Pulsing energy and DIY bites at Orson in SoMa
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If there was ever a doubt that Elizabeth Falkner had a thing for Orson Welles, her new restaurant named Orson should lay to rest any lingering uncertainties. Falkner's first venture, a bakery called Citizen Cake, first appeared in the late 1990s in a northeast Mission District space (near Rainbow Grocery) now occupied by Chez Spencer. After a few years it moved to considerably posher quarters in the performing arts quarter while retaining its Wellesian moniker.
But even the upscaling of Citizen Cake, including its expansion to a full-scale, full-service restaurant, could not begin to prepare people for the strange wonder of Orson. (Orson is a fine name, but am I alone in being reminded first not of Orson Welles but of Orson Bean, the character actor who's turned up in all sorts of movies and TV shows over the years?) The restaurant's design doesn't offer much in the way of clues, either. It's very au courant SoMa: large and lofty, with a huge wall of exposed concrete, a mezzanine, swaths of industrial carpeting on the floor, and a persistent hiss of ambient sound, as if a huge white-noise machine in some hidden corner had been turned up to "loud" but not "very loud." The noise doesn't preclude conversation, but, like cigarette smoke, it's impossible to ignore. Perhaps this is the new standard.
So we have a SoMa restaurant with a whimsical name, bearing a general physical resemblance to other SoMa restaurants with whimsical names and run by a woman whose reputation is rooted in high-style baking and what we might call classic California cuisine. And we find, on the menu of that restaurant, a dish called parmaggiano pudding ($5), an ivory-colored custard presented in a crock. The idea of a savory flan made with parmesan cheese might seem like plenty of cleverness for one dish, but Orson's kitchen, under the guidance of Falkner and chef de cuisine Ryan Farr, isn't likely to be called complacent. They are full of wild and wacky ideas, such as lacing the parmesan pudding with cocoa nibs. The wonder is not that a few of these gambits fail they do, spectacularly, like some of those early space shots in which the rocket collapses in flames or whizzes off in the wrong direction but that so many of them so sensationally succeed. The parmesan pudding is only one such success.
The only dish on Orson's rather complex menu I would describe as a total flop is the foie bonbon ($5), a chocolate truffle filled with a buttery pâté de foie gras. One by one, the faces around our table wrinkled in distaste after a nibble, and while I didn't hate the bonbon, I did think it was a bad marriage between incompatible elements that had nothing more than richness in common.
On the other hand, the jolt of espresso in the potato cream bathing the short ribs ($15) was, like the cocoa nibs, a cunning bit of counterpoint, adding depth, mystery, and a little smokiness to what might otherwise have been an ordinary soupy sauce. (Leaves of braised spinach brought some color but were texturally uncooperative; they reminded me of sails left in choppy water by a capsized sloop.) And the egg atop a pizza ($14) of tomato, crisped guanciale, chile flakes, and robiola cheese was less out of place than it looked and it looked quite out of place, as if there'd been some kind of head-on collision in the kitchen. But the yolk drained nicely across the pie (imagine flooding a rice paddy, in miniature, with yellow paint) and added a nice note of velvetiness to what was otherwise a rather brash Neapolitan pizza.
Not all the food is eccentric. A boudin noir pizza ($14), for instance, was topped with (in addition to the blood sausage), arugula, oregano, and thin slices of potato a perfectly genteel combination you might find at any number of places. Garganelli ($11) pasta tubes that looked like mottled cinnamon sticks were tossed in a simple sauce of basil and splinters of summer squash. A sprightly kimchee ($5) was festooned with throw pillows of fried tofu. Chicharrones ($5), a.k.a. pork rinds, arrived in a tall cup looking like twisted French fries suitable for dipping in the shallow tub of barbecue sauce on the side. And a chicken beer sausage link ($14), although accompanied by flecks of nectarine, whispers of frisée, and a hint of pistachio, was satisfyingly all about the sausage.
Some of the exotic touches were discreet to the point of being unnoticeable. Actual French fries ($7) were cooked in duck fat and presented with a small ramekin of browned butter béarnaise, a subtle aioli alternative. Tongue ($5), never an easy row to hoe, was transformed into a golden-crusted, nicely rectangular croquette and served with cherries and what might be one of our most underappreciated greens, purslane.
Does all this sound like the stuff of DIY tasting menus, a sequence of memorable bites? The glory of DIY is the randomness of it we'll have a few of those and one of that but for more orderly types, Orson does offer four formal tasting menus that consist of three to five courses and cost from $50 to $65. One is vegetarian, another pork-based. Caveat: your whole table must participate. Tables for two have several additional "for two" options, though Orson doesn't really strike me as a restaurant for couples. Its pulsing energy is that of a crowded club for the young and the restless, whose packs are forever rearranging themselves. It's easy to picture them talking about movies. But do they talk about, or have they even seen, Citizen Kane?
Dinner: Mon., 610 p.m.
Tues.Sat., 6 p.m.midnight
508 Fourth St., SF