A Mediterranean-inflected menu chockablock with temptation
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We have the other white meat and the other woman, and in the Ferry Building we have had, for the past five years, the other restaurant, the Not-Slanted Door. Of course I mean MarketBar, which is pretty wonderful and surprisingly not pricey, and how often do you find yourself thinking that when you're in or near the Ferry Building?
The Slanted Door has held the pole position in the Ferry Building since that venerable structure's rebirth as a food mecca and the restaurant's arrival therein by a hop-skip-and-jump route that began at its birthplace on Valencia Street in the mid-1990s and continued to an interregnum spot at an Embarcadero location previously held by Embarko and, later, La Suite. Those were nice digs, but the Slanted Door's Ferry Building set-up is nonpareil: it's huge, with huge windows looking on the water and a reputation that draws the building's flocks of food cognoscenti like ducks perhaps roasted with five-spice powder to june bugs.
If the Ferry Building is the manse of a grand food family, then MarketBar is the younger brother who got the bedroom over the garage with the smaller closet. The restaurant looks not onto the bay but the Embarcadero itself, a much-beautified roadway but a roadway nonetheless, a swirling parfait of cars and streetcars and pedestrians. Yet the trade-off isn't a bad one. While the Slanted Door enjoys Zen-tranquil water views, it can be chaotic inside; MarketBar looks upon the urban circus but is just far enough removed from it to remain peaceable.
A large part of the restaurant's magic has to do with its immense sidewalk-side patio, set with large umbrellas and discreetly but firmly fenced off from the madding crowd. The Parisians are masters of this arrangement, but you don't see it much here, maybe because the weather is less favorable or because our city doesn't have the sorts of public places, like the Place de la Bastille, that Paris does. Many of our al fresco efforts are impromptu: a few flimsy tables and chairs teetering at the brink of the curb. MarketBar, by contrast, is built around, and seems to exist for, its patio.
There's an inside too, a mirror-backed bar flanked by dining rooms like the wings of a big house. The colors are the reassuring ones of the earth, the look is classic San Francisco, and although no one is whispering, the noise is not insane. But what is everyone whispering about the prix-fixe menu? Probably, since MarketBar has a good one, three courses for $29.95.
Usually I find a prix-fixe option to be irresistible. But chef Rick Hackett's regular menu, a Mediterranean-inflected mélange, is chockablock with temptation: lively dishes at competitive prices. Some are little more than nibbles: a bowl of spicy peanuts ($3.75), say, with a nice balance of salt and sweetness; and fresh-cured green olives ($4.75), large, round, and vivid green if you've ever been curious about fresh olive fruit, these orbs are close draped with shreds of pickled red onion.
Some are big and substantial enough to be called sides, such as a warm salad of chopped romaine leaves and fresh fava beans ($5.75), simply dressed with a little shallot, olive oil, and salt. It made a nice starter; my only criticism is that it was too green, nothing but green, like a Monet painting of a lawn, bordered by shrubbery and surrounded by leafy trees.
As a rule I don't have pasta much in restaurants, since I make it so often at home, but I was curious about MarketBar's meatballs and pasta in broth ($14.75). I expected, more or less, a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, with more than the usual amount of sauce, but what I got was basically an Italian version of pho: a deep bowl filled with an herbed broth in which bobbed a half-dozen or so meatballs (rather beefy, I thought), along with several ravioli discs stuffed with spinach.
The prix-fixe menu includes first and main courses along with dessert, and there are choices within each of those categories. A simple salad of heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese reflected the lusciousness of this year's tomato crop the fruit has been intensely juicy and flavorful even in the early going but while red tomatoes are handsome, so are the yellow, orange, green, and pink ones, and a little color play never hurts any salad.
Main dishes tend toward the straightforward and hearty: grilled veal rib eye with quartered new potatoes, morel mushrooms, and English peas; a swordfish filet striped with artichoke aioli and laid atop braised Swiss chard and spring onions. Desserts, as befits the restaurant's name and location, are largely seasonal, and in berry season you naturally end up with marriages between berries and pastry, as galettes and little pies. But there are other sweet possibilities available, including an orange-soda float ($7.50) "like a Dreamsicle," one of my companions said, except in liquid form and presented in a sundae glass. Creamy, but mighty sweet, as if Orange Crush and not Orangina was used.
The wine list is diverse and offers a fair number of choices by the glass, but these are pricier than the food would lead one to expect, with many costing well into double digits. Still, that's a manageable splurge if you just plan to sit with a friend under the umbrella on the patio, sharing a bowl of spicy peanuts while watching others, many, many others, go about their business.
Dinner: nightly, 510 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.5 p.m.
Brunch: Sat.Sun., 9 a.m.3 p.m.
One Ferry Building, Embarcadero at Market, SF
Comfortable noise level