Tubular bells ... and whistles
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First impressions are often false impressions, but some first impressions are so overwhelming as to transcend such mundane terms as false and favorable. When I first crossed the threshold of Conduit, I had the impression of having stepped inside a pipe organ. The restaurant (which opened late last year on a once-desolate stretch of Valencia near 14th Street) is a labyrinth of copper and steel tubing, so dense in its gleaming geometry as to become a kind of metallic fabric. The tightly arranged pipes make up part of the ceiling and help divide the dining room into sections, and if you think all that metal must feel cold, you're not factoring in the burnished glow of the copper so reminiscent, for foodheads, of the copper pans that once hung in Julia Child's Cambridge, Mass., kitchen or the gas fireplace that sits just inside the front door, as if in a warming hut at a high-end skating rink.
Also, you haven't seen the bathrooms: a set of private cells behind a wall of translucent blue doors, as if in a giant honeycomb. A guided tour of this part of the restaurant would not be completely absurd but probably won't be necessary, since paying crowds have already descended on Conduit for other, and excellent, reasons. The restaurant, even in its fledgling days, already must be considered one of the premier spots on Valencia's still-burgeoning restaurant row; its peer group consists of Range, Limón, and perhaps Bar Tartine, and if only because of the extraordinary atmospherics of the interior design (the architect was Stanley Saitowitz), its sheen is brighter than theirs.
But let's not forget the appeal of chef Justin Deering's food either. The man and his staff work in an exhibition kitchen that stretches like a stage across the back of the restaurant, and the menu they're turning out is a seasonal California one, yes, like so many others, but with an emphasis on butter and cream that reminded me of Traci Des Jardins's early menus at Jardinière and of Nancy Oakes's at Boulevard. Butter and cream discreetly bespeak luxury, not only because they're expensive but also because they bring a velvety weight to foods that probably don't, in most cases, need it. But part of the appeal of luxury is its very superfluousness. In other words: Conduit is a downtown restaurant that happens not to be downtown and charges (down!) accordingly. It isn't cheap, but it costs about a third less than its city-center siblings and occupies a neighborhood setting that presents fewer logistical challenges.
Deering's gnocchi ($12) are finished in bubbling butter also topped with crab meat and chopped arugula and as we might expect, they're très rich, but the butter finish is standard procedure for gnocchi. A more improbable jolt of creaminess can be found in, or on, a salad of little gems ($9), the heads of baby romaine lettuce that so often get used in some variation on Caesar salad. The creamy dressing here is buttermilk based (like ranch) and is slathered on the halved heads with abandon. Even so, it doesn't entirely mask the pleasant bite of spicy macadamia nuts and radish shavings, fine and delicate as tiny facial tissues, which are scattered over the lettuces and across the oblong plate.
Duck confit ($11) gets the deconstruction treatment instead of the usual meat-on-bone presentation. The deconstruction is visually striking, with a salad of frisée and pear slices at one end, and at the other a smear of duck-liver mousse (creamy!) and the actual confit, a pat of shredded confit meat that might more accurately be described as rillettes. Still, there's nothing wrong with rillettes, and what's been deconstructed can be reconstructed, often entertainingly.
Deering isn't a complete butterfat crackhead. His bigger plates, in particular, rely less on dairy richness than their small-fry relations; a steak of grilled walu ($19), for example, was plated atop a mound of cannellini beans enhanced by crisped flaps of guanciale (a baconlike form of cured pork) and halved green olives fried tempura-style. (Walu is one of those wonderful fish with meaty white flesh taken from the waters of the Hawaiian Islands.)
Kitchen voyeurs (of whom I am one) will appreciate the dinner bar a half dozen or so seats at the very cusp of the kitchen, with an unobstructed and intimate view of chefly goings-on. (This bar is not to be confused with the bar bar, an impressive affair nearer the front of the dining room, stacked with a full complement of booze.) The dinner bar, interestingly, is another echo of Boulevard, which offers similar seating. A further advantage of the dinner bar at Conduit: it's near the restrooms, so you can make a brief visit and perusal while the pastry chefs (who are working right in front of you) put together your dessert.
A sundae ($8) sounds like an 80 mph fastball right down the middle of the plate in other words, banal and sluggable but a major wrinkle at Conduit is that the pastry chefs make their own ice creams, such as one with cherries and chocolate chunks, a kind of boutique Cherry Garcia, creamy and rich as gelato or frozen custard. Hot chocolate sauce spooned over? A nice touch, as is the pair of triangular chocolate wafers stuck into the ice cream. The clear plastic cup in which the sundae is served, meanwhile, seems like a good joke whose punch line is "Downmarket." But really, you could serve ice cream this good practically any way and send people into transports. Bi-Rite Creamery? What's that?
A final huzzah for noise management. It is expert. Conduit isn't quiet and how could it be, with throngs of 1999-vintage tech androids swarming the place? but the floors are laid with some sort of charcoal rugs of hemp or sisal, and they soak up sound like sponges. Impressive!
Dinner: Mon.Thurs. and Sun., 5:3010:30 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 5:3011 p.m.
280 Valencia, SF
Noisy but bearable