Phil West, the founder and chef of Range, dreamily pushes his cart around the farmers market. He doesn’t schmooze with all the other high powered chefs, or gossip with the farmers. He doesn’t race around, or look harried. He just meanders up and down the stalls, getting a little of this, a bit of that. I have observed him twice a week over five years, and always wondered what he was thinking.
Then, a month ago, I went to a wine tasting dinner at Range, and got a glimpse into that brain of his. He created a meal of astonishing dishes starting with scallop crudo –thick rounds of pearly white scallop, toasted pumpkin seeds, batons of Asian pear, little heart shaped tat-soi leaves, an almost invisible white puree of parsnip, all tied together via the nip and scent of shishito peppers.
He obviously came up with this wacky combination while unpacking his market basket. But here’s the thing: it was seamless.
Of course, I had to return to this small Mission district restaurant, a pioneer, really. West and his partner/wife Cameron West made the most of limited space, with bar and seating at the front, extending along one side of a partially open kitchen in the middle, with an intimate dining room at the back. Narrow windows near the tall ceiling and a tower of fall foliage make the room seem airy. Seating at soft leather banquettes and galvanized steel tables is comfortable, if close, with a bearable noise level. The clean contemporary design matches the food, as does the intelligent and gentle service.
What amazes me about Range is, indeed, the range of ingredients in every dish, without any seeming out of place. The other night four of us ate our way through most of the menu: butter tender marinated baby leeks served warm beneath a poached egg and a blanket of aged cheddar and breadcrumbs ($13); a ramekin of airy chicken liver mousse with crunchy toasts and a pouf of round leafed upland cress ($10); gossamer ravioli filled with goat cheese and sorrel–two kinds of tart– in the thinest veil of buttery sauce and chives ($14).
West is so sure of his ingredients, he always serves some of them naked, poached in broth, in a mini enameled pot. Most recently it was flounder, braised so perfectly it held together on top of tiny ravioli filled with split peas, roasted bacon and fall root vegetables, and pea tendrils, which acted like an aromatic herb in a clear broth scented with Meyer lemon ($25).
Range has one of the best pastry chefs in town in Michele Polzine. She’s often there with West, drifting around the market, and her desserts show the same intuitive technique. Her crisp edged buckwheat crepes with almost cheese-like creme fraiche ice cream, huckleberry compote and toasted hazelnuts blur the line between sweet and savory. (All desserts are $9). So does crisp, buttery apple strudel with pomegranate sauce and toasted almonds; and a warm ginger cake with coconut milk gelato and date jam.
Very quickly diners realize that Range is not just about ingredients, but texture. West and Polzine know how to make what they pick up at the market feel very sexy on the tongue. The food here is irresistible.
Range, 842 Valencia Street (between 19th and 20th streets), San Francisco
Contact: 415 282-8283 www.rangesf.com
Hours: Open Monday through Thursday 6 p.m. to close, Friday through Sunday 5:30 to close.
Price range: appetizers $8 to $14, entrees $21 to $27
Recommended dishes: goat cheese and sorrel stuffed pasta; marinated leeks with a poached egg; steamed clams with fennel sausage and fresno chilies; braised flounder with split pea dumplings; buckwheat crepes with huckleberries
Credit cards: Visa and Mastercard
Wheelchair accessible: yes