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Scaling Great Hype

At their sequel to State Bird Provisions, Nicole Krasinski and Stuart Brioza navigate wild flavors and impossible expectations.

Pork broth with black-cod quenelles, pork sausage, and pumpkin-rice dumplings.

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The Progress's dining room.

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Raw snapper with turnips and creme fraiche.

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Sequel...sidekick...spin-off...sibling: Every easy label I can muster for the Progress, the new, hard- to-pin-down project from Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, trades on the existence of the couple’s place next door. There’s simply no ignoring State Bird Provisions, the James Beard Award–winning, cart-service juggernaut that in 2012 was widely hailed as no less than the best new restaurant in the country. Nearly three years later, State Bird continues to operate at maximum capacity night after night. The frenzied demand is such that some diners have enlisted surrogates to show up early and stand in the line that seems permanently tattooed on lower Fillmore Street.

That the Progress is State Bird’s follow-up is ironic, given that Brioza and Krasinski originally intended to launch this second concept first. When their plans snagged on red tape, they improvised with State Bird, whose presence feels like both a blessing and a burden—arousing interest in its neighbor even as it sets the bar absurdly high. The Progress is an artful, ambitious effort that can’t possibly live up to what came before—like Better Call Saul churning in the wake of Breaking Bad, it’s destined to endure yeah-but comparisons.

On the plus side, though, it’s not quite as hard to land a seat. Take it from someone who clicked on OpenTable one month in advance to nab the last remaining two-top available for a Monday evening—at an hour when my grandma used to eat. My pre-sundown reservation brought me past the State Bird queue to a building that was born in 1911 as the Progress Theater and has now been restored to life as a dramatic stage. An arched ceiling bends high above, curling on one side toward a wall bowed like a ship’s prow, its curved surface stripped beautifully to its lath. Sanded wood floors stretch the length of the slender dining room, which rises toward two opposing mezzanine levels. A third Mezzanine, concocted with mezcal, banana liqueur, and nocino, can be found at the bar, which, in addition to pouring superb cocktails, allows first-come-first-served seating and offers most items on the dinner menu, scaled down to a snackable size.

Where State Bird’s conceit was to disrupt dining as we know it—delivering non–dim sum dishes dim sum–style—the Progress doesn’t aim to be a wild outlier. But it does play with a familiar

Where State Bird’s conceit was to disrupt dining as we know it—delivering non–dim sum dishes dim sum–style—the Progress doesn’t aim to be a wild outlier. But it does play with a familiar

form, providing family-style dinners with a custom twist: Guests select six dishes from a list of nearly 20 to create a $65-per-person prix fixe, portioned according to party size.

No matter what you choose, every meal begins with a gift of small bites from the kitchen that are billed as banchan, though not all have an Asian bent. They include salt-and- pepper mussels with Seville sour aioli, smoked-cod potato croquettes, and smoked housemade ricotta with Szechuan pepper—which is to say, they serve as a reminder of Brioza’s eagerness to cross culinary borders. They also illustrate the kind of unfettered creativity that can yield brilliance—or, when exercised with a lack of focus, crash and burn. As popular as State Bird is, a certain unpredictability is part of its DNA, producing bursts of bafflement amid all the delight. But at the Progress, that ban-chan platter augured great promise that was, for the most part, kept.

A message printed on the Progress menu alludes to “adventure,” an otherwise tired term that here hints fairly at surprises to come. Some are pleasant, like the pot sticker stunt doubles that are, in fact, porcini and Mt. Tam–cheese dumplings, set on a nest of nettle salsa verde. Others are spectacular, like a zesty, crunchy, fatty medley of shaved cauliflower romanesco dressed in lime and fish sauce, then tossed with pork belly and crispy pig’s ears.

Gone at the Progress is the often frenzied pacing of State Bird, whose format lends itself to premature bingeing (you stuff yourself on early offerings, only to discover that something better is imminent). Yet even with a more consistent rhythm, the Progress kitchen doesn’t always hit its mark.

A creative matchmaker, Brioza makes a happy marriage of wild mushrooms and kale with pickled nori. He blankets pecorino roti with truffled buttermilk to fashion what amounts to a sexy crepe. But not all of his pairings produce sparks: A flat stir-fry of Dungeness crab, bok choy, and tofu smacks of buttery monotony, while lamb sausage with yellow-eye beans, octopus, and what’s meant to be crispy calamari makes mush out xxx of the fried squid. As for black butter– bathed butternut squash with caramelized onions and Swiss chard, it’s as ordinary as Brioza’s cooking gets.

But when it’s at its best, which is often, the Progress puts out beautifully feisty food, as inventive and enticing as any in town. Grilled squab, served with salted chili paste and lettuce leaves for wrapping, fuses gamy meat with exotic heat, while the soup billed as a “treasure chest”—a pork-broth stunner with fermented pork sausage, pumpkin-rice dumplings, and black-cod quenelles—is more than equal to the hype.

Whether any kitchen could meet such expectations is another matter. But if the Progress feels the pressure, it isn’t obvious. Perhaps the strongest trait that it shares with State Bird is the easy way that it carries its refinements. Its relaxed vibe filters through the service: The staff, wearing street clothes, stand out from the bar crowd largely for their knowledge of a cool-kid wine list that includes a number of younger California producers, including several labels from local sommeliers.

Krasinski’s desserts exude the same air of relaxed sophistication. Whimsical sweets like poppy-seed cake with pistachios and mascarpone, or corn-meal crepes accompanied by honey-cocoa ice cream and apricot-mezcal confiture, represent the playful work of a serious chef at a seriously playful restaurant that could stand on its own merits—not that it will ever get the chance.

The Progress
1525 Fillmore St. (Near Geary Blvd.), 415-673-1294 
Three Stars

The Ticket
A recommended $65 prix fixe dinner for two at the Progress

Shaved cauliflower with herbs and pig fries
Porcini and Mt. Tam–cheese dumplings with nettle salsa verde
Pecorino roti with Perigord truffle buttermilk
Treasure chest of fermented sausage, black-cod quenelles, and pumpkin-rice dumplings in pork broth
Aromatic spiced squab with salted chili paste
Poppy seed cake with pistachio and mascarpone
Cornmeal crepe with apricot-mezcal confiture and honey-cocoa ice cream
negroni (gin, Campari, and umeboshi vermouth) ........................................................$11
The Mezzanine (mezcal, banana liqueur, allspice, lime, and nocino) ........................... $12
Total ................................................................. $153

 

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco 

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