For the evolution-minded, the past is a living presence, and such all-American phrases as "start from scratch" or "clean-sheet design" cause anxiety. In our culture of disposability and revolution, the past is about as attractive as a worn-out razor blade and we know what happens to them. So to find a new restaurant that simultaneously manages to be contemporary yet respectful of the past gives quiet delight. The restaurant is the Corner; it opened last spring and is indeed right at the corner of 18th and Mission streets, adjoining its older sibling, Weird Fish.
The Corner is better-looking than Weird Fish, which is by no means homely. Both are boxy and tall, but the Corner has a cozy mezzanine that not only looks upon the bustling bar below (part of the place's identity is as a wine bar) but at the long south wall, a piecework of glass blocks, transom windows, and tall drapes through which the deepening twilight filters. There is even sidewalk seating for the al fresco-minded brushed-aluminum tables nestled against an Art Deco exterior of black glazed-ceramic tiles that look original to the building (once a Chinese grocery) or for those who find the noisiness of close quarters indoors to be intrusive. Like me. The mezzanine has the feel of a private room, but it can get nearly as loud up there as on the main floor. You're not quite on the balcony of the Saint, circa 1980, but close.
The food is the sort you could eat every day, an assortment of Cal-Ital dishes prepared with a light touch. Restaurant food can be debilitating too many calories, too much attention-seeking so to find a restaurant whose cooking navigates the tricky passage between humble or indifferent on the one hand and grandiose on the other is a gift. The Corner's style has an obvious root in the accomplished home kitchen, but the techniques are sharper, the effects intensified. These are among the major reasons for going out to eat in the first place.
And prices, it must be said, are astonishingly moderate for what you get. I've had plenty of cauliflower soups in recent years, but at most places even a cup would cost you more than $3.95. Here it buys you a broad bowl, and the cauliflower is purple, and the base of the soup is deep and rich beef stock? Vegetarians would scream, of course, but using beef stock is the sort of simple touch that can subtly enhance certain dishes.
No one would mistake the Corner for a vegetarian restaurant. The menu includes a gratifying plate of charcuterie ($10), with sizzling coins of andouille sausage, slices of salami, and tissue-like sheets of coppa and prosciutto. This is a meaty array, and there is surprisingly little in the way of filler beyond a dab of mustard, a few bread rounds, and a small heap of pickled-onion shreds.
There's also a wonderful leg (and thigh) of Muscovy duck ($10.95), given a bewitching, vaguely oriental treatment of star anise and Turkish dates, and a similar section of chicken ($9.95), herb-roasted, with goat cheese worked under the skin in place of butter. I wouldn't have expected this substitution to succeed, mainly because goat cheese can be sharp and bossy, but under the spell of the heat, all the parts seemed to melt into a harmony.
Also ruled by the spirit of harmony (and even veganism!) was a plate of bruschetta ($5.95): toasts adorned with almost indecently ripe red tomatoes, basil, garlic, and olive oil. This venerable combination is about as Italian as Italian gets; it needs no improvement and can't be improved upon. The mac and cheese ($3.95), on the other hand, could have used a tweak or two. It was served in what looked like a small paella pan, so we award a point there for presentation, but it was seriously undersalted and, even when brought up to salt snuff, didn't distinguish itself.