Restaurants: Baker & Banker, San Francisco
No, Baker & Banker is not a law firm. That’s the first impression every diner has upon learning of this charming 2 1/2 year old restaurant run by husband and wife tandem Jeff Banker and Lori Baker. He runs the finances and she runs the baking.
In reality, at least half of that is actually true, though it’s unknown who is in charge of the finances for the restaurant. It is known, however, that Banker is the man in charge of the savory items, deftly blending California purity with vibrant global accents for some of San Francisco’s definitive personal cooking. Baker is indeed the baker of the superb bread that comes to the table at the meal’s start, along with some of the city’s most notable desserts that, like the savory items, speak of regional homey simplicity with a global accent.
It’s a team that works in personal life and restaurant life, a fantastic duo that San Francisco truly appreciates, and shows it by filling all 50 seats of the bustling, cramped bistro nightly. The historic former apothecary building with caramel colored walls is a truly handsome setting, complete with chalkboards announcing special wines and beers offered that evening to create the cozy bistro setting so many restaurants strive for, yet seldom succeed at. The go to seats seem to be the curved leather booths in the front corners next to Octavia Street or for couples and walk ins, the stools at the bar facing the kitchen at the rear end of the dining room. It feels as if you’re at a family’s home with the antique furniture and celebratory feel permeating throughout. Well, in a way, you are at a family’s home.
Over a pair of visits the past few months, there have been several constants. The cramped setting seems even more intimate with the noise that compete with some of the city’s louder restaurants, a shame with such a pleasant atmosphere. One night a high society debutante single handedly pushed the noise level above 100 decibels. She also drove the service nuts by insisting that Banker’s signature appetizer, a truly refreshing and unique spin on the classic smoked trout and potato pancake, be served without the latke. Carbs I guess can be awfully frightening.
The dish is one of three that never leaves the menu and continues to be the hardest to resist ordering. Banker’s smokes the trout, tops it on the potato latke, then compliments the subtle trout with a not so subtle horseradish cream, technicolor pickled beets, and shaved fennel. The dish has a crystal clear vision and fully achieves it, elevating smoked fish to another tier.
The compact restaurant leads to a compact menu of six starters, six main plates, and five desserts. There is always one vegetarian main dish, always tempting. Currently it is goat cheese and potato ravioli with zucchini, porcini mushrooms, tempura squash blossoms, and toasted pine nuts. The main plate standard is the excellent mirin and soy braised black cod. Served skin on, the marinade doesn’t quite achieve the same umami impact of similar miso marinade preparations done by the likes of Nobu Matsuhisa, Ray’s Boathouse in Seattle, and Sushi Ran in Sausalito. The texture of the fish, though, is every bit as gentle as any others. Banker has this down to a science. The foie gras shitake sticky rice is a worthy accompaniment, which won’t be around come July. The charred bok choy completes the dish, with the only necessary tweak being that the rice could use more foie gras. There were four tiny cubes amidst the rice, found after a frantic search to find any foie gras. It’s not July 1st in California just yet.
Small menus mean items change often and run out often, as was the case with a tempting scallops paired with sweetbreads dish one night. The side effect is it left the black cod as the sole fish dish. I appreciated a surf and turf starter pairing perfectly cooked octopus with crispy pork belly cubes and castelvetrano lives. The romesco was fine, a tad bit overpowering, and the potato salad did nothing to enhance the proceedings. Overall the biggest problem was the somewhat monotonous presentation, of rust colored sauce and little cubes, tentacles, and coins of pork, octopus, and potato scattered about.
Far more enticing to the eye and taste was the refreshing spring vegetable and farro salad, with a deep fried farm egg, pickled ramps, and artfully presented like a wafer La Quercia proscuitto. The hands down premier dish of the night was, yes, foie gras and chicken pâté in a canning jar, as smooth and robust as a 1985 Bordeaux. With a glass of sauterne, a dab of the vanilla rhubarb compote on top of the pâté slathered over Baker’s charred country bread, there is no better way to bid farewell in California to foie gras than this.
Strangely, Banker’s more daring and winning combinations happen to be with the larger plates instead of the more restrained starters. Surf and turf pops up again with quail roulades wrapped in speck. It’s a completely atypical presentation of quail with no legs, rather medallions of the bird surrounding a brioche stuffing. It’s even more atypical from the addition of Manila clams whose briny flavor completely works when matched with speck and bird. English peas and spring onions add a freshness of the season to round everything out. Equally special is a duck duo of breast and confit with a cara cara orange salad. The cocoa nib reduction could have used an extra jolt and the pan fried polenta alongside was far from exciting.
Banker has a special touch with lamb, which seems to always be presented as the in vogue trio style. The best entree of any visit came a few months ago with a Sonoma lamb trio of Merguez sausage, shank, and shoulder, with an eggplant caponata and fascinating textures and contrasting boldness from black olives, rapini, and mint gremolata. Presently, there is a hearty trio of the same three cuts of lamb with Gigante beans, crispy capers, baby carrots, artichokes, and a salsa verde.
Dessert is the real destination of the restaurant. She must hear the joke dozens of times a day, but Baker must have been destined to be a baker with that last name. No matter what a baker’s last name is, a chocolate cake of Baker’s XXX chocolate cake’s caliber is a rarity. The towering slice boasts four layers: on the bottom is a dense, more traditional chocolate cake, then a chocolate cheesecake, chocolate devil’s food cake, and a superb chocolate frosting on top. This should be everyone’s birthday cake.
The other desserts were far from mistakes, but need tweaking. Bacon doughnuts were excellent aside from the lack of bacon, much like the lack of foie gras in the sticky rice. The bourbon cheesecake filling for the doughnuts seemed to have forgotten the bourbon as well. However, the sublime butterscotch dipping sauce makes the filling irrelevant. There seems to be a pattern of daring ingredients skimped on or left out. A peanut butter semifreddo certainly did not skimp on peanut butter, with a small layer of banana at the semifreddo base, and a top of fractured rice krispies. Nothing went wrong, it just didn’t move anybody like a peanut butter and banana dessert has the potential to. A s’mores sundae was a standout, giving reason for more pastry chefs to bake graham crackers and for Baker to open a scoop shop to serve her toasted marshmallow ice cream.
The food certainly is the highlight of the show, every bit holding its own against the shadow of the space’s former tenant, Michael Tusk’s Quince. Quince now has gone on to Michelin starred endeavors at a grand space near the Financial District, straying from its humble Italian roots at the former apothecary in a residential area just below Pacific Heights. Baker & Banker seems to bridge the gap between the old Quince and the new Quince, without the Italian influence.
Service is always professional and helpful with ordering advice, but always seems very reserved approaching diners. The atmosphere is so celebratory and the staff has yet to show a smile once. Possibly it’s because the restaurant is always slammed the staff is in the weeds, either a service problem or a small kitchen problem demonstrated by the far too long lulls between courses. A small restaurant means a small kitchen, an issue every table sees here. The other small size issue would be the glaring need for another restroom, where waits can be like at a Giants game in the 8th inning.
Be certain to visit Baker’s bakery during the day for excellent morning pastries and my vote for the city’s leading brownie. At night, the bakery becomes a chef’s table for a multi-course, prix fixe special feast, a trend nearly every restaurant seems to be following these days.
Truly a personal place for the owners, this is the bistro exemplified. Exuding cozy warmth and a unique style of cooking by the husband and wife chefs, Baker & Banker continues to thrive well into its second year.