Alta, CA had been open just fourteen hours when I walked over from the corner of Hayes and Franklin, by Davies Hall, through the rain and wind one Friday night. I passed the lively, glass-enclosed Jazz Center and headed east on Fell to Van Ness. Here the landscape started to change, especially when I turned left onto Market Street, where damp people in sleeping bags huddled under overhangs. A few nights later I took a less noir-ish and actually more direct route by walking east on Oak Street to Market, and turning right (west). Alta, CA is only a few storefronts from that corner.
Once inside this brand-new bar and eatery from the Daniel Patterson group, life is good. Very good. The place buzzes with relaxed people seated at a large trapezoidal bar of blonde wood and at the handful of tables surrounding it. A grid of see-through shelves filled with bottles, accessible only by ladder, becomes a scrim through which you glimpse the gleaming, stainless-steel kitchen. Formerly a Chinese restaurant, the loft-like space is now airy and contemporary, outfitted with pale wood and metal furniture, cylindrical lamps dangling from the high, compound-sprayed ceiling. Whatever sound-baffling components were deployed in the build-out, they seem to work.
The staff is cordial, smart, professional. Patterson draws the best in the business. You want to be taken care of by personable people like this in every facet of your life. And clearly, they set the tone. When I squeezed onto a bar stool, the people sitting on both sides immediately asked if I had room, inching over, being aware. Could these solicitous drinkers and diners be the notoriously oblivious techies who supposedly have colonized mid-Market? A buttoned-up guy eating alone on my right–little glasses, short haircut, black outfit, gym-slim–whom I mercilessly grilled, told me that he was 29, worked in tech at Apple on the peninsula, lived at Divisadero and Hayes with his artist girlfriend from Mills College, whom he met on OK Cupid. He takes the earliest Apple shuttle to work. He grew up in Ohio, apprenticed at Apple out of college in the Midwest, and has toiled long and hard for eight years in what he feels is an understaffed environment. He knew about Alta, CA because he was a Daniel Patterson fan. Someone had taken him to Coi and his eyes opened.
Coincidentally, we both started with mixed chicory salad ($11), a lofty pile of Italian-style chicories cut into bite-size pieces that were on the sweet and juicy side of this bitter lettuce. They shone with little cubes of pear, exhilarating fresh hazelnuts and a sprinkling of just the right blue cheese, all dressed in precisely-balanced vinaigrette.
He moved on to fish. I devoured what I now consider the best hamburger in town ($16). A thick, succulent, buttery ball of ground beef, draped with melted cheddar and layered with bacon fit snugly into a demure, brioche-style bun. It arrived with no condiments and didn’t need any. It could be ordered “pink” or “not pink.” I asked for very pink but who knows if that made a difference? Each bite of this rich little hamburger tasted blissfully complete–and super-thin, house-made potato chips and pickle slices only made me happier.
I had so much fun, I came back a few nights later for another pretty salad, this time protein-centric with hunks of moist, gently-smoked trout lightened by beets and watercress atop a swatch of horseradish-inflected yogurt ($16). It was meant to be shared but I ate it all. And then I polished off a risotto-like porridge made with cracked wheat and hen of the wood mushrooms, studded with tender baby turnips and their greens ($19). It was a stunning dish, satisfying on a cold night and illuminated by distinctive flavors.
Following a dessert trend that I enthusiastically support, the kitchen offers only soft- serve ice cream. I suggest a bowl of vanilla, dressed with olive oil and sea salt, an inspired combination invented by Bruce Hill at Pizzeria Picco in Larkspur. I don’t approve of the confusing swirl of chocolate and vanilla with salt, olive oil and cocoa nibs. Purity is best when it comes to soft-serve.
Alta, CA essentially is a bar that serves scrumptious food until 1:30 a.m., a gift to anyone who wants to eat late this early-bird city. The ingredient-driven cocktails, just like the food, possess clarity of vision. Yoni Levy, formerly the chef of the estimable Flora in Oakland, has given us a versatile if circumscribed menu that’s full of invention. He’s got the touch.
I don’t know what’s come over me but I find myself drifting over to mid-Market in the middle of the night.
1420 Market Street (between Van Ness and Fell at 11th Street) San Francisco 415 590-2585 Open Monday through Friday 11 to 2 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.