The downhome joys of Front Porch
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At the Front Porch, you will find a front porch. It's not the kind of porch you'd see at Grandma's house, with the bug screens and the swinging lounger; it's more a big-city version, a covered sidewalk garden casually set with small tables and Adirondack chairs — an alfresco waiting room for those waiting to score a table inside. This is a nice idea, since the Front Porch is one of those restaurants that seems to have been packed from the moment it opened its doors, toward the end of the summer.
If you imagine the love child of Range and Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, you will have a decent picture of the Front Porch. The crowd is hipsterish, though less visibly monied than Range's; there are fewer black cashmere mock turtlenecks and Italian shoes, more thrift-store ensembles and scruffy beards. The Emmy's connection isn't trivial, either, and not just because Emmy's is but a few blocks away. The chef, Sarah Kirnon, is an Emmy's expat, as is one of the co-owners, Josephine White. (The other owner is Bix-seasoned Kevin Cline.) Kirnon's menu is, as it was at Emmy's, value conscious, though many of the dishes break the $10 ceiling (if not by much), and the food nods in a Caribbean direction (Kirnon grew up in Barbados) while keeping its feet pretty firmly on all-American soil.
Once you are summoned to your table, you will find, inside, a cheerfully honky-tonk look: sage green walls, a floor covered in red and cream linoleum, a long bar of burnished wood backed by an antique cash register, an old-style ceiling of tin squares impressed with artful curves, and a good deal of din. The wait, incidentally, need not be interminable; we waltzed in one evening and immediately bagged the last table for two, and on another resorted to Plan B — immediate seating at the bar — which for me carried happy associations of dinner at Stars' mammoth installation. The restaurant accepts reservations for larger parties only, which raises the crapshoot factor for twosomes.
The Caribbean notes most resoundingly struck by Kirnon's kitchen had to do, so far as I could tell, with okra. This semiexotic vegetable, the key ingredient of gumbo, turned up one evening as a deep-fried starter and again in the same evening's edition of Sarah's vegan surprise ($9.50). In the latter dish, halved lengths of it, looking like split jalapeño peppers, swam in a spicy tomato sauce along with cubes of butternut squash, while looming in the middle of the broad bowl was a craggy jumble: a stubby cylinder of corn on the cob and a clutch of plantains, battered and deep-fried and looking like giant McNuggets. The overall effect was one of sweet fire, though I think the plantains would have been just as nice and not as rich if they'd been sliced and oven-roasted into chips. And a word of reassurance to those who dislike okra for its horror flick sliminess: in Kirnon's hands it seems to remain firm and ungross of texture.
Well-crisped plantain chips (for scooping) appeared with the tuna tartare ($8.63), the diced, deep-purple fish quite spicy and topped with scatters of minced scallion and flying-fish roe. Also surprisingly spicy was a stack of heirloom tomato slices ($7), mainly because of the slathering of creole mayonnaise; an acidic counterpoint was provided by a jaunty cap of pickled carrot and red-beet slices.
The main courses glide effortlessly between prole and petit bourgeois. On the nether end we have the Porch burger ($11), a big — but not too big — pat of broiled beef topped with melted cheddar cheese and two slices of crisp bacon. The bun, fresh and tender but ... too big. The burger in the bun looked lost, like a little boy trying on one of his father's dress shirts. At the far end of town we find the tony Dungeness crab porridge ($11.50), a Range-worthy dish whose porridge consists of white polenta ("grits" is the local-color term) bewitchingly scented with lemon. In the middle of the pond of porridge rests an islet of crab meat flecked with habanero peppers and scallion. Habaneros can be scorching, but here they behave.
The porridge's well-dressed siblings from the starter menu might include a pistou look-alike: a broth of lime juice, rock salt, and puréed mint ($6.50) set with avocado quarters, green beans, and svelte coins of radish and cucumber — tasty and discreetly austere. Indiscreetly unaustere are the deep-fried chicken livers ($6) on a slice of brioche toast with a drizzling of caramelized onion sauce. We agreed that this dish tasted like a cheeseburger, but perhaps that was just the fat talking.
Desserts (all $6) pack a homey punch. We found a subtle sophistication in a slice of pumpkin Bundt cake laced with chocolate chunks and plated with a sensuous puff of what the restaurant calls "sweet cream" and what most of us know as whipped cream. The same cream turns up like a wisp of tulle fog beside a slice of yellow cake with double chocolate frosting — as good as anything Mom used to make. For that frisson of decadence, $2 extra buys you a scoop of vanilla on the side, and as we were especially decadent, we ended up — by accident or design? — with both the cream and the ice cream. The plate looked as if a blizzard had just roared through.
No blizzards in these parts, of course, just — sometimes — unnaturally early rain. We waited on the front porch until it had mostly abated, then made a dash for it. SFBG
Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10:30 p.m. Continuous service: Sun., noon–9 p.m.
65A 29th St., SF
Beer and wine