this is state bird provisions, san francisco

(This post is also on Medium.) 

A friend and I were texting back and forth yesterday, planning to meet up for dinner before heading to a Halloween party. On a whim, she jokingly suggested that we go to State Bird Provisions for dinner. This is how the conversation went:

If you know anything about State Bird Provisions, you're probably aware that it's been quite the hyped-up place for awhile. Just last week, SF Gate said it was "arguably the hottest restaurant in San Francisco (if not the country),"and Bon Appetit named it America's Best New Restaurant in 2012.
It reopened recently after a few months of remodeling, and reservations are already gone through December.

I'll admit I love food and spend a lot of my time thinking about it, but my strain of devotion to eating doesn't necessitate fine dining; more than anything, I enjoy a meal cooked and shared by friends around a communal table, with easy conversation and the kind of special intimacy that food brings. A hyped-up restaurant is never do-or-die for me. If I have the opportunity to eat somewhere nice, I will enjoy every minute of the experience, but I will also not go out of my way to spend two hours waiting in line for food. I know that food can easily become a full-blown obsession for me, so it's better for my lifestyle (and my wallet) to apply principles of temperance to dining out.

So it was only by whim and impulsiveness that I ended up at State Bird Provisions. And we got lucky.

You see, San Franciscans take Halloween very seriously. We're a city whose culture fixates on costuming and dressing up, so Halloween is a night when attention on the holiday festivities shifts the focus away (temporarily) from food, another one of San Francisco's great obsessions. This shift was to our good fortune: we started waiting in line for the restaurant at 5:15, to be seated immediately at 5:30, when the restaurant opened (usually, people start lining up at 4:30 PM, and the expected wait time is about three hours without a reservation). We felt like God's chosen people. 

We were seated at the chef's counter by the raw bar, which turned out to be one of the best seats in the house. Not only were we first to see all of the food coming out of the kitchen, but also--and this was probably my favorite part about dining at State Bird Provisions--we were able to chat with the chefs throughout the course of the meal.

From the outset, State Bird Provisions is insistent on not taking itself too seriously. It describes itself as an "adventurous, inventive, delicious, thoughtful contemporary American restaurant ... without any programmed elements." In an unassuming space that is not particularly notable or cozy or minimalist, the restaurant is nevertheless welcoming and congenial, with an open, well-lit kitchen that is buzzing but not tense. The kitchen is comprised of mostly young, white males, a kind of quintessential bearded San Franciscan whose mix of urban, rustic, and eclectic is his charm.

The service is dim sum-style, which is conducive to visual decision-making (haven't you realized that menus are biased towards linguaphiles?). This way of choosing and ordering is playful and fun: there is a selection of aptly named provisions, which are supplied to you in passing trays and carts along with detailed descriptions of the dishes, and then there are commandables, which you order from a a server (I intentionally say "a" and not "your" because you will be served by many).

Everything is shared family-style, and it's easy to get giddy and overwhelmed at the swirling mosaic of dishes conjured up before your eyes, but the servers, many of whom also work in the kitchen, are friendly without being over-bearing, and they give you the time and the space to eat leisurely. Of course, if you're on the fence about a dish, they'll give you a little nudge of encouragement to follow your stomach's calling. Like dim sum or tapas, it's unlikely that you'll feel you've over-ordered, even if there's food leftover on the table. You kind of feel like a kid at the arcade with a bag full of tokens, picking and choosing which games to play, knowing that no matter what games you choose, you're pretty much guaranteed a good time.

Raw oyster with spicy kohlrabi kraut and sesame.

Lobster 'salsa' salad, with watermelon radish, romaine, and egg salad.

So you're choosing your own adventure, improvising as the carts pass by to construct your own multi-course processional feast. Between the two of us, we shared twelve dishes. Dave, one of the chefs working in front of us at the raw bar (cute, wide-eyed, slightly scruffy, and wearing a yellow bandana tied around his head), told us that a couple came in last week and shared twenty-four dishes between the two of them. There are thirty-four dishes on menu. Taking up the challenge to beat that couple's record would have been a swashbuckling and crippling move. Glad we didn't do it.

The casual rhythm of improvisation seemed to be a key element for the waiters and cooks too in the arrival of the food, which was not precisely timed but nevertheless fluid and efficient. That kind of flexibility is conducive to a pleasant, relaxed, and surprisingly intimate dining experience. One minute you're eating, and the next minute you have to make a decision about whether you're going to get that really good-looking pork belly. The cook in front of you is arranging food on a plate, and then looking up to chat with you about the restaurant's farm (yes, they have a farm in Los Gatos). One might think that the criteria for working at State Bird Provisions is to be "a highly likeable human being."

Hamachi-avocado & seaweed cracker.

