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The Big Review: RTB Fillmore

Rodney Wages’s pop-up, RTB Fillmore, is about to become permanent. It might already be San Francisco’s best new restaurant.

SLIDESHOW

RTB Fillmore’s caviar service: sturgeon eggs presented on ice and spooned onto your hand.

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The exterior of the restaurant, soon to be rebranded as Avery.

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Smoked black cod in lobster broth with winter citrus.

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For the past year-plus, the chef Rodney Wages has been running a roving pop-up in San Francisco—though, to be clear, this isn’t the kind of pop-up where someone grills burgers in an alley behind a bar. It’s the other kind, the kind where you have the option of eating Russian caviar from your hand. Wages calls it RTB Fillmore, a reference to a nickname (“Rod the Bod”) that he earned while working at three-Michelin-star Saison. The moniker is facetious; Wages is less body by Adonis than body by Dionysus. But his cooking is something to behold. Inventive and exacting, the food at RTB is the best I’ve had in the city this past year.

It will soon have the fixed location it deserves. Sometime this spring, in late March or April, Wages plans to put RTB to rest and, after about two weeks, rebrand it as a permanent restaurant in the same small, split-level space in the Fillmore district where he recently started serving dinner five nights a week. The place will have a new name, Avery. But Wages intends for the spirit to remain—hushed and polished, yet eager to come off as relaxed. Ditto the leanings of a kitchen that rolls gently with the seasons, nudged along by currents from both East and West.

The drift is reminiscent not only of Saison but also of Benu and Atelier Crenn, where Wages worked as well, following a four-year stint at the French Laundry—all restaurants so critically spangled that Wages must see stars when he shuts his eyes at night. His is the kind of pedigree that translates nicely into free publicity. It also often comes with exorbitant prices. At RTB, though, $89 (plus tax and tip) gets you an 8-to-11-course tasting menu. In the gilded world of San Francisco upscale dining, where $200 tasting menus are increasingly the norm, that’s a relatively modest price. And Wages says he plans to keep it for the time being, even after the Avery rebrand.

On a recent evening, the first of those nine courses was a broth of toasted grains, shimmering with a finish of burnt onion butter. It was nutty, sweet, and served in a small ceramic bowl that you cup in your hands and sip in a come-warm-yourself- around-the-fire sort of way. The soup course was followed by a little nest of grilled and shredded cabbage, showered generously with trout roe. The charred greens sat in a milky bath of crème fraîche and horseradish that washed in welcome contrast against the briny fish eggs—tiny, bursting bubbles, the Pop Rocks of the sea.

The lightly traipsing quality of Wages’s cooking, offered in a setting of stripped-bare chic, speaks to a well-established shift in Bay Area fine dining, which has shed any last traces of Gallic fuss. The food may be formal, but nothing else is meant to be. As if to punctuate that point, the pacing at RTB is brisk—at times too brisk, the next dish arriving before you’ve had a chance to finish the last. Now and then, Wages emerges from the kitchen to double as a server. But most things are delivered by one of two young dudes who dress like tech bros, in faded jeans and sport coats, but speak like regular Joes who happen to be really into wine. On a night when I prepurchased the beverage pairing (also $89), the first sake I was poured, in a lineup starring complex whites, reds, and Japanese rice wines, wasn’t just unfiltered. It was also “damn delicious,” as I was promised.

The same can be said of the horse mackerel that came with it. The fish was lightly cured and sliced over a citrusy gelée of lime and sudachi, with a green and biting streak of mustard oil. More citrus awaited in the Meyer lemon that underpinned the next dish: grilled oysters with braised cauliflower and potato mousseline. This earth-meets-ocean medley was one piece of a two-part composition, the other half being an elevated riff on a Danish aebleskiver, or puffy pancake. They’re traditionally sweet, but this version was a savory fried-potato round stuffed with roasted garlic and crowned with dried shrimp and garlic mayo: the world’s most dashing tater tot.

Less dressed up is the dining room, its minimalist decor highlighted by little more than a modernist painting and a leg of Ibérico ham that sits on a rack: an edible display. Slices of it can be ordered as an add-on, one of several supplements that will help you build a big night into a blowout just as spendy as any in the city. In the most memorable of these—the $55-per-person Osetra caviar service—the gator-green sturgeon eggs are brought out on a tray that sits on a block of ice. You make a fist and the server spoons a mound of caviar onto the pad between your curled thumb and forefinger, then tops it off with a dollop of crème fraîche. You inhale it all at once: a caviar bump. The taste is hard to pinpoint, like uni crossed with oyster, or butter kissed with salt spray from a crashing wave. There’s richness to the flavor and the texture—the roe giving just so, like mini melon balls. The experience is one of unabashed indulgence. If I were Vladimir Putin, I’d subsist on nothing else, until political uprising, or mercury poisoning, did me in.

Not that I felt deprived on a subsequent visit, when I stuck to the basic nine-course degustation. There was smoked black cod to make me feel like I was really living, the flaky fish basking in spicy lobster broth. There was also tortellini, plump with roasted garlic broth and bobbing en brodo along with a melting wedge of smoked foie gras, and a surf and turf combo of lamb loin and seared abalone with crisp sunchoke and pickled green tomato. The chef described that dish as his ode to the Northern California coast, but I’d be pleased to eat it anywhere.

Two final flourishes remained. One was an outside-the-box cheese course of baked Harbison, which was drizzled with honey and stretched across a buckwheat tart shell filled with savory pecan pie. The other was cake and ice cream—the ice cream burnt chestnut with crunchy cocoa nibs, the cake a spongy genoise layered with raspberry cognac jam.

And then it was over, a delicious meal gone by in a flash at a pop-up set to morph into a brick-and-mortar restaurant that I suspect will be every bit as good but perhaps— as word gets out—a much more problematic place to land a seat.

 

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at RTB Fillmore
Warm toasted grain broth with burnt onion butter; grilled cabbage with smoked trout roe; cured horse mackerel with preserved citrus and mustard oil; grilled oysters with potato, cauliflower, and Meyer lemon; aebleskiver with grilled broccoli and roasted garlic; lobster and black truffle rice with shaved jamón Ibérico; smoked black cod in lobster broth with winter citrus; tortellini en brodo and smoked foie gras in roasted-garlic broth; 45-day dry-aged lamb with seared abalone, sunchoke, pickled green tomato, and coastal succulents; buckwheat tart with pecan pie and Harbison cheese; genoise cake with raspberry cognac filling and burnt chestnut ice cream

Prix fixe per person . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $89
Wine pairing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $89
Total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $356

 

RTB Fillmore
1552 Fillmore St. (at Geary Blvd.), 415-735-7303
3½ Stars

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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