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Restaurants: Rich Table, San Francisco

Rich Table is a new neighborhood restaurant opened by a husband and wife couple who previously worked at some of San Francisco and New York’s premiere gastronomic destinations, and now have opened a more casual restaurant with an emphasis on seasonal and local ingredients.

Tell me something new.

Well, yes, in theory Rich Table is just that. Not that it’s bad to be a neighborhood restaurant whatsoever. Emphasizing ingredients from the fertile land all around Northern California is very commendable.
Rich Table is by definition a neighborhood restaurant because there is no dress code, there is no foie gras on the menu (make that truffles or lobster since this is post-June 2012 California), and the decor consists of a compact, open kitchen and scruffy, exposed wooden beams from a saw mill north of San Francisco that make the space feel more like a carpenter’s workshop than a restaurant worth reserving for dinner a month in advance.

But, the term neighborhood restaurant is thoroughly over-used these days. Rich Table is already a quintessential part of the neighborhood known as Hayes Valley. In just barely a year, Hayes Valley has spruced itself up with boutiques, restaurants, and open urban space and transformed into one of the country’s leading neighborhood gentrification examples. Rich Table symbolizes this new strength for the area.

At the same time, Rich Table is a destination, with cooking by Evan and Sarah Rich that is some of the most captivating these days in the Bay Area. No, there are no undressed figs on a plate here. For that, you still need to look at the dessert menu at Chez Panisse Cafe. No, this is not a high wire act either with tweezer food served in morsels, as is the case where Evan Rich most recently served as chef de cuisine, San Francisco’s Coi.

King Salmon Tartare, Cucumbers, Douglas Fir

Rich Table is in that prime innovative cooking meets comfort zone that absolutely speaks of what the passionate food public gets so excited about at this particular time. The couple met in the kitchens of David Bouley in New York, then ventured west to San Francisco with Sarah cooking for Michael Mina at his flagship and Evan joining Michael Tusk at Quince before serving under Daniel Patterson at Coi. Prior to opening Rich Table in August, the two operated in that ultimate symbol of the times, a pop-up restaurant, operating on Mondays a dinner event known as Chefs’ Night Out.

No more pop-ups anymore. Rich Table is here to stay, just on the outskirts of the commercial heart of Hayes Valley, where the restaurant Paul K used to be. If a neighborhood restaurant needs to be in a mostly residential neighborhood and present lots of walk-in seating and doesn’t care if you’re wearing sandals and sweatpants, then this is a neighborhood restaurant.

Rich Table’s “Let’s Go”

The 62 seats are divided roughly into three cramped rows: a banquette on one side with mostly two tops and a few four-top tables, a prominent raised central communal table (a trend that one day will leave…), and the other side a bar that shares space with the open kitchen. No seat is the loser of the house. The banquette seats may be quieter, but also seem a bit distant from the kitchen and bar action.

And the bar action is central to the Rich Table experience. The cocktail and wine list crafted by former Coi sommelier Maz Naba is organized in a compact, to-the-point format that other restaurants should study. Wines are split into three price points for bottles: $45, $55, and $65, with a good half of the bottles available by the glass and carafe. Yes, by the glass and carafe options are also split into three price points. Trios are certainly a central theme here. And, the wines come from all over the world, just like the inspirations for the dishes: Macadeonia, Greece to Emilia Romagna to Languedoc or Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains.

“The Big Night”

There are presently five listed cocktails, not three. Nearly half of the diners order the gorgeous and stellar “Big Night,” enchanting with the perfect balance of Mezcal, ginger syrup, nasturtium greens pureed with simple syrup, and a garnish of nasturtium flower. Good luck finding a more perfect cocktail for looks and taste.
The “Let’s Go” mixes Encanto Pisco curiously with coconut water, Luxardo Maraschino, and mint over crushed ice. If you love coconut water, then go for this. Heck, the cocktail even feels healthy. Otherwise, it’s about the “Big Night.” Or to be seasonal, try the “Push, Push” with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, apple, and maple syrup.

Then comes the real challenge, figuring out how to orchestrate the meal. Like so many restaurants opening today, and this is mostly a good thing, you don’t come to Rich Table and not share, or follow the traditional three-course format. The menu has no category names. There are four categories loosely designed with bar snacks, appetizers, pastas, and larger plates. Or six categories if you count oysters and bread as categories. Or for yet another option, go for the “chefs’ picks” $75 tasting menu.

Wild Fennel Levain

The days of worthless, complementary bread are numbered. You should applaud the chefs who bake their own bread and charge a small fee for superior bread and butter. An order of the wild fennel levain with just the right amount of the anise kick is essential. For just $4, it’s a steal. Trust me. And the bread is baked to order too, so don’t expect to fill up on bread during the cocktail session.

