On the list of life's most perplexing questions, Where can I find a quiet restaurant? is rising fast. Increasingly I find myself presented with — even beseeched by — this inquiry, and increasingly I fumble. It's not that there aren't any, but their numbers seem to be dwindling, like those of book-readers or subscribers to newspapers. So when I find one, I am elated — quietly, of course.
The Richmond isn't exactly new — it opened about five years ago, in an inner Richmond District space long occupied by Jakarta — but it opened with such media fireworks that I put off going there. Then tempus fugit, as tempus has a way of doing, and suddenly it is years later. Noise has increased throughout the restaurant kingdom. And, glory be, the Richmond turns out to be one of those wonderful neighborhood restaurants where it is actually possible to have a conversation with the other people at your table without having to shout and wave your arms or (in the extremely rare opposite case) fear that you are disrupting a funereal hush.
The restaurant's singular layout certainly conduces to this balance. As in Jakarta days, the lateral storefront space divides into a warren of nooks, many of which are now cloaked by wine-colored curtains. It's like being inside a voting-booth factory, with interesting peeps and murmurs leaking from tables behind half-drawn curtains. The tone is relaxed but not sloppy; the walls are painted a neutral beige, and few of the tables are far from a window. Not surprisingly, the clientele is a little older than that of, say, Namu down the street. I had the sense of being in the faculty club of some small but august urban institution.
Chef John Owyang's food, it must be said, is better by a country mile than that of any faculty club I've ever been to. Owyang's pedigree includes a stint at Elisabeth Daniel, the Daniel Patterson venture in the Financial District that was, in its short life, one of the toniest and most innovative (and expensive) restaurants in the city. Owyang appears to have taken a sense of culinary style away from that experience while paring away the Upper East Side preciousness. You can get a five-course tasting menu (matched with wine, if you like) at the Richmond, but you can also get a cheeseburger.
For me, the difference between good and great so often turns on grace notes and little touches, like fine, almost invisible brush strokes on a painting. Even the best neighborhood restaurants don't typically offer amuses-bouches, but the Richmond does. It might be something as simple as mulled apple cider topped with a bit of whipped cream and served in demitasses — a clever hint that the little, clove-steeped sip isn't just a play on a traditional winter favorite but also on the Italian drink macchiato, a shot of espresso finished with a dollop of foamed milk.
Owyang's kitchen is clever but doesn't wallow in cleverness. The basic style is elegant Californian, with a rich variety of flavors, colors, and textures and tasteful presentations that don't become precious. In an age of feature creep, in food as in software, restaurants aren't immune, and the temptation to embellish and embroider dishes is great. But Owyang understands the value of restraint, or counter-creep; his wonderfully earthy pumpkin-celery root soup ($7) was subtly enhanced by the crunch of candied pumpkin seeds and a few pipings of crème fraïche over the surface, and that was all. And enough.