Appetite: 3 restaurants to watch

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Here are two new places that just opened, showing a lot of promise… and one that keeps getting better.

Sexy ’70s foodie lounge : CHAMBERS EAT+DRINK

The Phoenix Hotel has long exuded rock star hipness. Its prior restaurant was more bar than food destination… and it really wasn’t memorable on the drink front, though the mid-century motel poolside setting is special. The pool remains, now with cactus wall and bright orange chairs. Drinks, though decent, still aren’t worth a special trip, but the food is.

With chef Trevor Ogden behind brand new Chambers Eat+Drink inside the Phoenix, I had no doubt it would be good. Young and ambitious, he has impressed me from his days at Mission Beach Cafe. With a complete decor revamp, I am delighted to say there’s no atmosphere like it in SF. A sleek 1970s den lined with hundreds of records (yes, LPs), the place is outfitted in leather, plaid couches, quirky lamps, knick-knacks, themes varying between restaurant, lounge and pool.

The food keeps up. Shaved Spring Salad ($8) is a knock-out of asparagus, wild arugula, and sheep’s milk ricotta topped with shaved Summer squash and lightly fried mushrooms. In a saffron tarragon vinaigrette, it nods to the long days of Summer. Smoking Salmon ($12) arrives wrapped like a rose blossom over a mini-hearth, emitting smoke from roasting coals. A bowl of yuzu sake creme fraiche, chive oil and salmon caviar/roe complete the playful presentation.

In a city with no shortage of fine burgers, Ogden makes an utterly satisfying one ($12): Prather Ranch beef is pink and juicy topped with whole grain aioli, butter lettuce, heirloom tomato, and red onion so smoky it feels as if the burger was grilled by campfire. It comes with thyme-dusted Kennebec fries, while add-ons include crispy-braised pork belly ($3) or avocado ($2.50). There are a handful of entrees ranging $18-26, or one could go with a mix of small plates. PB & L.T. ($10) is essentially pork belly in rice paper wrap, layered with butter lettuce, heirloom tomato, house sambal (chili sauce), and champagne aioli. A fun way to eat belly, almost light yet satisfying. Cauliflower soubise soup ($7) was the only misstep for me – too salty: basil, dried olives, and pink peppercorn added nuance, but over-salting left the impression of being one note.

Ogden is also handling the desserts. They read better than they tasted in opening weeks… but there is promise here. A giant Manhattan creme brulee ($8) is rye bourbon creme brulee doused in macerated cherries and blood orange reduction with candied orange peel. To be fair, I’m not a big creme brulee fan so overall it came off too pudding-like, but high marks for the drink-as-dessert concept. Carrot Caraway Cake ($7) hit blessedly savory with caraway, Kaffir lime nectar and candied carrot tops. Dots of creme fraiche frosting didn’t seem enough to balance out the slight dryness of the cake.

I’m pleased to see a new addition with dramatic, unusual environs that is also for the gourmet. We don’t always do it up in the setting department in SF, preferring to (rightly) focus on the food first. But it doesn’t hurt to do both.

CHAMBERS EAT+DRINK 601 Eddy Street at Polk, 415-829-2316, www.chambers-sf.com

Louisiana Authenticity : BOXING ROOM , Hayes Valley (549 Irving Street, between 6th & 7th, 415-592-8174)

The new Boxing Room may not immediately recall Louisiana: exposed wood, modern chandeliers and an open space look like any typical current-day restaurant. But the food coming out of the kitchen from the hands of Chef Justin Simoneaux, a Southern Louisiana native, just begins to assuage my constant hunger for New Orleans.

First off, I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to see Creole cream cheese on his menu. I fill up on that silky, gently sweet goodness whenever I’m in Nola but had yet to see it here. Seems he couldn’t find it either so Simoneaux made his own. He’s currently serving it with a salad ($8) of mixed greens, strawberries, and spiced pecans.

Deep fried alligator with a Creole remoulade ($11) is about the freshest alligator I’ve tasted – even better than what I’ve had in Nola or Florida. He’s taken painstaking efforts to source the best possible ingredients and it shows: this alligator is more tender and flavorful than its fried status would suggest. Crawfish Étouffée ($13 small, $20 large) is a beloved dish served in varying styles, but often reminiscent of gumbo. Simoneaux’s roux base for the Étouffée is subtly sweet and savory. A beauty… but I could have used a little more crawfish.

Stuffed mirliton and eggplant ($17) is a superb vegetarian dish and maybe the most creative entree. Over a sweet, stewed tomato ratatouille, Grana Padano cheese accents a small, stuffed eggplant and larger mirliton, Southern Lousiana’s beloved vegetable (also known as chayote). Crispy Boudin Balls ($5) is delicious Cajun boudin sausage fried into breaded balls. Don’t miss the free starter of crackers with pimento cheese spread. I’ll take more pimento cheese, thanks. Bananas foster cake ($7) is a moist, dense take on one of Nola’s greatest desserts, served with a subtle bourbon ice cream.

There’s also oysters, fried chicken and red beans, beers on draft (a nice list ranging from Belgians to Louisiana beers), wines on tap, and plenty of bottles. Zydeco plays in the background. At least two waiters are from Louisiana – we sure enjoyed chatting ours up about the glories of food from that state. The only thing missing is a Mint Julep.

BOXING ROOM, Hayes Valley 549 Irving Street, between 6th & 7th streets, 415-592-8174, www.boxingroomsf.com

Daily-changing freshness: OUTERLANDS

Outerlands keeps getting better. Since chef Brett Cooper came on board and their liquor license came through, allowing for seasonal cocktails, it’s more of a destination than it was. I always liked the woodsy, narrow interior but found waits at brunch chaotic and the food all-around solid, if not noteworthy. There is now amped-up artistry, particularly in vegetarian dishes, distantly reminiscent of what one might see at Napa’s Ubuntu.

There are roughly only two $10 cocktails a night. Recently, I liked a Smash in a mason jar: Buffalo Trace bourbon, fresh peaches, lemon and rosemary. More refreshing than unforgettable, it was as garden-fresh as dinner was. Co-owner David Muller’s bartending background at places like Slanted Door clearly informs house-made ingredients and knowledgeable mix of ingredients, like an aperitif of Junipero gin, absinthe, Campari, fennel, sparkling wine.

Dinner highlights included baby carrots and leeks ($9) dotted with fennel, nettles and toasted almond breadcrumbs, and a plate of Mixed Beets ($8), juicy in red frill mustard and sherry, accented by dollops of the most divine, creamy house ricotta. Savory bread pudding ($9) is a puffy dream of their house bread baked with caramelized onions, chard, rosemary, crusted with Gruyere cheese.

Dessert ($7 each) was a mason jar filled with strawberry rhubarb parfait, creamy and fresh, but with barely a taste of rhubarb or fennel. More of both would have made for a superior dessert. More exciting, despite its straightforward sound, was a chocolate budino: lush dark chocolate, hazelnuts, graham cracker, toasted meringue, and thankfully plenty of salt to keep it savory.

Outerlands has evolved into something special by the beach, and a win for anyone who lives out that way.

OUTERLANDS, 4001 Judah Street at 45th Ave., 415-661-6140, www.outerlandssf.com

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