MAVERICK: Better Than Ever at 7

Deliciously visual: dayboat scallops w/ compressed watermelon, pineapple mint, Padron peppers, lipstick pimento sauce, ancho chile/pumpkin seed pesto

MAVERICK, Mission (3316 17th St. between Mission and Valencia, 415-863-3061)

Divine (upscale) fried chicken

Opened in 2005, by modern day restaurant standards, Maverick is a longtimer. I’d posit at its 7th anniversary (July 13), it’s better than ever with new executive chef Emmanuel Eng brought on last year by owners Scott Youkilis and Michael Pierce (GM, Wine Director). In contrast to its more casual, younger sister Hog & Rocks, Maverick’s food has grown more sophisticated and focused over the years, though the space is tiny and low-key.

Maverick’s interior

The menu delights (and evolves slightly each visit) with whispers of Southern influence (and beyond) married to forward-thinking culinary vision. Evoking “New Southern” cuisine, the likes of which I’ve seen in cities such as Charleston and Atlanta in recent years or as I dine at SF newcomers like Dixie and St. Vincent, traditional Southern ingredients and dishes are a springboard for cutting-edge interpretation.

Maverick has not slumbered into laziness with age but seems, especially with talented, young Chef Eng on board, to continue challenging itself. An artist and Portland native, in moving to SF, Eng boldly walked into 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 & Daughters. His experience at some of SF’s top restaurants shows in his bold-yet-refined cooking.

Lobster bread pudding topped with smoked cod

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: their 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. Recently served with blackened patty-pan squash, succotash, pickled watermelon rind, and cornbread croutons, it’s the 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.

Tasso-cured duck “proscuiutto” w/ heirloom melon and cucumbers, lime, anise hyssop

But you’d be remiss not branching 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 St. ($12), but rather than being just 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 rilette croquette. Summery as it was rich, it’s the mostarda I craved more of.

Light alcohol aperitifs: ginger lemon fizz

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 just a smattering of creamy grits amidst 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 it’s 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.

Grits reimagined w/ porcinis & smoked egg

Pierce’s wine pairings and frank, engaging welcome are another key part of what makes Maverick special. Yes, we share a  New Jersey past, while his love of wine has grown since his days at Sociale to opening Maverick with Youkilis. The thoughful wine list is inclusive of some of California’s more interesting small labels like Wind Gap or Le P’Tit Paysan. A 2009 Cru Pinot from Monterey is perfection with the grits, while anise hyssop dotting tasso-cured duck “prosciutto” pops 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 Jim’s and Doritos.

Dessert: chocolate Samoa truffle

I appreciate that even sans hard liquor license, they attempt creative cocktails ($9) using vermouth and sake in low alcohol aperitifs. Some work better than others but the attentive use of local imbibements like Sutton Cellars vermouth (for example, in Dark Sunset: Sutton Cellars dry vermouth, orange juice, cardamom, bitters, smoked paprika, Cava) 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 regional American food exhibit what makes Southern cooking often the best in America: heart.