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The Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Little Gem Is a Culinary Safe Space

A Thomas Keller alum finds inspiration in self-imposed constraints.

SLIDESHOW 

Little Gem dining room.

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The spinach and endive salad.

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The King of Hayes.

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It’s difficult to gauge which problem is more prevalent around these parts: gluten intolerance or gluten-intolerance intolerance. For all the diners who claim to be sickened by the grain-based protein compound, an equal number report gastric distress every time they’re exposed to such claims. But if you count yourself in the former camp, Eric Lilavois feels your pain. The onetime chief operating officer of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, Lilavois backs up his deep résumé with an even greater reservoir of empathy for anyone on a restricted diet. It’s a wellspring of goodwill fed by Lilavois’s own battles with what he describes as “allium sensitivity”: Anything in the onion family is his digestive undoing, a condition that ranks among the worst nonfatal diagnoses I’ve ever heard.

Little Gem, the new Hayes Valley restaurant that Lilavois helped dream up, isn’t onion-free, but it is a culinary safe space. Patrons entering the glassed-in corner spot can enjoy a counter-service breakfast, lunch, or dinner unburdened by worries about ingesting dairy or refined sugar. Gluten, unsurprisingly, is also an ingredient non grata in the kitchen. 

Considering its concept—not to mention its choice of namesake, a trendy sweet lettuce—Little Gem can’t help but be a bit precious. But to its credit, it isn’t preachy. Instead it’s pragmatic, a fast-casual outfit suited to the hyper-conscientious, time-pressed eaters of our broadband age.

The chef is Dave Cruz, who used to cook prix fixe, family-style menus at Ad Hoc but here allows his diners to customize their meals. Basic food groups offered à la carte on the dinner menu—meat and fish, vegetables, and grains and potatoes—may also be marshaled into so-called chef’s plates, allowing for a union of, say, simply roasted chicken with crisp potato rounds and roasted carrots that glint with harissa glaze. 

The common knock against this sort of “clean” eating—that in purging the impurities, you strip away the pleasures—is at once predictable and frequently on point. And, in its weaker moments, Little Gem does stray down that path. Those potato rounds, for instance, while nicely bronzed, all but beg for a bright or acidic foil—aioli or salsa verde would be welcome—but are left instead to their starchy lonesome. Slow-cooked cauliflower is sweet but sadly solo. Cup your ear, and you can hear the florets crying for anchovy vinaigrette.

Diners prejudiced against vegan dishes—a broad swath of the population—perhaps won’t be surprised that an entrée billed as Little Vegan qualifies as the menu’s biggest miss. A combination plate of chickpea-and-lentil stew, curried cauliflower, and braised chard, it righteously withholds all depth and flavor save for the chickpeas’ whiff of cumin. If you sprayed the table with patchouli, the dish would come perilously close to the off-campus co-op cooking at Oberlin or Reed. (Lilavois and co. may have reached a similar conclusion: The dish is no longer on the menu.) 

But that’s the exception at a restaurant that works deftly under self-imposed constraints. Meats and fish at Little Gem come perfectly prepared. Slabs of succulent pork shoulder serve as tender tribute to the power of slow roasting, while a seared five-ounce flatiron steak punches well above its weight. And a dish called the King of Hayes showcases exceptionally tender king salmon that flakes at first fork, prodded onto a bed of red quinoa, spinach, and slivered almonds that itself is beautified by a lively lemon-scallion vinaigrette. 

In keeping with its cooking, Little Gem’s interior is barebones and organic, with concrete floors and walls, Douglas fir chairs, and a blond bar fashioned from the wood of a single elm tree. It’s a pleasant space whose modern, utilitarian aesthetic suggests a kinship with any number of tech-company cafés. 

Which makes sense. Though modestly priced by San Francisco standards, with entrées topping out at $22, the restaurant clearly targets that young and privileged demographic who can afford to refuse to eat a lot of things because they know there are always lots of other things to eat. Further expanding on their abundant options, Little Gem greets the morning with a mix of sweet and savory breakfast items, from thick berry smoothies to wild rice stir fries, before easing into salads and wraps in the afternoon.

The pay-and-take-a-number format holds throughout the day, so come evening, don’t expect the kind of service that normally attends food this carefully made. Even if you have no food allergies, you might be irritated, as I was, at having to stand in line again to get another glass of wine or a dessert. A first-world problem, sure…but still.

Of those desserts, a feisty lemon custard with blackberries and oat crumble is worth the wait. So is the chocolate pudding, a short, dark, and handsome character thickened with arrowroot and turned just sweet enough with honey. It’s as lushly delicious as any dairy-based pudding you’ve ever had. Who could have a hard time tolerating that?

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Little Gem.

The King of Hayes (salmon, red quinoa, kalamata olives,
spinach, almonds, and lemon-scallion vinaigrette) ......................$22
Tuscan pork (roasted pork shoulder, brussels sprouts,
chioggia beets, brown and wild rice, and fennel mustard) .......... $19
Spinach and endive salad with blueberries,
tangerine, avocado, and honey-citrus vinaigrette ........................$9.50
Russet potato rounds with rosemary sea salt ..............................$5.50
Lemon custard .............................................................................$5.50
Chocolate pudding .......................................................................$5
Côtes de Provence Cabaret rosé .................................................$9.50
Total..............................................................................................$76

Little Gem
400 Grove St. (at Gough St.), 415-914-0501
Two stars

Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco

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