How can you not be curious about a place granted the title "America's Best New Restaurant"? Bon Appetit designates one every year, and whether or not you agree with their assessments, the honor certainly raises expectations of a recently-opened spot.
Innumberable restaurants open every year, hundreds of them, at least, with lofty aspirations. What's so impressive as to distinguish one from all the rest? Can a restaurant be so evidently superior as to best all its peers?
After one meal at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, I can't say that I left absolutely convinced that it's The Best Opening of the year. What I can say is that SBP is by far the most interesting new restaurant I've been to this year—the new-est seeming, intelligently mold-breaking restaurant I've been to this year—and a fantastic place to have a meal, too.
Meals composed of 20 tiny plates are nothing new; shareable, small dishes and rotating menus aren't, either. But dinner at State Bird is closer to a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, or a dim sum meal, than a tasting menu.
Husband-and-wife team chef Stuart Brioza and pastry chef Nicole Krasinski put together a short menu of plates you can order: a pancake section (yes, section), a few meatier options, desserts. But the rest of the dishes available—and there might be an additional 15–20 on any given night—appear on trays or carts that the waiters bring through the dining room.
"Here we have chili spiced yuba with a parsley almond pesto, for $6," you might hear as a tray of dishes is set down on your table. "Those are veal-sweetbread polpette with blackened fig, also $6, and the bowl—that's whipped Haas avocado. We top it with this seafood salsa, which tonight is mussels, clams, scallops, calamari, and shrimp... that's probably my favorite tonight. It goes for $9."
I remember quite vividly, when I was a kid, how the torture of waiting in line for a Mother's Day brunch or vacation buffet was immediately quelled by the realization that, before I even ordered my Shirley Temple, I could run up and grab food. It's the "free salad bar" effect. No menus to grapple with! No patiently waiting for the waiter, and the water-pour, and the bread course, and the wine presentation, and the civilized 15 minutes before the first course! Satisfaction was mine immediately.
That feeling grabbed me at State Bird, a good 15+ years after I should admit to the gimme! gimme! school of immediate gratification. A cart rolls by. You're free to snag what's on it. "Should we get this started?" smiled one of the waiters with an emcee-like drama.
Shall we get started?
Brioza has a fondness for pickling, for the intersection of disparate cuisines, and for local seafood—sometimes, all in the same dish. Albacore tuna ($6) is served raw, with quinoa both tender in the base of the salad and fried to a crunch for texture on top. A bonito rosemary aioli and dashi-poached chrysanthemum top it off—tuna through a Mediterranean slant and a Japanese one. As also happened in one of my favorite dishes, chili spiced yuba, simply due to the novelty of the sort of Southern Italian take on tofu skin; "It's tofu meets Calabria," says Brioza. The marinade starts with fermented chilies, with tomato, fennel, coriander, lemon, and garlic; that's tossed with cucumber and handfuls of mint, in which the yuba, from Hodo Soy in Berkeley, "just marinates all day until the mint and cucumbers break down." A parsley-almond pesto adds a bright Mediterranean crunch.
Sometimes those pickled elements remain relatively sedate, as in the eggplant 'fries', sungolds and pimenton ($6)—crisply fried eggplant wedges with a pimentón aioli and a compellingly acidic sungold tomato relish that includes pickled green tomatoes and pickled onions. In others, they steal the show.
If I could've ordered a bigger bowl of any passed dish, it might have been the farro and beans with nuts and seeds ($7), farro salad meets dinner granola, meets crazy pickles. It had Brioza's take on a giardiniera ("whatever that includes—cauliflower, onions, celery..."), with plump little beans, tender farro, a yogurt drizzle and a nut-seed blend on top. Given the power of those pickles, the appealing savory crunch of the nut topping, and the cooling wash of the yogurt, about ten times more exciting than I thought a farro salad had a right to be.
In fact, it set the bar so high that not every dish could live up to that standard. When you're dazzled by a virtuous-looking grain salad, you'd better be really dazzled by meatballs, right? The comparatively less impressive dishes—key word, comparatively—simply delivered very good versions of what they promised. Veal-sweetbread polpette ($6) were rich and properly juicy and came with a darkly flavored compote of figs cooked in blackened butter; the overall effect was that of, well, very tasty meatballs. A Prather Ranch steak tartare ($6) was prettily composed, given acid and heat through pickled onions and roasted shishitos, but didn't necessarily make me think new thoughts about steak tartare.
Still, when the least impressive dishes in your meal are merely very good, rather than blown-away memorable, you're in the middle of a damn good meal.
What's better than burrata on bread? Burrata on fried bread. Brioza makes a sourdough dough a day or two beforehand, then layers it with a sweet garlic puree, "pulling it, brushing on the garlic, folding it, brushing it, and then frying it." That's later broiled and "heaped with a big ol' spoonful of burrata."
