Have you ever found yourself onstage in the middle of a Beyonce concert, panicking as everyone around you moves in perfect synchronization but you have no idea what’s going on? Me neither, but I imagine that if I did, the experience would be quite similar to eating at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. They call themselves a “restaurant without any programmed elements”, but “organized chaos” would be a better description. Oh, and the food is absolutely fantastic. If you are looking for the best vegetarian food in San Francisco, come here.
First things first: SBP was named 2012’s Best New Restaurant in America by Bon Appetit Magazine. That was not an outlier award; critics fawn over this place. And I can see why. The food is spectacular, the presentation is one-of-a-kind, and place buzzes with a vitality and creative energy that I’ve literally never seen before. That’s probably why it takes two months to get a reservation. (I got lucky and snagged one of the handful of seats they reserve at the Chef’s Counter for walk-ins every night. The place is so popular that some people literally stand at the counter for dinner.)
So about the restaurant. There may not be any “programmed elements” here, but there’s definitely a plan (even if you don’t realize it). There is a printed menu, and you can order from it, but that’s not where the real fun is. What sets the place apart are the “dim sum style” carts that meander through the restaurant every few minutes. If you are an impulse buyer, you will have trouble controlling yourself here. (If you are a vegetarian and inclined to order every vegetarian item on the menu, you will also have trouble!)
Dinner started with a salad of quinoa, mushrooms, and a mushroom aioli. It was topped with roasted quinoa and some other seeds and nuts. It was nice, simple, and a great start. It also foreshadowed a theme that would recur throughout the dinner: the mixture of textures and flavors in an interesting and unusual way. Here, the roasted quinoa gave a crunch that balanced the mushrooms and aioli. The salad was a touch too salty but nothing that stopped me from finishing the whole thing.
Next, I had the “Winter Vegetable Romesco”. Romesco sauce, for those who don’t know (I didn’t) is, according to wikipedia, a “a nut and red pepper-based sauce” from Spain. The salad had cauliflower and carrots, primarily, with big chunks of pecorino mixed in. There were also almonds, which added a surprisingly meaty undertone. Again, the dish mixed a lot of textures: soft roasted carrots, crunchy almonds and wheatberries and puffed wild rice, the almost-slippery, noodle-like celery root… a whole combination of ingredients that you’d never think to put together but then, when you have them, you think, “Oh yeah, that makes sense!” SBP makes their romesco with sundried tomatoes, peppers, and capers, in almost a vinaigrette style. I was so pleased I took a second picture.
My third course was actually the first thing I ordered, the sourdough sauerkraut pancakes, served with a side of sauerkraut salt. The mini pancakes were really interesting–I should mention that the restaurant has an entire section of pancakes on the menu!–and definitely sour.
The cabbage gave them a little crunch, and it wasn’t until I was almost done that I noticed a slight sprinkling of cumin seeds. I was undecided on this course until I had a piece with the cumin–with just a couple of cumin seeds, the pancakes just got exponentially better. The only downside of this dish was that I was three courses in and starting to get full.
At this point maybe I should pause to discussion one aspect of the genius of SBP. (There are many; I’ll get to the others later.) I recently reviewed L’Arpege, one of the best restaurants in the world. Probably the only thing that held be back from giving it a completely unqualified review was that the sheer quantity of food could be overwhelming. There’s no such risk here. As I mentioned, the pancakes were the first thing I ordered. But they were the third thing I ate, because I made spur-of-the-moment decisions to get the quinoa and the winter vegetables. The beauty, of course, is that you can control exactly how much you eat. You could go out with friends and each have a different quantity of food; you’re not all tied to the x-course prix fixe.
Every story has a climax, and this dinner’s came about halfway through, with the cast iron quail eggs. Six quail eggs were cooked in a cast iron skillet, topped with sunchokes, mustard greens, and sunchoke chips. This dish was just absolutely amazing. It actually changes as you eat it! When the eggs are served, they are just barely set (as you can probably tell from the picture above). But they’re served in the skillet, which is still extremely hot–so by the time you get around to the last bits of egg, they’re almost fully solid. In other words, every bite is different. The mustard greens were just a tiny bit bitter, and the chips added a nice crunch.
This was a great example of how the flavors came together; the chips on their own were too salty, but in combination with the eggs and greens were perfect. The waitress said she could eat these every single night, and–as you can tell from the picture above–I agree.
