A lot of young chefs these days are trying to break away from culinary traditions, to rewrite technique, to recombine ingredients. Most of them fail. You don’t know why you’re eating the stuff that lands on the plate. It doesn’t satisfy.
Rich Table is the exception. It defines itself as an innovative restaurant while turning out food that has substance, meaning and voluptuousness. It joins only a handful of moderately priced others: State Bird Provisions and Commonwealth in San Francisco, Plum and Haven in Oakland.
Real talent and a complete vision make Rich Table that rarity, a restaurant you want to return to right after you’ve eaten there to find out what will come next. Evan Rich, (Bouley, Quince and Coi) and Sarah Rich (Michael Mina), have thought the whole restaurant experience through from wine service to table top, balancing the familiar and comforting with the exciting and challenging. Their personal discipline and standards instill confidence, rewarding diners for taking chances.
The menu format with five provocative “bites” ($6-$8), five appetizers ($12-$14), four pastas ($16-$17) and four main courses ($22-$24), pays homage to the impeccable Frances, but Rich Table dishes explores pricklier, odder but still wondrous territory.
You only need to order bites to see how Evan Rich sets up flavor and texture contrasts. In October, winter squash fritters had such a soft, creamy texture I wondered how they held together, especially with centers of preserved lemon, whose bite played off a decidedly tart salsa verde at bottom of the bowl. Baby bok choy scattered with super crunchy toasted buckwheat groats titillated with texture. Potato chips threaded with equally crisp fried sardine filets became luxurious with a dab of horseradish cream. And slices of velvety house made mortadella studded with fruity black garlic and nubbins of pure fat tasted like none other. In August a stunningly bright cilantro salsa verde with ethereal yeasted corn fritters sparkled.
By the time an appetizer of squid, fig and lardo salad arrives, galvanized by crispy wisps of fried shallot, spicy hot chile fig jam as the bottom and tiny rings of squid nestled among the bitter lettuces, you hardly blink an eye. Such imagination, such success, comes as no surprise. Who had the time to dot each cupped slice of Tokyo turnip with herbed cream, layer them onto a plate, drizzle them with bacon vinaigrette and tuck halved grapes here and there? The lucky eater quickly destroys the construction because each bite is better than the next.
Maybe house-made tajarin (pasta) with huitlacoche (corn fungus) sauced with goat cheese-like house cultured butter and chives is a little too salty, It was the only misstep in fifteen or so dishes and salt lover that I am, I gobbled it right up. I promise that you have never tasted anything quite like juicy pork dumplings, crisp crust on one side, thin satiny noodle on the other, bursting with buttery pork, nestled into tender sauteed escarole and radicchio with a jot of vinegar. You will want more, but the menu changes daily. You might find velvety poached chicken thighs scattered with corn and peas; or a tagliatelle with with duck giblets, sweet tomato sauce and burrata; or a creamy chicken and chive lasagna hauntingly seasoned with Douglas fir. Rich, sharp, aromatic, succulent, always unusual, the dishes from this kitchen grab you.
Sarah Rich’s desserts evoke homey pleasure, the best kind to my mind, but with elegant twists. A light, almost collapsing, clafouti-like plum cake scented with almond paste, gets buttermilk ice, sliced yellow plums and a sprinkling of salt, which all click, except for the gesture of too sharp pepper cress. Panna cotta slathered with strawberries become something different when each spoonful includes hard, crunchy lemon crumble. The crisp/smooth dance continues with white chocolate cream, so smooth, jauntily capped with salty chocolate butter cookies and juicy raspberries.
Everything about this place works: the sweet, intuitive, knowledgeable service; moderately priced interesting wines by carafe, bottle and glass; the communal table and bar for drop ins; a friendly feeling if pared down dining room of distressed wood. Thank goodness the music has been toned down since my initial visit in August, making it possible to hear. Rich Table is sensitive to the needs of its patrons. This risk taking restaurant cooks and exists to please. That’s how they get pleasure.
109 Gough Street (at Oak) San Francisco; 415 355-9085; www.richtablesf.com; dinner nightly except Tuesday. Closed on Tuesdays.