When dishes are that rich I'm happy to have them in small portions, whereas others I could've eaten entree-sized plates of. I loved a king salmon deviled egg salad ($8), where the salmon is cured gravlax-style then ground with shallots, chives, and horseradish oil," while the egg is drizzled in a sauce of mayonnaise, lemon, and buttermilk; it's topped with pickled peppers dehydrated and sprinkled over the top. "Essentially, we're deviling the egg, with all the ingredients there... you chop it up, eat it all together."
And a cold "salsa" of seafood with a fresh, lively heat over whipped avocado ($9) was one of the most memorable dishes. "We steam mussels and clams; we poach shrimp and scallops with lemon, salt, jalapeño, garlic, ginger, cilantro, and mint, and then we let them cool in that liquid and throw everything together." The tomatoes are local Early Girl tomatoes, which Brioza actually canned—"We like the texture and the flavor better"; a roasted jalapeño yogurt finishes it off.
Ordering off the menu, in this context, feels like a bit of a guessing game—should I? shouldn't I? I'll order the quail, but oh my goodness look at that burrata he just brought by—but it's worth budgeting table room and stomach space.
Any of the pancakes will immediately show you why there's a section of the short menu dedicated to them. The sweet corn and garlic chive "shortstack" ($7) was one of the best dishes I've eaten in recent memory. The sourdough pancake batter is packed with plump corn kernels, griddled with clarified butter to give 'em superior golden-brown edges, and then layered with the triple-cream Mt. Tam cheese from Cowgirl Creamery. A corn puree finishes off the plate. I love State Bird's small-plates approach to a menu, but if a bigger version of these guys ever appeared on a brunch menu, I'd annihilate them. Local boquerones top the sesame pancakes ($8), which aren't the skinny, flaky version you might know. An airy, brioche-like yeasted pancake "with lots of egg yolk and butter" is encrusted in sesame seeds and "cooked slowly on the griddle as it rises." On top perch California white anchovies that they pickle, "our version of boquerones"—briny, sweet, and delicate.
Unsurprisingly, the restaurant's signature dish, CA state bird with provisions ($8), is a must-order: buttermilk-marinated quail. It sits over a bed of "sweet and sour onions," stewed in butter, lemon, and rosemary for several hours "until they just melt." Crusted in bread crumbs and pepita crumbs, the crisp fried quail is remarkable, but it really says something that the onions might be even better. Part of the fun of State Bird is that unexpected elements can really carry a dish.
Plan your meal around the glazed pork ribs ($10), too. "I cook them old-school, like your mom would, seasoned up with salt and pepper, wrapped in foil with garlic and rosemary, and I use Meyer lemon, and then I let them just steam in that package." Fabulous, remarkably juicy ribs we could've eaten ten times this portion of.
While the fireworks really occur on the savory side of the menu, desserts are similarly creative—we loved a plum jam 'ice cream' sandwich ($8)—the "ice cream" a semifreddo folded with damson plum jam, a cocoa powder macaron-style crust—and a cheesecake japonaise ($8), cheesecake batter folded with a meringue so that it's ethereally light, with gooseberries and a slow-cooked apple confit.
Single dishes certainly can leave an impression at State Bird, but it's really the adventure of the meal that sticks with you. It feels more than anything like an interactive experience, each waiter serving as server, salesperson, and ambassador for a given course, but each also paying attention to the contours of your meal. "You've had how many?" our primary waitperson said, scanning down our choices. "I'd go with ordering a little less, unless you think you're done ordering off the carts." It's one of the very few times in my life I've felt down–sold by a professional. Sure, we ended up ordering more on top of what she suggested. But her instinct was right, and the pacing of the delivered dishes so quick that it wasn't a hiccup in our meal. We needed that guidance.
Chef Brioza stopped by our table before we left, as he seemed to visit almost every table. "Nice job. What did you get through, 18? I think we have 29 or 30 tonight." Competitive Carey reared her head. "We missed a dozen?!" Dinner here gets a person excited.
Most of the meals I have in my line of work are, at their surface, like any meal you'd have in a restaurant. You sit, you order, you wait. You might peek over at other tables. If you're attempting a tasting menu, it's likely to be an arduous process. But there's an occasional moment at a photoshoot, or at a chef interview, or at a particularly well-run event (though those, too, are rare) where there's a joyful feeling of exploration and abundance. An excited chef explains this dish, or three appear at once and there's so much on the table, and there's a giddy moment where you feel like you're experiencing so much at once, without pomp and circumstance, simply diving into the excitement of eating.
That's what a meal at State Bird felt like, to me. A tasting menu could have you trying an equal number of dishes, sure, that were equally exciting. But the excitement of seeing a tray of dishes in front of you, any of which could be yours; the success of each tiny plate as its own composed dish; the sense of involvement as you determine the course of your meal—that's what felt truly novel.
State Bird Provisions
Editor's note: This review was based on a meal eaten in October; much of the menu is likely to have changed.