At this point I was feeling pretty satisfied. I’d had some great food, dessert was coming up, and I was ready to wind down. I was sitting at the Chef’s Counter, so I could look right into the kitchen and watch the magic happen. As it turned out, Stuart Brioza, the chef/owner, was right there. And when he came out with a batch of ricotta dumplings with pumpkin puree, I could not say no.
I didn’t want to offend my host (or so I told myself!) so I had the dumplings. The ricotta was tender and just barely set; the pumpkin was sweet, and the pumpkin seeds were crunchy. If you are looking for a nice, hearty, fall/winter dish, this is it.
By the way, remember what I said earlier about impulse purchases? The ricotta was an impulse purchase. I ordered the dumplings while I was actually waiting for my fried garlic bread with burrata. Yeah, fried bread with cheese. These people are good.
This is exactly what it sounds like: fried garlic bread, with some ridiculously creamy burrata, There was actually a small amount of pecorino underneath the burrata–fantastic. The cracked black pepper on top brought it all together.
In case my doctor is reading, no, I didn’t eat the entire thing–and it’s a good thing I didn’t. I don’t mean (only) for health reasons. As the bread cools it looses some of the pliable texture that makes the first few bites so amazing. So if you’re with a friend or three, split this course–otherwise you’ll have way too much and the ending will be disappointing.
Finally we got to dessert. Stuart, as I mentioned, is the chef-owner, but so is his wife, Nicole Krasinski. Stuart is the head chef and Nicole is the pastry chef, so she has the unenviable job of following Stuart’s masterwork and making sure that the night ends on a high note.
My dessert was the “ice cream sandwich”. The “ice cream” was vanilla sabayon with almonds folded in, and it was absolutely fantastic. The white you see on top is marshmallow, and the sandwich was bracketed by chocolate “macarons”. Each of the elements of this dessert was quite good. I only wish it had held together better; the chocolate and the vanilla separated when I tried to eat this, and the gooey chocolate was a bit difficult to manage.
What you see on the right, by the way, is “World Peace Peanut Muscovado Milk”. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but basically this is like drinking creamy, liquid peanut brittle. Nicole is doing for dessert what her husband during the main meal: putting things together that would have never crossed your mind, but somehow not only work but seem obvious after you try them. So it was with the milk. I’m still waiting on the “World Peace”.
I don’t do this very often, but I wanted to post the check from my dinner. As you can see, the wait staff just marks off whatever you order. The few standard items are printed at the top and circled if you order them. The “dim sum” options are just priced individually, so the two hash marks next to “8” mean I ordered two things that were priced at $8 that night. (I don’t remember what they were.) When you add it all up, you get seven courses (including dessert) and three glasses of wine, for $90 including tax. The dinner came to $110 with tip, which sounds like a lot, until you realize that other top restaurants charge more than that before drinks, tax, or tips. Eleven Madison Park, for example, recently unveiled it’s “New York-themed menu” (some aspects of which were being rolled out when I last ate there). That menu, which, like SBP, relies on some theatrics and atmospherics to round out what is at bottom a world-class meal, will set you back $195 for the food alone. You could come to SBP and, if you had no wine and didn’t try every single thing like I did, get out the door for probably $50. I realize that’s not pocket change, but it’s eminently reasonable for the best new restaurant in the country.
So what to make of State Bird Provisions? Let’s start with the basics: the food was great. Everything else is meaningless if the food is bad, so it’s important to lead with this. SBP is not a restaurant that uses smoke and mirrors to divert your attention from a substandard meal; it’s top-notch food that can hold its own against virtually any “big gun” out there. The style, atmosphere, and culture just enhance the already-great culinary experience. The excitement at this place is palpable, and it extends to every single person working there. Everyone there does everything; Stuart even cleaned my table himself at one point. There’s no sense of hierarchy (I guess it is San Francisco after all) or stuffiness. Every single waiter buys into this concept and can talk at length about what’s on offer that night but also about the concept behind the restaurant. And their enthusiasm is contagious.
As usual, I won’t give a star rating to a non-NYC restaurant. But I will give SBP perhaps an even bigger compliment: I came to San Francisco while traveling for business, which meant that I could have expensed my meal. But the dinner was so good (and I felt like I went a bit overboard) that I paid for it myself. Now that’s a compliment.