Magnolia

Mixing brewpub standards with the occasional Louisiana twist in the Upper Haight
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

Imagine a casting call for a beer commercial — a beer, I should add, marketed toward cool young people and not geezers or swollen couch slugs — and you'll have some idea of the scene at Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery on any given night. Loose halter tops, soccer butts, and headsful of tousled hair dot the Rathskeller-scape, while the human noise (let's call it the roar of youth) is so loud and steady as to achieve a transcendence. The noise is beyond noise; it warps reality and becomes another dimension. As a confirmed hater of noise, I should have hated it passionately, but it's hard to sustain that kind of energy when you are engulfed in a sea of jubilant 20-somethings. Like all human moods, exuberance is communicable, and you won't see many long faces coming out of Magnolia. On the other hand, you might well see some people, probably older than 40, gingerly checking to make sure their ears are still attached to their skulls as they regain the (comparatively) tranquil street.

Magnolia has been a beacon-like presence at the corner of Haight and Masonic for 15 years. In part, and in true pub fashion, it's a neighborhood joint, but from the beginning the microbrewed beers have provided a broader draw. Magnolia was among the first of the city's modern brewpubs — places that brewed their own beer and matched good food to go with it. And while the kitchen has recently undergone a change of chef, with Ronnie New now in charge, the food retains its gastro-pubby, beer-friendly edge. There's a daily pizza, a burger made with Prather Ranch beef, and (at lunch) a meatloaf sandwich. But New has Louisiana roots, and he's infused Magnolia's new menu with various Cajun and Creole touches.

You'll find quite a few of these among the side dishes ($5), which include collard greens, dirty rice, cheese grits, and black-eyed peas simmered with ham hocks. I love black-eyed peas and consider them a real delicacy, and how could you go wrong simmering them with ham hocks? But something did go wrong — maybe a total dearth of salt — and the result was lifelessness. There was considerably more kick in the vinegary (though non-bayou) sauerkraut, but when we asked whether it was house-made, our server shook her head. (Service is surprisingly good, by the way, considering the intensity of the evening rush, but the service staff's manner is Parisian in its emphasis on efficiency rather than fawning.)

Okra, a staple of bayou cooking, makes its presence felt in ways subtle and not. You can have it more or less straight up, as a buttermilk-battered and deep-fried appetizer, but it also appears in the succotash that accompanies a slab of pan-seared halibut ($19). The fish, topped by a beret of basil aioli, is nicely cooked, moist and flaky, but the plate is dominated by the colorful succotash, a gravelly mat of corn kernels, halved cherry tomatoes, and okra splinters.

Not all the food is Louisiana-inflected or even pubby. We were especially impressed by a watermelon salad ($7), which managed to give the late-summer bounty of California a sly Saharan aura. The cubes of melon were tossed with slices of peeled, seeded cucumber and chunks of goat cheese and then dressed with a saba vinaigrette and shreds of mint. Some sweetness, some tang; a bit of creaminess, a bit of crunch. (The watermelon, incidentally, is thought to be native to Egypt and was cultivated as a means of carrying water in the desert.)

And a summer tomato soup ($7) could have been on the menu at many a California-cuisine spot. The (hot) soup had a pleasant coarseness, but the real treat was the archipelago of croutons, coated with melted Gruyère, bobbing in the middle of the bowl.

In a surprising development, desserts are quite good — neither overwrought nor (as is so often the case at pub-style establishments) ordinary and perfunctory.

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