Named for a beloved rum and matching melodious cooking with delectable cocktails
DINE At the risk of sounding like a grossly premature exit poll, I am willing to say that Bar Agricole, which opened mid-August on a rather grimy block of 11th Street, is already, and easily, the best restaurant on that block. Not that the bar (pardon my punnery) is set all that high. You might very well think that Butter, across the street, doesn't represent serious competition. You might, if you have a long memory, remember Undici (later Eleven), a lofty, 1990s place across the street that might have been worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Bar Agricole — but was also deafening. Bar Agricole is supremely worthy and not deafening.
The sonic detail deserves mention for several reasons, one of which is that the restaurant looks like it should be deafening. Once you gain the dining room (after a trek up a woody incline, past a semi-secluded open-air terrace), you find yourself in a onetime plumbing-supply shop remade in the sleek Euro-modern style that you might find in one of the more happening neighborhoods of Stockholm. Interior vistas consist of wood, plate glass, and seating that doesn't look ergonomic. Noise is almost always the companion of these chic design elements.
But Bar Agricole's tables are spaced widely enough to let the restaurant breathe, and, for a rustic-enviro touch, the long bar is made from wood recycled from an Ohio farm, if my eavesdropping ears heard the story right. The madding crowd is never far away, yet the sound is muted just enough not to become the center of attention. It's like watching a big pot of simmering stock coming to a boil it never quite reaches. This kind of ambience management is a subtle but real triumph.
Agricole — as Francophiles might know — refers not only to agriculture but to a type of rum favored by the French. The chief impresario of the place, Thad Vogler, is a cocktail man, and the cocktail list is impressive. But you'd have a hard time finding any mixed drink to top the white, or unaged ("blanche") armagnac, which, like my beloved grappa, is as clear as water but fruitier, more melodious, less openly fiery. Like agricole rum, it finds its way into a number of cocktails, but it's splendid when taken straight.
Chef Brandon Jew's cooking is also melodious and goes down easy. The theme is California eclectic, with, like a corniche, a fair number of tight twists and turns. The chopped liver on toast ($8), for instance, was warmed all the way through, which lent the dish an appealing melted-fused quality. Tomatoes with bottarga ($14) revealed itself to be a colorful salad of heirloom fruit with a heavy (and unannounced) scattering of shell beans. For seasoning, there were flecks of bottarga (salt-cured fish ovaries, a Mediterranean delicacy).
The kitchen's eye for color is sharp. A plate of picalilli ($6), or pickled vegetables, was dominated by luminous yellow cauliflower florets and nearly as luminous quarters of red beet. Other players: halved baby carrots, long beans, skinny green peppers flushed with red as if by dawn, and whole okra pods. Altogether it looked like something Cézanne might like to paint, if he didn't gobble it down first, which was what we did.
No menu is truly complete without at least one flop. At Bar Agricole, this would be the beguilingly named sardine roll mops ($6), which consisted of a large piece of fish wrapped pig-in-a-blanket-style around a pickle spear the color of radiator fluid, then laid on a board of flatbread and doused with crème fraîche. The overall effect was supposed to be, I guess, a variation on a Sunday-morning shmear, but the flatbread was uncooperative and difficult to eat and the fish-pickle pairing wasn't much better, despite the cream's attempts at reconciliation. If a dysfunctional family were turned into food, it might seem something like this.
On the other hand, we loved the tanginess of the olive-oil poached tuna ($14) mingled with fennel-root shavings and cilantro. And the corn pudding ($16) — like an eggy polenta, topped with corn kernels, okra halves, whole padrón peppers, and served in an earthenware crock — was original and sublime, while being at least plausibly vegetarian-friendly.
If you like lemon verbena cream, you'll want dessert. A puffy cloud of it semi-salved the dryness of the blueberry shortcake ($8) — tons of blueberries, though — while another puff appeared, uncredited, with the wondrously glazed peach-pluot upside-down cake. If you had to bet the farm on one of these, you'd be wise to choose the latter.
Dinner: nightly, 6 p.m.–1 a.m.
355 11th St., SF