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The 200th Article: Restaurants: Range, San Francisco

In the daunting world that is the restaurant industry, the few restaurants that succeed beyond their first half decade have clicked with some specific formula. The formula might be as a tourist trap where the attraction is an enormous aquarium wall, or it might be about the exciting nature of a completely changing menu daily à la Charlie Trotter. Teamwork and leadership are critical. Everybody needs to be all in. The vision needs to be clear.

The now seven-year-old Range is truly the consummate restaurant. If I were to be teaching a course about a restaurant with a clear vision and equally clear purpose, this would be it. Range is a professional restaurant. Every surface is sanded, no corner cut. O.K., the cold butter and unexciting bread aren’t worth filling up on. But, that’s it.

Back in the summer of 2005, husband and wife team Phil and Cameron West opened Range on Valencia Street in a rather challenging part of San Francisco’s Mission District, when the likes of Delfina and Foreign Cinema had put the neighborhood on the dining map, but long, long before the 2012 Ritual Coffee-Four Barrel Coffee-fueled Valencia Street corridor became San Francisco’s “it” street.

It’s extremely hard to spot Range from the street with its tinted windows and the only label being a small street lamp above the door that says in small print “Range.” I remember my first visit after it opened, doing a curious double-take, squinting my eyes, seriously thinking I must have completely had the wrong address.

Now Valencia Street seems to have at least a dozen restaurants per block. The once dicey block Range resides on now has only a slight bit of edge and a very welcome new playground and park right next to the restaurant.

Times change around Range. Time hasn’t changed Range too much. People come, people go. The menu has its constant stalwarts, but many dishes have evolved over the years and seasons. Through it all, after seven years, at least the equivalent of 70 years in human age, Range remains one of San Francisco’s stalwart modern day establishments– in its own way a 21st century Tadich Grill. If I were to open a restaurant, I would model it after Range.

When I talk about Range not cutting any corners, I mean it. This isn’t Noma or El Bulli with fireworks on the menu. The dining room isn’t an architectural marvel in the Farallon or Quince fashion. This is a restaurant approachable enough and diverse enough across the menu to be the reliable neighborhood bistro you crave going to weekly. It is also a restaurant with enough ambition to warrant being considered a special occasion destination. You feel comfortable up front at the bar drinking a spot-on Hemingway Daiquiri and just as at ease in the snug booths of the rear dining room.

Pardon the expression, but it’s impossible to resist. You feel at home at Range.

The “Mae West” Cocktail: Hangar One Vodka, Sage, Plum, Madeira, Lemon

Range has a standout and excitingly diverse wine list and cocktail program. The wine list isn’t a phone book, yet possesses all sorts of exciting bottles from classic locales like Sancerre to the newest hot spots for vines, including the Canary Islands and Greece. The value of the wine list is startling, with almost a majority of the bottles under $50.

The cuisine isn’t especially modern, veering towards homey Californian. However, each dish has a little bit of flash. A roasted beet and cauliflower salad is accented by the jolt of horseradish. Who doesn’t love a good ol’ poached farm egg? You don’t see that egg too often mingle with Mendocino sea urchin, celery root puree, and a broth with a base of black cardamom.

What’s most admirable about Range’s menu is how compact it is and how the menu perfectly balances a few signature items that must always be there with the seasonal influences that shape the rest of the dishes. I always say that a menu of a dozen savory items is perfect. Range’s menu has exactly a dozen savory dishes, five desserts, and a cheese plate. Somebody here knows about organization and quality over quantity.

Oh, and Range happens to have some of the most helpful, cheerful service you’ll find these days at restaurants of any ambition point, and desserts that require ordering at least one per person.

“Double Date” Cocktail: Date Infused Rye, George Dickel Whiskey, Punt e Mes, Cardamaro, Cinnamon Bitters

The most recent “drama” has been the semi-retirement of Phil West from the kitchen, bringing in Rachel Sillcocks as the new chef de cuisine. Sillcocks previously had managed to transform the restaurant Piccino into one of the city’s hottest destinations, putting the Dogpatch on the map much like Range did for the Mission. From the pork and beef meatballs in a crushed tomato sauce to the brilliant farro and almond gremolata salads and the signature semolino gnocco, Sillcocks’ Italian influenced California cooking was full of life and inspiration.