Nibble on the much talked-about sardine chips, where the tiny fish is threaded into a potato chip, strapped in by a little chip buckle. With a “Big Night” and dipping the fishy-salty overload into the horseradish crême fraiche, it’s hard to imagine a better way to start a dinner. With those chips, perhaps snack on a few sugar snap peas tossed about in honey mustard or winter squash fritters with a salsa verde based on arugula.

Snap Peas with Honey Mustard and Sardine Chips

The bread still might not have arrived by now, but do hope it’s on the table when the burrata arrives. Creamy, salty, spicy, and umami all mingle when the mozzarella variation sits atop earthy roasted peppers, and is topped by diced chicken skins that give bacon a good run for the salty meat money. What a dish, not your run-of-the-neighborhood, neighborhood restaurant creation.

Neither tartare dish faltered, yet neither was particularly captivating. Raw King salmon tartare was beautiful and refreshing, chopped with diced cucumbers under a wafer cover, decorated with the pinpoint precision of a royal Vienna pastry shop. There just wasn’t much going on, with the promised Douglas fir somehow left mostly in the forest.

Burrata, Roasted Peppers, Chicken Skin

Lamb tartare came in a bowl with a shelling bean puree that serves as fine hummus, but covers up the delicate raw meat. It came with some plancha bread slices, roughly a marriage of Navajo fry bread and naan. Plancha bread also is a dish itself, topped with rabbit liver, treviso, and onion soubise.

Lamb Tartare, Shelling Bean Puree, Olive oil

With his Quince pedigree, no wonder the pastas from Evan Rich may be the most impressive part of the evening. You’ll find Tajarin with huitlacoche, spaghetti with manilla clams and bone marrow, and even the humble, often too heavy, chicken lasagna, re-conceived with pumpkin greens. Without a doubt, the green rigatoni with no shortage of sea urchin, chili peppers, and pea shoots is a masterpiece. You’ll get a la dolce vita moment after the first bite.

Do take note that the appetizers and pastas are not small plates. In fact, serving size across all the categories are pretty much equal. However, skipping the “larger” plates is prohibited. When the buttermilk poached chicken is on the menu, it’s your day. Far superior to rubbery sous-vide style, the moist chicken sings with flavor, much like a Wagyu steak compared to a New York cut. The chicken arrived in two parts over gigante white beans, seeds, and sprouts: one part as breast meat, the other as more crisped thigh meat, almost like a virtuous pork belly. Altogether, it’s a modern day, San Franciscan cassoulet.

Buttermilk Poached Chicken, Beans, Sprouts, and Seeds

Vegetables can be a large plate too, with roasted potatoes, cucumber, and cilantro. There’s a delicate King salmon atop brussels sprouts, with Asian pear and young ginger, along with Alpine-influenced rabbit accompanied by red cabbage and fermented farro.

The only hiccup was a complementary grape sorbet, with a beautiful consistency à la Zuni Cafe’s espresso granita and a very vague table grape taste.

Desserts are a major step up fortunately. Chocolate cravings are satisfied with the sweet-salty combination of white chocolate cream and a salted chocolate sable with raspberries. Sweet cream panna cotta comes with strawberries and a lemon crumble. And you’ve never had plum cake like this version, with a cake consistency almost like cornbread, complete with peppercress and tied together by a scoop of buttermilk sorbet that puts the grape sorbet to shame.

Top: Grape Sorbet; Bottom: Plum Cake with Iced Buttermilk and Peppercress

Servers and bartenders are incredibly helpful, clearly working in a hectic environment at prime time, but always spot-on with advice and willing to go into details about often vague-sounding menu descriptions. Partly because a website photo shoot was going on at the time and much of the service attention (including the executive chef) went to them, timing was a bit off with nearly an hour before the appetizers arrived. The pacing was more in time with Coi or Bouley.

The real service issue came at the host stand. First, a cold welcome led to a fifteen-minute wait after the reservation time. Then, our reserved-a-month-in-advance table happened to be at the first come, first served, communal table.

Hold on a second. I scanned the restaurant numerous times all evening, never seeing every table full despite the now, almost out-of-control popularity of the restaurant. A table for two was reserved at the communal table reserved for diners without reservations? It’s the type of behind-the-back, secret table assigning that you think only the celebrity favorite restaurants in Los Angeles and New York do.

Rigatoni, Sea Urchin, Pea Shoots

A table is a table. The communal table is the communal table. As it’s an entirely less personal experience, restaurants should make sure to mention if a reservation will be at the communal table. Of course, that is even stranger when the communal table isn’t supposed to be able to be reserved in the first place.

Fortunately, the experience at Rich Table is a special one. The neighborhood should treasure this restaurant boasting so much creativity and heart. Unfortunately for the neighborhood, every other neighborhood in the Bay Area and the visitors to the city treasure Rich Table, too.

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