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The Big Review: Game

Creatures of land and sea are being served in a former fine-dining shrine, along with a helping of identity crisis.

The bar at Game.

The bar at Game.

(1 of 3)

The bar at Game.

Carrots three ways

(2 of 3)

The bar at Game.

Dinner is served

(3 of 3)

 

Step inside the Bush Street space that once housed Masa’s, that fine-dining darling of a bygone San Francisco, and you’re greeted by a painting of a red-coated rifleman, bayonet in hand, a deer head mounted where his own should be. It’s arresting. But don’t stop there—more animal-headed portraiture awaits.

On a large framed canvas in the main dining room, a badger poses in a coat and a top hat, squeezed between a toga-wearing rabbit and a raccoon decked out as a medieval knight. In the otherwise staid setting, with its cushy carpets and high-backed chairs upholstered in Victorian patterns, the artwork lends a trippy, anachronistic aesthetic straight out of the Wes Anderson oeuvre.

Someone in this joint has a playful sensibility, but that’s not why they call it Game. “They” are Sachin Chopra and Shoshana Wolff (the husband-and-wife team behind San Mateo’s Michelin-starred All Spice), and their new project, as its name suggests, is built in part on proteins that a lot of people like to stalk and shoot. To carry out the concept, they’ve enlisted Zack Freitas, a chef whose freshest tracks trace back to All Spice and, before that, to Commis and Station 1. Appealing to a wide spectrum, Freitas offers an à la carte menu along with one prix fixe option, six courses billed as “a taste of game.”

In this jaded era of the been-there-tried-that patron, the obvious way for Game to stand out would be via a shock-and-awe campaign. But Freitas is too cerebral a chef for stunt food. Instead of plunging headlong through uncharted territory, his cooking wanders thoughtfully into the wild. Sometimes, that path leads to a place pretty close to home. Wild boar sugo cavatelli comforts with familiar flavors, its novelty stemming not from the boar but from a topping of shaved fennel and pickled chili peppers—bright twists on a rustic trattoria dish. Elk burger sounds exotic but tastes less so: Freitas fattens the lean patty with ground pork bacon, then sets it on a crumpet with fontina, pastrami, and tomato jam. Plated with a pickle and steak fries, it’s one part high-end diner, one part hunting lodge.

Before Game opened, Freitas made it known that he didn’t want his menus to go “overboard.” But with game, it’s hard to go too far. Because serving wild-animal meat in restaurants is largely illegal, a lot of what menus bill as game wasn’t culled from fields, wetlands, or forests—it was farmed and FedExed overnight. That doesn’t mean, though, that it can’t be delicious. Venison summoned from New Zealand trots out at Game as a rare-roasted beauty resting on buttery spaghetti squash, with a side of watercress for peppery bite. Duck, delivered two ways—as roasted breast and confit of leg—is California-bred, but, paired with red beans, yogurt, and alliums, it’s far from an ordinary bird.

Wild, not wild—who am I to quibble? Ours is an age of loose culinary lingo, when Prius drivers boast of living a paleo lifestyle and hipster barbecue joints adopt the dusty names of ghost town oases (“Looky yonder, Jed, it’s Perdition Smokehouse!”). So let’s cut Game some slack if it takes a few semantic liberties. Never mind that on a recent evening, the $129 “taste of game” prix fixe option opened with an offering of butter clams. Or that the goat of today is more a barnyard critter than a backwoods creature. On the night that I ordered it as an à la carte option, it came braised and strewn with kale chips and wild rice crisps, but the meat lacked goaty intrigue, its flavors lost in a wintry muddle. It didn’t bother me that it wasn’t really game, but at $39, it bugged me that it wasn’t really good.

If Game has a problem (and I think that it does), it’s not that its menu isn’t all game all the time or that its kitchen misfires now and then. It’s that the restaurant seems at odds with its own identity, resulting in a tension that underlies both the service and the setting. Game didn’t just inherit Masa’s prized 2,700-bottle wine cellar. It also retained its predecessor’s tired formality, accentuated by hushed acoustics that call attention to every clink of cutlery. It’s quiet—too quiet—at least for a place whose operators claim that their aim is to make it fun. Maybe it’s the stale air, but even the service comes off as uptight, and the kitchen’s staggered pacing exacerbates that stiffness.

Pastry chef Rodrigo Ormachea tries to keep things light with complex but playful compositions like a hazelnut financier with chocolate ganache, pine nut brittle, and a spike of sorrel ice cream, and a black sesame budino with chamomile-coconut sorbet and persimmon fritters. They’re sweets that succeed by being not too sweet.

But it isn’t easy walking fine culinary lines. Too sedate, I suspect, for young adventurers, yet wild enough to put off more traditional tastes, Game occupies an awkward middle ground, commanding lavish prices without polished service, feigning relaxation while tightly wound at the core. In the tug between fine dining and informality, Game might have charged hard in either direction. Instead, that deer-man at the entrance winds up looking like an emblem—signifying a restaurant that can’t decide what it really wants to be.

Game
648 Bush St. (Near Dashiell Hammett St.), 415-874-9481
Two Stars

The Ticket
A recommended dinner for two at Game
Wild boar sugo cavatelli with fennel and chilies ............................................... $18
Diver scallops, smoked eggplant, curry, and hon-shimeji mushrooms ................. $23
Basted duck with red beans, yogurt, and alliums ............................................. $35
Roasted venison, spaghetti squash, and watercress ......................................... $36
Black sesame budino with chamomile-coconut sorbet ....................................... $11
Hazelnut financier with sorrel icecream............................................................$11
Force of nature tempranillo........................................................................... $14
Prinz riesling ...............................................................................................$13
Total..........................................................................................................$161

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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