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Where To Eat Now: Destination Neighborhood Joints

Local spots with wide-ranging appeal.

Brenda's Meat & Three

 

Read more of our ultimate Where To Eat Now guide here.

Philosophical question: Is the term “neighborhood restaurant” accurate if the eatery in question pulls its clientele from near and far? It is if the chef is Melissa Perello, the high priestess of homey cooking, whose almost-six-year-old Frances is so inviting that you forget how hard it was to land a reservation. Perello’s new place, Octavia (1701 Octavia St.), has a similar tilt: straightforward food rendered impossibly beautiful, served in a space so welcoming that it’s a wonder anyone ever leaves.

With its high windows, pale walls, and abundance of natural wood, the dining room has the lo-fi elegance of a Kinfolk magazine set, but none of the pretension. This lack of showboating is refl ected on the menu, where familiar combinations are reimagined with quiet sophistication. Perello’s spin on a deviled egg, for example, comes poached and brined, powder-coated with marash peppers and spices, and served on a raft of Fresno chili relish whose heat slaps the oozy yolk out of its slumber.

Other dishes, such as an avocado, grilled beet, and Persian cucumber trio, or a silken coil of squid ink linguine with bottarga and lemon oil, feel novel simply because they’re so good: If Perello’s cooking demands any label, it’s perhaps “thoughtful food from a thoughtful person.” The same could be said of pastry chef Sarah Bonar’s desserts: Take a bite of her wildflower-honey crumb pudding, topped with fresh fi gs and adrift in a pool of crème fraîche, and you’ll cease to think at all.

With 25 seats to its name, Huxley (846 Geary St.) feels less like a neighborhood joint than a dining nook. But the wee Tenderloin restaurant’s dimensions are inversely proportional to the generosity of its flavors—and portions. Avocado toast is delivered here on a thick slab of Jane bread, the avocado slices tiled atop a slick of uni aioli and scattered with sesame seeds. It’s a delirious, brawny thing that typifies Huxley’s MO, which is to dazzle and satiate in equal measure. An order of rock cod, spiked with chili pepper and served whole with melty fingerling potatoes and a preserved lemon–olive relish, is a fantasia of crackly skin, silky flesh, and bright jabs of heat and acid that could easily serve three. Even the salads, like a heap of butter lettuce and radishes dressed with yogurt vinaigrette, possess a certain robustness.

That said, chef Sara Hauman understands restraint: For dessert, a lone scoop of frozen chocolate custard accompanied by a few salted peanuts and a drizzle of olive oil is a study in serenity, a cool reminder that greatness often comes in small packages. The menu at the unassuming Growler's Arms (4214 Park Blvd., Oakland) is also rooted in tradition, but of the Queen’s English variety. Styled as a British country pub in deepest Glenview, it’s run by Seamus and Shelley Mulhall, two Chez Panisse vets who have endowed the place with a welcoming vibe and unabashed tavern fare.

Brian Ventura, the A16 vet in charge of the kitchen, wisely doesn’t try to California-ize British food; instead, he freshens it up with housemade ingredients and a deft touch. Improbably airy fish and chips come with tartar sauce and a shatteringly crisp exterior; meat pie is born again with a rich filling of slow-braised beef and Guinness and a Stilton crust; Scottish haggis is freed from its usual sheep’s stomach carrying case and served instead on toast with a fried egg. But while the menu wears its allegiances proudly, it’s not enslaved by them: There are salads aplenty, including a requisite Little Gem number with avocado and green goddess dressing. It’s as Northern California as Alice Waters at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market—a testament to the beauty of cultural exchange.

Cultural cross-pollination has also come to Lakeshore in the form of Shakewell (3407 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland), a Spanish-Mediterranean joint indicative of a rapidly changing neighborhood. Situated not far from a Pilates studio that sells turmeric-scented almond milk, the restaurant, from Top Chef alums Jen Biesty and Tim Nugent, is dominated by a big, lively bar that flows with sangria and $13 cocktails. Though the menu is stocked with bar friendly food, like crispy, creamy bacalao croquetas and olives stuffed with fried anchovies and aji peppers, its ambitions go further.

