Loco for Locavore

It's a lovely world in which chef Jason Moniz' local cuisine can be not just sustainable, but solidly delicious

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paulr@sfbg.com

DINE In a better world than this one — a world of locavores — there would be no need for a restaurant like Locavore. President Kennedy would have gone to the Berlin Wall and declared, "Ich bein ein locavore!" — and been greeted with applause from the other side. In related news, the dictatorship of the proletariat would have peaceably dissolved itself.

In the world we have, Locavore is a rather lovely place. It's been some time since I found so much poured concrete so full of charm. The floors and walls are concrete, curving into a low ceiling so that you feel a little as if you're inside one of the sections of BART's transbay tube before they sank it for installation. Considering all the hard surfaces and the exuberance of the crowd, the place is surprisingly not too noisy. There is a definite roar, low and sustained, but it doesn't interfere with conversation or require cross-table shouting and the use of signal flags. How the sound damping was achieved must be a trade secret, because none of the usual suspects (including that quilted baffling material) are visible.

The restaurant, which opened near Halloween, procures all its ingredients (including beer, wine, and cider) from within a radius of 100 miles — and since, as we know, there's a lot of agricultural action within 100 miles of this city, year-round, the question presented is whether you would know you were in a restaurant committed to this philosophical and moral principle if you didn't know beforehand. My guess is no. It would be different if Locavore was, say, in Burlington, Vt., where the land and climate would pose serious challenges to locavoricity for a chef composing a late-winter menu (or any winter menu). But in our land of plenty, with its rich tilth and kindly climate, such stresses are muted. The result is that Locavore's cooking doesn't seem very different from that of a host of other places.

But this isn't a bad thing. Chef/owner Jason Moniz's food is excellent, reasonably priced, and the vegetarian angle seems to have been considered with some imagination. We were most impressed with the spicy yuba soy roll ($17), a trio of chubbies made from yuba (tofu skin), stuffed with chopped, spiced yuba, gift-wrapped with ribbons of wilted red-mustard greens and finished with an emulsion of soy and puréed baby leeks that assumed the form of a foam the pale green color of spring. The plate also included a small bundle of whole baby leeks, which added their subtle, sublime oniony-ness to the proceedings and were only slightly hard to handle.

But flesh-lovers need not despair. There is plenty of animal protein on the menu, from mussels ($9) in an herbed broth made faintly bittersweet by grapefruit, to ham hock ravioli ($10), smoky and adrift in a buttery broth of so intensely meaty as to be kind of pork liqueur. A little lighter, but still substantial, was a pair of chicken croquettes ($10) served with baby chicories, spiced hazelnuts, and ghostly splinters of apple slaw — almost like a salad, with a set of crisp golden disks thrown in.

It's hard for me to resist halibut, which is one of the most user-friendly fish, is taken from well-managed fisheries, and has a nice weight. Locavore's version ($19) did right by this indispensable seafood, pan-frying a filet to a crispy gold without drying it out and serving it with lovely little crisp-gold gnocchi (a clever echo — were these browned alongside the fish?) and a jumble of chard and green garlic that captured the passage from winter to spring. No one would ever say the halibut was undersalted, incidentally, but because most seafood has a faint sweetness, balance was maintained.

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