I’m currently in San Francisco en route to Taipei, where I’m going to spend the summer working. One of the main purposes of my long layover here is to work on a score for my film with one of my oldest and dearest friends, Joe of the band Maus Haus.
The other night, I decided to take him out to dinner since, in addition to composing an original score for me, he’s letting me crash at his place in a room surrounded by keyboards, records, books on Fellini and what I’m pretty sure is a xylophone, though is currently operating more as a credenza.
He suggested a place called Foreign Cinema in the Mission, a French-ish restaurant with a nice outdoor patio where they project films while you eat. Seemed fitting. Unfortunately, when we got there, it was fully booked. The hostess asked us if we had a reservation, which we didn’t, and said we could sit at the bar in case someone canceled. I asked her how long she thought the wait would be and she very politely (but a little as though I were slow to catch on) repeated that she had no way of knowing because it would depend on someone with a reservation canceling.
It seemed odd to me and then I realized that in New York, there’s a lot more foot traffic, people just dropping in and the restaurants not only account for it but take full advantage. In fact, there was an interesting article in the Times recently about how “no reservations” policies save downtown restaurants thousands of dollars and allow them to have a higher turnover rate. In San Francisco, where more people drive and the city is less dense, it seems more people make reservations and tend to keep them.
Joe suggested a place nearby called Spork. Back when I was a teenager, I was once eating Taco Bell with some friends and digging into a bowl of “Mexican Rice” with a spork and wondered aloud why the utensil never made its way into fine dining. It combined the prongs of a fork and the scooping capability of the spoon. Genius.
Now that I’m older, more worldly and wise, I wasn’t sure how to feel about a restaurant based on this premise. What made it even stranger is that Spork was converted from an old KFC. The idea was to take over a multinational chain serving mass-produced low-quality food and turn it into a small, local restaurant serving its own take on fresh American cuisine.
Look, the premise is twee. Let’s all just acknowledge it and get that out of the way. But the food is very, surprisingly good. And it should be. The chef, Bruce Binn, spent time cooking at David Bouley’s Upstairs and Lupa before opening Spork.
To start, we shared a dish called “Cauliflower and Calamari Unite!” Yeah… But again, very good. To me, calamari has a very low plateau. I’ve very rarely had calamari that was really leaps and bounds beyond what you’d get at TGIFriday’s or wherever, but this dish was inspired. Instead of being deep fried, the Monterey Bay squid was griddled- and quite adeptly.
Binn was smart enough to allow the very fresh squid shine on its own without being coated in some joyless batter and deep fried until it’s rubbery. The lemon alioli lent just the right punch of bright, acidic freshness against the creaminess and it was topped with fresh mint, which made it even more… well, how many times can I use the word “fresh”?
It goes without saying that with seafood, freshness is key and anything that highlights and complements it in a fairly straightforward way shows a great deal of confidence. I once had rather ill-conceived mace-scented lobster at Jean-Georges that ruined the dish by giving it a sort of musty taste.
For my main course, I ordered a halibut that was nicely browned just a touch on the outside and very silky and tender on the inside. What can I say? I’m a sucker for halibut. I was afraid of ordering it, though, because there were a million other seemingly incongruous things on the plate ranging from beat puree to almonds. I’m weary of a busy plate and too many ingredients (for this reason, I’ve never been a huge fan of David Burke’s), but it all seemed to come together and was quite pretty. (Sorry I didn’t take any pictures.)
Joe ordered the restaurant’s take on beef Stroganoff, which was made with American kobe steak, potato gnocchi and wild mushrooms in a horse radish cream and aged balsamic sauce. Very solid and satisfyingly tasty in the way comfort food is meant to be and cooked with quality ingredients that would satisfy fairly discerning foodies.
For dessert, we indulged in beignets. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the new HBO series Treme, which takes place in New Orleans and in which every episode, it seems, at least one person is eating beignets and I’ve succumbed to the power of suggestion and have spent most of my waking hours craving them.
As soon as Joe picked one up and pulled apart, the soft, warm, pliant doughnut, before even taking a bite, he exclaimed, “Oh my god. This feels so good!” And after finishing one, said it was like eating “cinnamon and sugar-covered clouds.” (Maybe he should start his own food blog.)
The only bizarre thing is that the doughnuts came with sporks. Not plastic ones, mind you, but flatware sporks. I’m not sure where they found them, who manufactures such things for any reason except this conceptual restaurant or really why they brought them to us with the one course meant to be eaten with your hands. We looked at them, shrugged and went on enjoying our beignets.