At Piccino, Sillcocks’ menu was exactly like what the cuisine at Range always has been, just with less Italy at Range.

Now having settled in at Range, Sillcocks is right at home and picking up right where West handed the baton.

Range’s classics are still there. Foie gras is prohibited in the Golden State. Fortunately, San Francisco’s definitive duck liver pâté is as silky and bright as ever, to be spread on toasts, accented by Asian pears and a frisée salad for levity. The pâté avoids the troublesome funk and gristle that often plagues duck and chicken liver-based preparations. Here, it is restrained in the liver-forward notes, with a clear richness that adds the exciting edge, calmed then by the accoutrements.

Coffee Rubbed Pork Shoulder with Creamy Hominy and Collard Greens

The famed coffee rubbed pork shoulder is still there, as soft and tender as you’d find from the most advanced barbeque artists in Kansas City or Memphis. Except at Range, the pork shoulder is enhanced by the bitter espresso notes that mingle perfectly with the sweeter notes of the barbeque broth and the dozen or so caramelized charred bits of meat. Collard greens have never had it as good as they do here, and now San Francisco can understand why the South goes crazy for grits with the creamy caliber of the hominy under the pork.

It’s far from a flashy creation, nor does the square meal plating look very enticing. Top notch meat, though, is a fine art mastered here.

Lighter and just as impressive, Range’s roasted chicken rivals the Zuni Cafe and Nopa renditions so revered in the city. My vote still goes to Zuni for the crisp, succulent crust, heavy on rosemary. However, with a quarter of dark meat and a quarter of slightly less moist white meat, Range’s chicken is indeed a deserving classic. Now, Sillcocks adds another dimension with the addition of Brussels sprouts and a Zuni-esque charred bread salad threaded with maitake mushrooms. Adding the umami element of the mushrooms and the sweet grill notes of crisp Brussels sprouts is brilliant to an already stellar chicken.

Oven Roasted Chicken with a Brussels Sprout and Maitake Mushroom Bread Salad

Dinner at Range always starts with a cocktail. The menu is divided in half between classics and new, seasonal creations. The “Aviation” is very properly done, yet the mandatory order right now is the “Double Date.” Served up in a chilled couple, the chestnut-colored cocktail involves both date-infused rye whiskey and George Dickel whiskey, then a double dose of cinnamon from cinnamon bitters and Punt e Mes, all tied together with cardamaro liqueur. Whether on a date or not, it’s the perfect late Autumn way to commence the evening. It perfectly straddles the fine line between a classic, spirit-forward “brown drink” and an almost refreshing, seasonal inspired sipper with the edge softened.

Less successful is the “Mae West,” a martini glass filled with a gorgeous, dark rose hue from plum. Unfortunately, the plum glow and sage aroma don’t come through once sipped, nor does the Madeira wine added. Everything cancels each other out. The one note I could taste was some of the Hangar One vodka. Instead, enjoy the spice of the tequila-ginger-chili based “Bottle Rocket.”

Mixed Chicories with Barhi Dates, Toasted Walnuts, and Sherry Yogurt

Starters are a touch less impressive than the all-around rousing successes with large plates and desserts.

Dates are in season, shown in the “Double Date” and in an appetizer from Sillcocks with chicory lettuces, walnuts, and overly dressed in a nondescript, creamy sherry yogurt. The dish could be a winner with less of the yogurt and a yogurt that distinguished itself more.

I enjoyed the miniature salted cod croquettes, though only five smaller than doughnut hole croquettes seemed a bit on the light side. The beautiful watermelon radishes added a lovely dimension to the croquettes, which taste of the most vivid bacalao, or fish sticks, in the hands of a gifted chef. Again, saucing was the only issue. The meyer lemon and chili aioli resembled a plain mayonnaise, much like the aforementioned sherry yogurt was too similar to yogurt.