A tender lamb loin kebab, accompanied by saffron onions, tzatziki, and harissa, is a Mediterranean joyride; Spanish octopus, so often vulcanized in other kitchens, comes poached to perfection and paired with salsa verde, arbequina olives, and chorizo. A quartet of paellalike bombas are among the restaurant’s greatest strengths: The best, topped with cuttlefish and stained black with squid ink, gets its notes of sweetness and heat from roasted peppers, carrot-jalapeño sofrito, and pickled Fresno chilies, with hits of bright acidity from preserved lemon. Served in metal paella pans, they’re bold and festive—comfort food that comforts without inducing a stupor.

Comfort of the Southern variety is the order of business at Brenda’s Meat & Three (919 Divisadero St.). Brenda Buenviaje’s followup to Brenda’s French Soul Food, the all-day café has spawned long lines since day one for its resplendently portioned spins on the “one protein, three sides” formula. Much of the South’s comfort-food canon is present and accounted for: There are fried chicken, cream biscuits, shrimp and grits, and a fried-bologna sandwich in which thick-cut meat consorts with pimiento cheese, bread-and-butter pickles, and secret sauce on a buttered bun. This being San Francisco, though, many of the “three” skew vegetarian and even—gasp—vegan, like a rich, deeply flavorful okra-and-tomato maque choux.

Salads, too, are big, bold, and inspired: Showered with grapes, almonds, and feta, the chicory-and-kale salad could feed three. Brenda’s isn’t a fancy place—it’s just a big room with a U-shaped counter in the middle—and thank goodness for that. Sitting on one of its stools and nursing a wedge of its creamy, fluffy peanut butter icebox pie is luxury enough.

Swing by Ba-Bite (3905 Piedmont Ave., Oakland) around lunchtime, and you’ll find it flooded with local foot traffic. The cozy counter-service haunt is built to accommodate quick hit meals, but the quality of the Middle Eastern menu merits a crosstown trip. With her homespun assortment of salads, keftas, kebabs, platters, and wraps, Israeli-born chef Mica Talmor does welcome justice to a genre that is poorly represented around these parts.

Her tagines are lush and her falafels moist, not the dusty, sand-dry fritters you’ve encountered elsewhere. Her rice-and-lentil mujaddarah, topped with sweet roasted eggplant, is a soaring, cumin-scented grain-and-veggie medley. To try her hummus—a smooth purée of organic, locally grown garbanzos, each bean shed of its mealy outer skin and then blended with quantities of nutty tahini—is to realize that the stuff you’ve been eating at so many other restaurants is really better suited for window caulk.

Given the scarcity of parking on Polk Street, it’s wise to walk to dinner at Lord Stanley (2065 Polk St). But only so many people can live in Russian Hill. For the rest of us, traffic headaches are a small price to pay for a seat at Rupert and Carrie Blease’s sparkling new restaurant. The husband-and-wife chefs, who met at the two-Michelin-starred Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in England (and went on to work at such New York landmarks as Per Se and Blue Hill, respectively), have hit the sweet spot on their first San Francisco outing. Though bright-white and blond-wood accents lend their laid-back corner space a Scandinavian look, their menu is modern Californian, a relaxed but refined celebration of the seasons that moves from starters like charred leeks with hazelnuts, shaved porcinis, and chervil emulsion to a delicate entrée of black cod, wax beans, and charred avocado bathed in a light but fragrant curry-perfumed broth.

Lemon curd hides amid tender chunks of braised and grilled lamb shoulder ($29), injecting the dish with a subtle citrus swagger. A dessert described as a “chocolate pouch” arrives as an elegant package: an ethereal chocolate crepe, plump with poached figs and chocolate pastry crème, tied at the top with an edible lace of cherry fruit leather. In its early goings, Lord Stanley offered only an à la carte menu, but the recently created prix fixe option is a fitting addition to a restaurant bound to become one of the city’s hottest destinations—hassles of getting there be damned.
 

 

Read More:

Tiny, Pretty Things: Food that's ready for Instagram

A Ground Meat Groundswell: Burgers aren't going anywhere.

Prix Fixe Holdouts and Casual Refinements: Fancy still has its place.

Keeping it in the Family: Platters are the new plates.

Destination Neighborhood Joints: Local spots with wide-ranging appeal.

France, Now and Forever: The bistro still abides.

Eating, Drinking, and the Other Way Around: Bar or restaurant? You be the judge.

Next Wave Asian: Redrawing culinary borders.

 

 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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