache.

One of many signs that the Morris is not just another high-minded, laid-back bistro is the wine list, a 61-page tome whose contents still don’t account for all the booze Einbund has socked away—this is a guy who collects faster than he can type. You’ll find some of the roughly 1,500 bottles displayed in a glass walk-in at the restaurant’s entrance; many are old-world, but California gets due representation. There is also Chartreuse and madeira, along with well-considered cocktails, crafty beers, and, on top of it all, red and white house wines that are blended by Einbund and served in a carafe.

But before we get too tipsy, let’s return to solid food for a moment. Schmidt’s menu is as concise as the wine list is exhaustive, a one-pager that opens with cheeses, housemade charcuterie, and “nibbles.” It’s worth ordering the shrimp toast, which comes heaped with grapefruit and avocado. Likewise the pork cracklins: Drizzled with honey and dusted with Aleppo pepper, they’re less greasy and more flavorful than strips of pigskin have any right to be.

And yet they’re not as tempting as Schmidt’s dumplings, which are stuffed with braised chicken and foie gras and delivered one per order, partially submerged in a pool of dashi. If they were served dim-sum-style, I’d hijack the cart. 

I’d go to similar lengths for Schmidt’s crab porridge, which calls to mind a Vietnamese risotto. Served as a starter, it’s a bowl of milled brown rice perfumed with lemongrass and ginger and stocked with carrots and Dungeness crab meat, some of which is tempura-battered. When crab season ends, I’ll mourn the porridge’s passing, much as I already lament the retirement of the lingcod with grilled peaches. The union between fish and fruit might sound unorthodox at best and unholy at worst, but the dish, which was served with sliced and puréed zucchini, housemade kimchee, and Fresno chilies, is better thought of as a happy marriage.

For all of the hits at the Morris, there are some misses. One night, briny fillets of rock cod came draped over a smear of pumpkin seed purée and scattered with pomegranate seeds and toasted pepitas, a busy piece of work whose disparate parts resisted my best efforts to bring them all together. A thick cut of grilled pork belly, underpinned by a sauce made from guajillo chilies, suffered the same problem pork belly often does: As the domineering centerpiece of the dish, it was a fatty reminder that a little pork belly goes a long way.

Yet these were fleeting failings, overshadowed by more enduring strengths. The Slow Club’s cozy footprint remains mostly unchanged, with the open kitchen in front and the bar in back. But its industrial cool is warmer now, thanks in part to the maple counters and white ash tables. A series of theatrical touches also help: Venture to the bathroom and you’ll be greeted by footage of bucolic roads and vineyards shot through a car windshield. Other video images, cast against a dining room skylight, project inspirational quotes that lend grace notes to the understated space. 

There’s similarly beautiful simplicity to the menu’s two desserts: warm buckwheat doughnuts served with whiskey crème anglaise and a chocolate pudding, dense and delicious. 

Both are uncommonly good versions of common dishes, illustrations of the kind of smart, humble cooking that I can also find at the best restaurants in my own neighborhood. The duck is another story. It’s a rare bird. But at least I know where to find it.


The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at the Morris

Two shrimp toast.....................................................$5 each
Two chicken-and-foie-gras dumplings.....................$3 each
Crab porridge...........................................................$16
Lingcod with zucchini and peaches.........................$26
Smoked Pekin half duck for two..............................$48
House red or white wine..........................................$1.50/cm
Buckwheat doughnuts.............................................$8
Chocolate pudding..................................................$8
TOTAL....................................................................$137


The Morris
2501 Mariposa St. (at Hampshire St.), 415-612-8480
3 stars


Originally published in the January issue of
San Francisco

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