Valencia Street may be jumping the restaurant shark, but this upscale greasy spoon rides the wave deliciously
DINE When cultural historians of the future gather to argue the question of when and where Valencia Street finally jumped the shark, they might find themselves concentrating on the changes that came to a single block, between 18th and 19th streets, early in the presidency of Barack Obama. They might, in particular, find themselves considering a place called Grub, which sounds like a greasy joint of some kind where people eat with their fingers but is in reality a gorgeously designed restaurant that flows from a plate-glass façade through a nouveau-mod dining room to a glowing blue bar that looks like something from Star Wars, or Las Vegas.
It's the sort of place you wouldn't have found on Valencia as recently as five years ago, and it suggests, to me — along with the nearby The Summit, with its matching plate-glass façade — that a basic shift in sensibility is occurring. Like the Ferry Plaza farmers market, Valencia Street and its establishments now get mentioned in the travel section of The New York Times, and this kind of publicity means tourists, coming as if to some exotic game preserve. Tourists fundamentally change the nature of whatever it is they're coming to experience, almost as in a chemical reaction.
None of this is to imply that Grub itself is an unworthy restaurant. It is highly worthy, with a value-intensive menu that includes authentic grub like burgers and mac 'n'cheese, as well as such highfalutin treats like osso buco. (Is it just me, or has osso buco suddenly become trendy?)
Both the burgers and mac 'n' cheese are offered in "bar" (ie, design your own) mode. Your burger choices include beef, buffalo, vegetarian, ahi tuna, and portobello mushroom. The ahi burger ($12) consists of five ounces of seared filet. You can add cheeses and condiments to your heart's content, but given the priciness and quasi-delicacy status of ahi, we thought it decadent to slather it with pickled red onions and bacon. Our suave server (a godlet who might have just stepped from the set of one of those Twilight movies) recommended the wasabi aioli, which did indeed bring a moistening intensity, though the sandwich remained a little frail, pale, and delicate, like a child who needs to get outside more.
Plunging into the mac 'n' cheese bar, by contrast, is like going to a gym where everyone is insanely worked out. All the variations (base price $9) include white and sharp cheddar cheeses and a gratin of grana padano breadcrumbs — more than enough flavor thrust to reach escape velocity. But you can tart up your crock with everything from truffle oil to grilled steak ($1 per extra ingredient) and some savories in between. Truffle oil is, for me, one of the world's most overrated (and overpriced) food items — with lobster (a favorite of the godlet) not far behind — and I thought it more or less got lost amid the meatiness of the mushrooms and bite of the cheese. The steak stood up better, adding a hint of smokiness and enough weight to make the dish a meal unto itself.
But the menu offers other meals unto themselves, too, with a bit more polish. Grilled tiger prawns ($15) were arranged atop a butternut squash risotto heavily leavened with Parmesan cheese, whose tang balanced what otherwise might have become a cloying sweetness. A filet of Pacific snapper ($16) was "crusted" — "smeared" would have been more accurate — with what seemed like crab-cake batter and seated on a pad of celery-root puree with a pool of carrot-butter-white wine sauce and watercress salad. And the osso buco ($17) arrived in autumnal, rather grave guise atop mashed potatoes with a burgundy-charged sauce and fried shoestring carrots. The meat was fork-tender, and as someone who's been making osso buco for years (from the same Patty Wells recipe), I can tell you this isn't a given, even with long simmering. As for mashed potatoes instead of the more traditional risotto: eh. The potatoes did have a dense, mousseline-like velvetiness, which led me to suspect the involvement of tons of butter. But then, at higher-end sort of greasy spoon, you would expect a higher grade of grease, and butter is the grease of the gods, or at least godlets.
Dinner: nightly, 6 p.m.–12:30 a.m.
Brunch: Sat.–Sun., 10 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
758 Valencia, SF
(415) 431-GRUB (4782)
Beer and wine