Striking a balance between flair and rusticity with a striking interior and comforting dishes
DINE If one reason to go out to eat is to partake of dishes you can't easily make yourself, another is to find ideas for dishes you can make yourself. I place myself more in the latter category, and, as an ersatz Frenchman and perhaps unacknowledged admirer of French industrial espionage, I find myself peeking at dishes as they emerge from restaurant kitchens, wondering whether I could manage some version of this or that in my own kitchen or appropriate a few clever twists or wrinkles as enhancements to some quotidian staple of the repertoire. As urban voyeurism goes, this subspecies seems fairly mild and nontoxic.
Food fits a sensibility, ultimately, the same way clothes do. Some people are born to wear tuxedos and nibble foie gras from dainty toast rounds — Pierce Brosnan springs to mind here — while others (the young, mostly) look most aglow in t-shirts, cargo pants, and espadrilles, eating foil-wrapped burritos while sitting on the curb.
Extremes tend to attract the most attention, in part because they're easy to identify, but between them lies a wide country full of distinctive treasures. In San Francisco these treasures are — I speak now of food, not clothes — the neighborhood restaurants, the places that, for the better part of 20 years, have found and held a balance between flair and rusticity. They make the kind of food you'd make at home, if you spelled home with a capital H and Architectural Digest was coming to shoot a photo spread; they make food that's recognizable and unintimidating yet subtly sublime, at a reasonable price.
There was a bloom of these places in the early to mid 1990s, and according to this timeline Beast and the Hare, which opened at 22nd and Guerrero streets in November (in the old La Provence/Mangiafuoco space at the corner) is a latecomer, or maybe a throwback. The restaurant is good-looking — simple, royal-blue walls and generous spacing among the tables — but it's not stunning. It reminded me of someone wearing a nice pair of Levi's with a white button-down shirt and black loafers. Such a person would want honest but sophisticated food, and that's what chef Ian Marks' kitchen would give him.
Marks' résumé includes a stint at Liberty Cafe, a neighborhood light from the early 1990s, as well as Fatted Calf and Hog Island Oyster, and so his to-the-point menu includes, not surprisingly, oysters and house-made charcuterie. You can get a satisfying arrangement of charcuterie, including lardo draped on thin slices of pink-lady apples, rabbit rillettes, and slices of smoked duck breast, along with toast rounds and a small pile of pickled vegetables, for $14.
The pickles helped cut the sense of fattiness, we found, as did the lacinato kale ($5), which had a light crispiness, almost like that of pappadum, I associate with flash-frying. My ersatz-Frenchman self noted that the idea of handling kale (which can display an obstinacy like that of cheap steak) in this way had never before occurred to him.
Osso buco ($18) is typically served with risotto, which, for creaminess is hard to beat. But risotto is unforgiving and tricky to time, and — in a slight inversion of the usual rule — restaurant versions often aren't quite as good as the homemade kind, at least if the home chef is reasonably attentive. Beast and the Hare's solution was to substitute white beans for the risotto, and if they weren't quite as creamy, they did give a nice textural counterpoint to the rich, gelatinous marrow sauce oozing from the core of the gigantic veal shank.