The food itself is delightfully playful--combinations of ingredients and flavors and textures that you've never thought of. This kind of cuisine may be unfocused and scatter-brained to some, with a global range of ingredients and dishes that you'll clumsily label fusion or California nouveau, but can be more simply summed up as whimsical and delightful. Delight implies charm, entrancement, thrill, and pleasure, and these are the exact feelings I experienced while eating at State Bird Provisions.

You might start off with a light and easy oyster, which riffs off of the the traditional horseradish topping by incorporating the less popular kohlrabi. The menu is not cohesive, but cohesion seems besides the point, as it's the holistic dining experience, rather than the content of individual dishes, that seems to matter most.

Roasted bone marrow with chanterelles and pink peppercorn.

Garlic bread with burrata.

So much of a food's appeal to me depends upon texture, and State Bird Provisions does texture right: they nail the al dente equivalent of cooked seafood--the pleasant chewiness of lobster and octopus when they are loving cooked, gently nudged into well-done. Almost as terrible as poorly cooked seafood is seafood without flavor, where bland fishiness is distressingly the only flavor available to the palate. This is not the case here: you'll be surprised by how flavorful and tender the octopus is, in a savory tomato broth that's good enough to drink, accompanied by smoky chickpeas that though ordinary, are pleasant enough.

Breadth is the game here, as you'll move from Spanish tapas-like plates to comfort food, like melted burrata draped atop a fried, buttery garlic knot, to cheeky art pieces that are fun to eat. The tempura seaweed cracker speckled with hamachi, avocado puree, and mandolined radishes is one such dish.

Charred octopus in tomato-chickpea salsa.

The balance of light and heavy is not difficult to strike, though you'll pretty much feel like everything is getting a little heavier as you collect one dish after another (Growing up, we always stacked our bamboo steamer baskets at dim sum restaurants as a proud proclamation of how much food we finished). The cooling seafood dishes whet the palate for the fattier but no less refined plates, like the elegant bone marrow with chanterelles and pink peppercorns, bright spheres of color that are not merely aesthetic accents but a fresh and spicy pop of flavor. Oh those peppercorns, nature's Red Hots. And the sourdough toast (by the one and only Josey Baker, my favorite grinning bread maker), which you'll smear with marrow and then sop up the creamy mushroom broth that has collected beneath the bone. A tender fried quail--the state bird that inspired the restaurant, both delicate and hearty; rich, tender poultry. There are almond financiers with duck liver mousse--a sweet and savory marriage, and a Scandinavian-inspired chilled trout and potato porridge with an egg on top. The quinoa with persimmons, pumpkin seeds, and whipped pumpkin goat cheese or the spicy yuba skin with kimchi will be a nice refresher between heavy bites.

Smoked trout, egg, and potato porridge, with sesame seeds and nori.

Chanterelle, persimmon, & quinoa 'tabouleh.'
Imagination seems to be crucial right now to the San Francisco food scene. One can picture chef Stuart Brioza and pastry chef Nicole Krasinski, dreaming up different dishes in their head like jazz musicians, riffing on what they know while pulling together disparate ingredients to create a new whole that is different, untried, and altogether surprising. There's a keen awareness of the seasonality of things, which makes the fluidity and flexibility of the menu imperative, and despite the lack of a sense of rootedness in any single food history, there's a sense of context and place, that we're in city where West lunges for East and vice-versa, and that we have access to a global pantry of ingredients. In this cuisine, the spirit of San Francisco is made manifest. Here many cultures meet, but there's a kind of creative and experimental momentum that requires audacity. A new line is being drawn in the sand.

CA state bird with provisions. The California state bird is the California quail (as opposed to the Bobwhite Quail, which is the state bird for Georgia and Tennessee). The State Bird Provisions website says that the quail is known for its hardiness and adaptability. This recipe for deep-fried quail was the inspiration for the entire restaurant.

Dining out is never just about the food. It's about the atmosphere and the space and the interactions with your servers, which can be a wonderful thing--a kind of jolly camaraderie with a total stranger, especially if he or she loves the food and knows all about its nuances and can love people in a similarly nuanced way. Eating at State Bird Provisions was at once highly sensory and highly cerebral experience for me, but it was also intensely relational and conversational. The experience would not have been the same had it not been for the affable waiters, the gracious hosts (I heard one so elegantly say to a walk-in party, "We can seat you, but be forewarned that you may have an abbreviated dining experience."), and some of the friendliest cooks I've ever met. Like the food, the camaraderie likewise reflected the San Francisco spirit, or at least what I perceive it to be: welcoming, loving, and always hungry.

L: blackberry granita with creme fraiche tapiocha, umeboshi syrup, topped with bits of persimmon and sliced fennel. R: birdseed bittersweet chocolate crunch, maple cloud cream, figs and strawberries. 
'World Peace' Peanut Muscovado Milk
P.S. Don't skip on dessert, no matter how full you are. You can order half-portions, and wash down the intense chocolate birdseed crunch with the nutty and creamy peanut milk. You won't regret it. You know a meal is only complete with something sweet.

The remains of the night. 


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