DINE When the Giants opened their new baseball stadium on China Basin 10 years ago, an improvement in ballpark food was immediately noted. You could have ahi tuna while watching Barry Bonds, and this was — at least for some, at least for a time — an ethereal combination. The ballpark even had a fancy restaurant attached, Acme Chophouse, but the shift in food culture rippled beyond the stadium proper into the surrounding blocks, which were rapidly becoming residential.
Because baseball is the core of all-Americana, it isn't surprising that baseball-influenced food has a definite American flavor. Yes, in many ways San Francisco is the least American of American cities, and we love our ahi tuna, but we like mac 'n' cheese too. And no place I've been to lately in the environs of the baseball park more nicely captures in food this complex sense of city and country than Ironside.
The restaurant opened last autumn on Second Street, just a half-block or so from the ballpark. And if you sit at a window table on a mild evening, watching the crowd either assembling or dispersing, you have the pleasant sense of peeking in on a Fellini film: faces, body shapes, clothes, shoes, conversations, emotional fields, all drifting past like fish in a huge aquarium.
Not that the inside is hard on the eyes. It's a handsome confection of wood, brick, glass, and stainless steel, the blending of rustic-industrial and über-urban that at its best, as here, is simultaneously minimal and warm. The look is a cozier version of nearby Zuppa's. The food, though, is another story — a lovable hodgepodge executed with verve and presented with exuberance.
In the American grain we have the mac 'n' cheese ($9), made with Gruyère and (for aromatic effect) smoked cheddar cheese — just enough style to be distinctive but not so much as to become an overwrought mess. Also: meatballs ($8), in a spicy tomato sauce and presented with elegant but semi-useless points of toasted baguette. Incidentally, are meatballs American, Italian-American, Italian, or Swedish?
Salads (for me) seldom command much interest, but Ironside's arugula salad ($10) is a modest masterpiece: a green carpet of baby leaves dotted with chunks of crispy prosciutto, ribbons of shaved fennel, spicy pecans, and sections of blood orange. The binding agent is nominally a white balsamic vinaigrette, but really it's the lovely balance of salty, tart, sharp, and crunchy. To get the full reaction you have to be sure to get a bit of each constituent in every bite, which can be tricky.
Flammenkuchen ($10) is the German word for the Alsatian flatbread known in French as tarte flambée. I haven't seen one of these on a local menu since the demise of mc2 in the dot-com crash of nine years ago. Ironside's toppings — of bacon, beer-braised scallions, and crème fraïche — are pretty much the traditional ones. We liked the light, crispy crust but found that the pie as a whole needed a bit of salt, maybe because crème fraïche isn't as salty as cheese.
Bigger plates are at greater risk for becoming dull than are their smaller siblings, probably because a main dish in our culture is usually a big chunk of flesh that tends to overwhelm everything around it. A seared filet of bluenose sea bass ($19) the size of a bar of soap is a sizable piece of protein, but at Ironside it isn't permitted to take over the dish. In fact, it could almost be seen as an accompaniment or condiment to the large, colorful heap of shelling beans on one side of the plate and the berm of crispy kasha on the other, with a cordon of luminous carrot beurre blanc — a wonderful, simple idea — to sew things up.
Such a final saucing flourish would have helped at least one of the desserts, the brownie and banana sundae ($7), which was really more of a big — and chewy and moist — brownie flanked by banana halves and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and some whipped cream, than a sundae, which, strictly speaking, would be ice-cream-centric. The drizzling of chocolate sauce seemed unequal to the task of holding all this together.
Our handsome young server could have been an extra from Milk. I hadn't seen such evocative facial hair since those long-ago days when actual clones roamed the earth. He thanked us profusely for everything. As Joan Crawford might have put it, just whom is thanking whom here?
Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Tues.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.
680A Second St., SF
Beer and wine