Serpentine

Factory fresh
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

If you didn't know that Dogpatch's newest glam restaurant, Serpentine, is the younger sibling of the Slow Club, would you guess? Signals are mixed, and your answer might depend on whether you concentrated your attention on the menus or the physical particulars of the related pair. On the latter point, we have a sort of local restaurant version of Wills and Harry, the British princelings beloved of paparazzi: a confounding blend of similarities and dissimilarities, evidence that could go either way. If you squint, you suspect a family likeness, but you know you're not looking at twins.

The Slow Club has always struck me as a descendant — a noisy one — of speakeasies. (Is there such a thing as a speakloudly?) The look is low, velvety, and slightly secretive; there are few windows, and the spot lighting is spare. Serpentine, by contrast, soars like a cathedral in its old industrial site. Brick walls? Yes, it has them, punctuated with vast factory windows that face the west and the afternoon sun, but there is also an exposed ceiling of poured concrete laced with electrical conduits. This vault of open space, rising a full two stories above the dining-room floor, might be a considerable factor in swallowing up noise; Serpentine looks like it should be deafening, but it isn't, even when full. It helps, in this respect, that the floors aren't reflections of the ceiling but are of burnished wood, warming and elegant and not quite as cacophony producing as poured concrete. Also warming: the wealth of votive candles, several to a table, that lend the restaurant a sense of rustic intimacy. It's as if a country inn had decided to squat in one of Charles Dickens's abandoned blacking factories.

Not many country inns, on the other hand, whether in Dickens's time or our own, have served food quite as good as Serpentine's. California cuisine has gone from novelty to cliché to beyond cliché and back again, but at Serpentine it does what all good cooking should do: cause you to pause, to notice, to inquire. What is that, and how did they do that?

"Is this tomato soup?" my companion asked, jabbing a spoon into the creamy puree that had been set before me. And the correct answer was: no, not tomato but carrot ($7.50), and not even carrot with ginger or curry but just plain carrot, adorned only with a few fried sage leaves. The soup's color was difficult to make out in the dim light, so on that basis alone I granted a pardon on the tomato-or-carrot question, but there was also an aromatic fruitiness I would never have associated with plain carrot soup.

Interesting and unexpected ingredients enhance the restaurant's spell. I'd never heard of spigariello; I would have guessed it was some obscure pasta shape, but in fact (according to the well-schooled server) it's a toothy green from the broccoli family, composed by chef Chris Kronner's kitchen into a handsome salad — with crumblings of blue cheese, bread crumbs, and a pepper vinaigrette — that resembled a small holiday wreath.

The menu doesn't force you toward big plates, and many of the smaller plates are sizable and rich enough to satisfy. A plate of lamb riblets ($11.50), for instance, featured about a half-dozen pieces of achingly tender meat still on the bone, and that was plenty, even allowing for some shameless raiding from across the table. The raider and I did agree that the seasoning palette — of pickled shallots, feta cheese, and mint salsa verde — was missing something. A hint of sweetness was needed, a splash of balsamic vinegar, maybe, or some interesting honey.

Meanwhile, we shared the savory bread pudding ($11.50 with an add-on heap of mesclun), a baked, caramelized delight of some scale that glowed gold in the candlelight and spoke of sustenance on a wintry night.

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