APPETITE Opened on July 13 way back in 2005, Maverick is a longtimer by modern day restaurant standards. I'd posit that it's better than ever with new executive chef Emmanual Eng, brought on last year by owners Scott Youkilis and Michael Pierce (who is also the general manager and wine director). In contrast to its more casual, younger sister Hog and Rocks, Maverick's food has grown more sophisticated and focused over the years.
The menu delights and has evolved slightly at each visit, with whispers of Southern influence (and beyond) married to forward-thinking culinary vision. Traditional Southern ingredients and dishes are a springboard for cutting-edge "New Southern" cuisine, the likes of which I've seen in cities such as Charleston and Atlanta in recent years or at San Francisco newcomers like Dixie and St. Vincent.
Maverick hasn't slowed down with age and, especially with talented young Chef Eng on board, to continue challenging itself. An artist and Portland native, Eng boldly walked into SF's Indigo in 2000, offering to work for free to learn the ropes. He eventually became line cook at Aqua, Quince, and Foreign Cinema, then sous chef at Boulevard and Sons and Daughters. His experience at some of our top restaurants shows in his bold-yet-refined cooking.
Let's get the obvious out of the way: the signature fried chicken ($24) is as fantastic as ever. Juicy inside, crispy outside, and not at all greasy, the batter is touched with cinnamon, cayenne, and white pepper. It was recently served with blackened patty-pan squash, succotash, pickled watermelon rind, and cornbread croutons — with ham hock and mustard gravy tying it all together, eliciting sighs of delight. It's hard not to want to return to this one over and over again — and many diners do.
But you'd be remiss not to branch out. There's nothing Southern about a squash blossom stuffed with brandade ($10), rosso bruno tomatoes, Calabrian chilis, and basil, but it's delicious. Italian spirit is also present in burrata cheese, made nearby on 16th Street ($12), but rather than being leaving it as another burrata starter, Eng layers flavors with ashed rind from corn husks, baby leeks, arugula pisto, pickled fiddlehead ferns and zucchini. Just before the foie gras ban — which I am not happy about — a duck butcher plate ($16) impressed with foie, tasso-cured duck breast (there's your Southern touch: fantastic tasso ham), strawberry mostarda, white peach, lime, and duck rillette croquette. Summery as it was rich, it's the mostarda I craved more of.
Another inspired Southern reinterpretation is porcini mushroom and Anson Mills grits ($12.50). It's not remotely a traditional grits dish, in fact, there's only a smattering of creamy grits amid tender porcinis, pearl onion, snap peas and a smoked soft-poached egg running over ingredients when punctured. For a vegetarian dish, it's almost meaty and soulful. Massachusetts Dayboat sea scallops ($13) are seared just right, but accents of compressed watermelon, pineapple mint, Padron peppers, dotted with lipstick pimento sauce and ancho chile-pumpkin seed pesto making it memorable. Lobster bread pudding draped in smoked cod ($26) is a brilliant twist on traditional New Brunswick stew — in this case, a creamy mussel chowder touched with jerky-like strips of linguica, clams, corn, and sea beans (seaweed). Dessert is no afterthought. In fact, a chocolate Samoa truffle ($9) feels like vacation, a chocolate mound spiked with chocolate bark in a pool of caramelized coconut accented by crumbled shortbread.
Pierce's wine pairings and frank, engaging welcome are another key part of what makes Maverick special. (We share a New Jersey past, and you can still sense some of that state about him.) His love of wine has grown since his days at Sociale. The thoughful wine list is inclusive of some of California's more interesting small labels like Wind Gap and Le P'Tit Paysan. A 2009 Cru Pinot from Monterey is perfection with the grits. The anise hyssop dotting tasso-cured duck "prosciutto" pops when paired with a floral, crisp 2011 Domaine de la Fouquette Grenache-Cinsault-Syrah-Rolle rose from Provence. Ask Pierce about his Junk Food Wine Pairing series — he'll pair wines with the likes of Slim Jims and Doritos.
I appreciate that even sans hard liquor license, Maverick attempts creative cocktails ($9) using vermouth and sake in low alcohol aperitifs. Some work better than others, but the attentive use of local products like Sutton Cellars vermouth is something I wish more wine and beer only restaurants would do. The most consistent drink is a ginger lemon fizz, utilizing Sutton's dry vermouth, bright with ginger, Meyer lemon, and dreamy honey foam.
At Maverick, attentive staff, intimate dining room, and unique explorations of a well-known regional cuisine exhibit what makes Southern cooking so beloved in the first place: heart.
3316 17th St., SF
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