The highly polished restaurant's sleek location calls to mind the (retro) future, but its exquisite dishes are firmly rooted in present trends
DINE At last, a restaurant name we can believe in. That would be Prospect, Nancy Oakes' new venture on the ground floor of a glassy residential tower that would probably seem like home sweet home to the Jetsons.
If you like Oakes' other restaurant, the massively famous Boulevard, you're likely to find Prospect a multilayered shock. The older place, which opened in 1993 and was one of the first tendrils of post-earthquake renewal along the Embarcadero, trades on the antique charm of the Audiffred Building, a 121-year-old, Parisian-looking structure that rode out the 1906 earthquake, as well as on its Pat Kuleto interior design, a warmly whimsical reimagining of a brasserie.
Prospect, by contrast, offers no such design charms and appears to be unconnected to any past, only to a future — a prospect? — that might politely be described as deracinated. The space is deep, high, and filled with plenty of natural light, along with (reclaimed) wood-plank flooring, hempy-looking fabrics, columns of sound baffling that resemble panels of corrugated cardboard (but feel like Corian) and pillars of naked concrete for a touch of modern urban grit. The result is ... really not all that different from nearby RN74. Moderation in all things, including — as Oscar Wilde might have said — restraint.
The food is also more than subtly different from Boulevard's. Oakes is one of the masters of a highly polished American cuisine that's a little too hearty to be called Californian. Serving sizes at Boulevard have long been ample, in the American grain. But we were told right off the bat one evening at Prospect that we should revise our expectations downward with respect to size. In this sense Prospect's prices, on their face quite a bit lower than Boulevard's, are at least slightly illusory, especially if you double down on starters, as our server suggested.
But there can be no arguing with the actual food coming out of executive chef Ravi Kapur's kitchen. The flavors are bold, the juxtapositions artful, and the execution solid. I was particularly impressed by a double-decker filet of petrale sole ($24). Here the fish was given a gorgeous bronze crispness, then presented with ... no, not lemon and capers but a ragout of summer beans, king trumpet mushrooms, and a wondrous tasso aioli that was something like bacon transmuted into cream.
The fish and seafood cookery in general is outstanding, from a petite black cod filet ($15) bathing in a mild red curry broth and accompanied by shiitakes, snap peas, and a shiso shrimp fritter, to an opalescent mat of yellowtail crudo ($14), scattered with coins of pickled cucumber and served with an undulating seaweed rice cracker the color of wasabi but without the nuclear nasal blast. All this is noteworthy mostly if it's been your impression, as it's been mine for years, that the heart of Oakes' gastronomic wonder-working has tended to involve meat and potatoes.
Meat isn't neglected, however. The pork cheeks ($22) were particularly fabulous, with some of the tender-stringy character of short ribs. The meat was capped with ribbons of fennel-root confit and set on a bed of ancient grains (farro and amaranth, it seemed), with Santa Rosa plums, cloves of roasted garlic, and chunks of watermelon radish for contrast — a refreshingly unsweet and (apart from the plums) unfruity ensemble.
The flesh-free dishes are just as vivid. First-of-the-season tomatoes ($13), although a monochromatic red, benefited from the tanginess of sheep's-milk fromage blanc. And slices of porcini mushroom ($16) found themselves splashing playfully in a balsamic-pancetta sauce with semolina (rather polenta-ish) and a tempura-like farm egg. Tempura recurred on the soft-shell crab ($14), which seemed unfocused and bland despite the flooring of jalapeño-corn relish and green-tomato tartar sauce. But then, soft-shell crab is an East Coast delicacy that can lose something in translation.
Desserts, like just about everything else on the menu, are small and intense. Chocolate orbit ($9) included warm flourless chocolate cake with a pat of bittersweet chocolate ice cream, and if that had been it, it wouldn't have been much. But the cake sat on a bed of mojito granita, whose colorless grains belied a strong lime charge. Chocolate and lime? Believe it. Believe, too, in the peach hand pie ($9), with diced peaches, a brown-butter pastry pocket and, best of all, muscovado brown sugar ice cream. It's not as sweet as you'd think.
Dinner: Sun.–Thurs., 5:30–10:30 p.m.;
Fri.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.
300 Spear, SF