Jazzy flights of fancy (and a nice play on that eponymous bird) at this innovative, eclectic Fillmore newbie
APPETITE I would venture to say Fillmore newcomer State Bird Provisions is the ideal companion to that district's storied jazz tradition, even though there's no direct musical connection. The spirit of jazz is present in playful, dim sum-style presentation — and in the improvisatory way that near-legendary husband-wife chef duo Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski (formerly of Rubicon) change the menu almost daily. They adhere to the now-typical seasonal approach, yet are guided by a stronger creative prerogative than most. What sounds good? Where else could a dish be taken? What ingredients are new? Plates materialize on carts or trays like flashing jazz riffs, of the moment but never rootless.
The actual soundtrack is more Johnny Cash than John Coltrane: this fits the casual, toned-down setting, with pegboard walls and a front kitchen where cooks greet your arrival. After multiple visits since the restaurant opened two months ago, the staff remembers me, and Brioza is up front with a warm welcome.
A short, thoughtful selection of bottled beers, teas, wines by the glass, and rotating house lassis (fennel salted yogurt, coconut milk persimmon) helps orient visitors. And for those who fear the unknown, the menu lists a handful of "main" dishes. I'd recommend you go elsewhere if you want predictability. God knows there's more than enough comfort food and traditional menus out there.
The joy of State Bird is that it's unlike anywhere else. I find larger plates satisfying, even habit-forming, particularly the must-order CA State Bird (a quail, in case you were wondering). This is the one carryover from Brioza's Rubicon days, the bird crusted in pumpkin seeds and cumin. But small plates offer the wider range of thrills. I am reluctant to even use the played-out term "small plates," so keep that free-flowing, dim sum spirit in mind. Most dishes fall within the $5–$9 range, and everything on the menu is roughly $2–$18. When one adds up the final check, the variety is amazing given the per person price (on my visits, $30–$40 without drink).
In any case, a full printed list wouldn't do the dishes justice. Take, for example, the basic-sounding seven pepper flatbread with oxtail (peppers used include long pepper and madras). I've seen a lot of oxtail and even more flatbread. This one is different. Upon first visit, the flaky, twisted bread, which forms a bit of bowl in which to pour braised, tender oxtail, transported me to Eastern Europe. It recalled crispy, fried langos bread from my travels in Hungary. (Chef Nick Balla at Bar Tartine does a top notch langos, by the way.). It speaks to the depth of Brioza's influences and talent that a dish could evoke tradition while being one-of-a-kind. By my next visit, the dish shifted in shape, now topped with lentils and cream. This time its spice profile conjured Morocco and Spain, another time India. Whatever the incarnation, this may be my favorite.
There are countless delights: spanking fresh raw tuna is dashi-poached, coated in toasted quinoa with smoky bonito rosemary aioli, tossed with chrysanthemum leaves. Duck liver mousse is silky and ridiculously good (almost dessert-like) with almond financier cakes. Beef is served in three cuts — brisket, short ribs, chuck — on a bed of fried nettles with pomegranate.
Vegetarian dishes are just as captivating. Mushrooms arrive coated in hazelnut streusel with vanilla cream. Beets are crusted in rye grain, perked up with horseradish-ale cream. Char-grilled chicories are tossed with lemon, olive oil, dates, and almonds over spicy yogurt.
Bites (less than $6) are equally interesting. Celery root curd shows up in different ways: in a raw chicken 'salad,' bright with Buddha's hand citrus, or in a jar of creamy smoked sturgeon and sea urchin.