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The Big Review: Gibson

It may live in a hotel, but this isn’t your typical hotel restaurant. Thank goodness.

SLIDESHOW

Gibson's culinary ambitions transcend the restaurant's Union Square hotel digs.

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A chef tends to the hearth at the center of Gibson’s “live fire” menu.

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Clams in consommé is an elegant, slimmed-down take on a traditional chowder.

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Not so long ago, you would have found me at a hotel restaurant only if I was stranded near an airport.

That’s still true, largely, but I’ve started to rethink my hotel-dining bias. San Francisco has come a long way since the days when most local hotel restaurants fit one of two types: the bland, overpriced corporate operation or the splashy, overpriced celebrity offshoot, “overseen” by a chef who consulted on the menu but pitched in with little else besides his or her big name. In that bygone era, hotels needed chefs more than chefs needed hotels. In today’s San Francisco, the dynamic is inverted. For many up-and-coming talents, faced with stratospheric rents and microscopic margins, a gig just off the lobby, in a space built and paid for by someone else, is nothing to sniff at.

Which brings us to Gibson, in Hotel Bijou, and the young chef Robin Song.

When we last encountered Song, a veteran of Hog & Rocks and Central Kitchen, he was trying to raise the money to bring his modern Korean pop-up, Junju, into full-fledged being. Though Song says that dream lives on, his reality for now is a ground-floor restaurant a few blocks from Union Square.

Like other new chef-hotel marriages in the neighborhood (Jason Franey’s Villon at the Proper, Daniel Patterson’s Alta at the Yotel), Gibson aims to capture more than a captive audience of out-of-towners. You can tell, in part, by the modish libations that greet you at the bar: Among the multiple iterations of the restaurant’s namesake gin-and-vermouth cocktail, there is a Gibson called Sea, mixed with liquid kelp and sake, that is bracing enough to revive a dead sailor. There is also a clear Bloody Mary, made with tomato water, that causes the not-unpleasant sensory confusion of a drink that looks like a martini but tastes like something from a Mother’s Day brunch.

Gibson bills itself as a “live fire” restaurant, a marketing term (as opposed to what, dead fire?) that makes me think of dinner as primal performance art, replete with cooks in loincloths around a flaming pit. Not quite: The service and staff attire are smartly casual, and the interior is tastefully art deco, with peacock-blue banquettes and spherical light fixtures. If you want a glimpse of fire, you have to get up from your seat and peer into the back of the open kitchen, where there is a hearth that Song and his crew put to gratifying use.

The style of cooking defies easy labels. But it’s fair to call it whimsical and multicultural. That’s true of an opening array of snacks that includes spicy nori chips that crumble like dry earth and crackle with latent chili heat. Order them at happy hour and you’ll be happy that you did. Although I can’t say I was thrilled with the charred cucumber cylinders, which were surprisingly dull despite their crown of frothy uni bagna cauda and tarragon ash, I was perfectly content with the mini rye-crisp sandwiches, smeared with farmer’s cheese and layered with smoked trout—the memory of a great deli breakfast distilled to a single bite.

Speaking of recollections, remember when bread used to come with dinner? Like a lot of places these days, Gibson charges for it, though it does so by way of a full-blown bread course that is so delicious, you might feel guilty if you got it for free. The bread is sourdough, one round loaf per person— crusty on the outside, soft and warm and yeasty when you tear it open, and served with your choice of assorted spreads and dips. House-cultured butter is the simplest option. Duck-liver mousse is the richest. And puréed cauliflower is, I think, the best, with bright, grassy olive oil pooled around it and a mound of curried currants in the middle. When you’re out of sourdough for sopping up this sweet and floral medley, you’ll want to use your fingers, and I wouldn’t blame you if you followed that up by licking the plate.

The bread course can be ordered à la carte, but it also comes as part of the quite reasonable $65 prix fixe option, which features scaled-down portions of six dishes from the printed menu, plus a couple of bonuses. The pacing is brisk, assisted by kitchen staff who double as servers. No one seems inclined to linger, which mostly makes sense, since not everything they bring requires elaborate explanation. A bowl of “early fall fruits” is exactly that—diced apples and pears—presented pretty much as promised on the menu, with walnuts, arugula, and a snowy cover of shaved blue cheese. Warm bone marrow flan, speckled with wild nettles and an orange dab of uni, stays true to the character of those three components: It’s creamy and comforting, with briny undercurrents and a gently bitter bite. I liked this flan a lot, but I’d still trade it any day for the clams in lobster consommé, with puréed potatoes and a slice of melting lardo—a dish that called to mind a lush New England chowder, cleaned up and slimmed down for California life.

Like so much else at Gibson, the clams are cooked on the fire, which, despite the lack of spectacle, manages to make its presence known throughout a meal. You taste it in the charred dates that flank the roasted carrots and sunflower-seed risotto, and in the blistered kale and broccoli, plated with potato dumplings and pine nut purée. Smoky traces appear, too, in the dry-aged, slow-cooked beef, served with bone marrow, blackened eggplant, and a brushstroke of ground sesame, and in the pink and flaky trout that’s grilled on the bone over the open flame.

All of these dishes came my way through the tasting menu, which closed with a dessert of caramelized yogurt, sesame seeds, and a chalky block of dehydrated chocolate devil’s food cake whose rock-hard texture made a solid argument for hydration. I wasn’t sure quite what to make of this final number. But by then I’d made up my mind: Even if I weren’t staying at the Bijou, I’d gladly swing by for a meal.

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Gibson

Spicy nori chips . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $5
Charred cucumbers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $8
Bread course with cauliflower and curried currants . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $9
Clams in consommé with puréed potatoes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $12
Warm bone marrow flan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $16
Roasted carrots and sunflower-seed risotto with charred dates . . . . . . . . . . . . . $12
Fire-roasted brassicas with potato dumplings and pine nuts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $16
Trout grilled on the bone with fennel, capers, and dill . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $18
Slow-cooked dry-aged beef with bone marrow, eggplant, and black sesame . . . . $26
Apple pie with bitter caramel, oats, and red currants . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $12
Caramelized yogurt, dehydrated devil’s food cake . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $11
Clear Bloody Mary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $14
Sea . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $14
Total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $173

Gibson
111 Mason St. (At Eddy St.), 415-771-7709
3 Stars

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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