Salted Cod Croquettes with Watermelon Radish, Meyer Lemon, and Chili Aioli

The one pasta from Sillcocks is a rustic, sunchoke-stuffed pasta with roasted chanterelles and chive butter. Now you know you’re not at Piccino, with one pasta and no pizzas.

Vegetarians are covered with a filling entrée of corn and aged cheddar fritters, with pickled okra, marinated peppers, and red kale. Two fish dishes join the menu, featuring a definite Provençal-inspired,  slow-cooked sea bass over baby artichokes and cippolini onions, topped by a fennel and olive relish. Or, go for the California Rainbow trout, with both an eggplant puree and coriander vinaigrette, and toasted freekeh, a green wheat grain not far from quinoa.

However, as the dust settles, the present masterpiece is a preparation of thinly sliced duck breast medallions, almost as soft as veal cheeks. An element of a California cassoulet shows up with the addition of shelling beans, then Fall speaks with roasted apples and the woodsy twang of broccoli di cicco. The broth is an eye-opener, bracing with some fennel, then the dish is finished by a hazelnut gremolata for crunch and earthy notes. What a demonstration of skill and control.

Duck Breast with Shelling Beans, Roasted Apples, Broccoli di Cicco, and Hazelnut Gremolata

It just goes to show how important the desserts are to the Range experience that despite all of these superb savory dishes, it’s the sweet conclusion that diners often are waiting for with the most anticipation. And deservedly so. Michelle Polzine will be opening her own pastry shop in Hayes Valley early in 2013 with sweets inspired by her travels around Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. I didn’t see any dobos tortes or kaiserschmarnn on the menu. However, perhaps inspired by Escoffier in Paris, Polzine crafts a textbook bittersweet chocolate souffle, as ravishing as a stroll down the Avenue Montagne, as regal as the Versailles gardens. Two dainty scoops of lemon verbena ice cream complete the perfect dessert.

What makes this such the textbook souffle? From the airy top perfectly timed from the kitchen, to the moist and still plenty warm interior, and then the mystical bittersweet chocolate switch over the usual cloying sweet chocolates adds a lingering element that leads to a battle for the final bite.

You hear all the time about the butterscotch budino from Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles. Polzine’s butterscotch pudding with real, thick whipped cream, sweet-salty toffee, and crumbled wafers strides step for step with the budino.

Now, Polzine is presenting a spicy ginger cake with pomegranate and cardamom ice cream, and one standard that almost never leaves is her buckwheat crêpes filled with huckleberries, alongside chicory ice cream.

I’m late to the game in saying that Polzine’s homey, classic desserts with a few twists and savory elements deserve their own boutique showplace. Polzine’s pastry shop will be adored by San Franciscans without a doubt.

Butterscotch Pudding with Toffee, Whipped Cream, and Wafers on Left
Bittersweet Chocolate Souffle with Lemon Verbena Ice Cream on Right

A restaurant with such consistent food often decides to slouch a bit on the service front after a few years. Not here. The service staff is gracious and wonderfully helpful, always willing to give a tie-breaking vote between cocktails. One time, our waitress even noticed my disappointment in a cocktail and brought another one that just so happened to be exactly what the doctor ordered. Pacing is spot on. These are professionals, running a truly professional restaurant.

Range won’t win any design awards. Much of the furniture in the three-part dining room came from secondhand stores in the Mission. Tables are bare wood in the dining room with industrial stainless steel elements to the bar that add a bit more contemporary element for the cocktail crowd up front. The prime seats are in the rear with cozy, leather-skinned booths, almost like a more feminine steakhouse. In such close surroundings, Range isn’t a quiet place, especially in the center alleyway area where tables face the kitchen, and the walkway serves as the delivery highway for waiters.

With the new addition of Sillcocks and the continued formidable desserts from Polzine and leadership of the Wests, Range will be at home for years to come. It’s not the newest. It’s not the most glamorous. It’s the consummate restaurant–why we love dining at restaurants.

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