The carnival-themed restaurant in Hayes Valley wins our teddy bear with playful plates
We don't typically use the expression "start-up" when talking about restaurants — the phrase belongs to Techtopia and implies, at least to me, oceans of venture capital and huge salaries for people who run companies that don't make money. But if we did, Straw would be an ideal one. It's the sort of place one saw quite a few of in the early to mid 1990s, in that interval between the disasters of stock-market-crash-earthquake-war-fire and the start of the first tech boom. In that moment, people seemed to feel a renewed sense of optimism but didn't have pots of money. The result was a sequence of new restaurants offering superior food, high value, and modest (sometimes DIY) décor. If you couldn't afford to have Cass Calder Smith design your dining room, you could still somehow let it be known, through the medium of unprepossessingness, that you were reserving your best efforts for the food and service.
Straw, in this important sense, feels like a throwback from 1995. The restaurant (which opened in January) is small and slightly scruffy and is in an old building — a small oddity along Octavia Boulevard, which is newness itself and has been the occasion for all sorts of fresh construction in the past few years. The white walls, slightly scuffed, are hung with carnival posters, and some of the window seating seems to have been salvaged from a ride at a state fair somewhere. We haven't had a place like this in more than a decade, I don't think, not since the days when 3 Ring tried to make its circus theme fly in the old Val 21 space (now Dosa) on Valencia.
What kind of food would you expect to find at a carnival? Straw does provide some witty answers to this question, but the menu ranges gracefully beyond the obvious, which is to say the fried. Still, the fried stuff is good — a basket of little corn dogs ($7.75) made of Niman Ranch beef and looking like batter-fried musket balls. These were wonderfully crisp and juicy, and the trio of dipping sauces — nacho cheese, spicy ketchup, and ranch dressing — each had a strong enough personality to make them distinct, one from the others. The prawn ceviche ($7.75), boldly seasoned with habanero, lime, cilantro, and red pepper was presented in a fried tortilla cup, the kind tortilla salads come in, along with some tortilla chips on the side. These turned out to be good for dispensing with the last of the corndog sauces.
But not everything is fried, and the kitchen helps itself to a wide variety of influences. Grilled cobs of corn ($4) sprinkled with feta cheese, cayenne, and chili powder and presented with fresh lime and what the menu calls, with charming redundancy, "garlic aioli," seemed to have Mexican roots, while the mac 'n' cheese ($5), fortified with bacon and slices of apple (an excellent idea) was a nice little crock of Americana.
The menu is also vegetarian-friendly — and not just in the small dishes, though quite a few of those are meatless, among them the tomato soup, pretzel bites, and several of the salads. An entrée called samba on subuco ($12), festively joined chunks of butternut squash and eggplant in a slightly sweet (but not cloying) coconut-milk curry broth reminiscent of many a hormak talay in Thai restaurants. This dish succeeded for me, despite the eggplant, which managed to be both rubbery and mushy.
Places are found for flesh too, often cleverly. We were particularly impressed by the satchemo ($15), a bed of creamy white grits carefully inlaid with sautéed prawns, leaves of linguiça, and green filet beans. Apart from being flavorful and well-balanced, the dish was beautiful to look at: like a tile taken from the palace of an Ottoman pasha.
I was a little less impressed with the picadilly ($14.75), if only because I wonder if a fish as marvelous as ahi tuna needs to be turned into fish sticks. Ahi, like beef, can stand on its own and is generally best when standing on its own. It doesn't take all that kindly to elaborate treatments and back-room, hardball techniques like breading and frying. Doing that to a nice piece of ahi is a little like getting out your best lead crystal to serve some Diet Coke. The accompanying mayonnaise was astounding, however.
No carnival would be complete without a root beer float, and Straw offers a nice one ($5.50), made with root beer gelato and served with a straw (!)— not exactly radical ideas but sound ones. The more radical idea was laying little sticks of candied bacon atop an almost impossibly creamy peanut butter pie ($6) in a chocolate crust. Peanut butter and chocolate are one of sweetdom's divine combinations (also totally New World), and I'd never heard the pair were looking for a third, certainly not pork. The truth is that the pie would have been fine without it. But the meat brought a bit of salty-sweet chewiness for contrast, and the result was better than fair.
Dinner: Mon.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m.
Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
203 Octavia, SF