1601 BAR & KITCHEN, SoMa (1601 Howard St. at 12th, 415-552-1601)
In my book, extra points go to one attempting something different or filling in a vacant gap. Of course, it has to taste great, too. 1601 Bar & Kitchen succeeds on all fronts. Chef-owner Brian Fernando brings the flavors of his Sri Lankan heritage (his father is from Sri Lanka, just off the Southern coast of India) and influences from cooking in Spain, interning at Chez Panisse, and years at Le Papillon in San Jose.
1601 opened at the beginning of April 2013. Though I had just returned from a nine day trip in Denver/Breckenridge and was off to Peru the next day, 1601 was my one priority meal during that one day home. Thankfully, it was well worth making time for. The sophisticated, intimate space, seating only 49, enveloped me immediately, and the cooking wowed with promise. In each subsequent visit, I felt the same way about the food, watching dishes evolve, marveling at the value for the quality.
Though the wine list offers worthwhile pours, like a crisp 2011 Chateau L’Afrique Cotes de Provence Rose ($12/48), and the aperitif menu is completely “my thing” (like a Bamboo Cocktail – $9 – nutty and dry with Amontillado sherry, Sutton Cellars Brown Vermouth and bitters), I found depending on my server, the knowledge of what to pair and its taste profile might be lacking. In asking for dry or mineral white recommends one meal, my server recommended a Navarro Riesling, which I’ve tasted many times and knew was a bit sweeter, while the menu’s dry white wine options were left unmentioned. Similarly, aperitif descriptions were the opposite of what they actually tasted like. I’d either ask for the wine expert in house or come prepared with your own knowledge. That being said, service is otherwise seamless and attentive yet unobtrusive.
Most importantly, the food is consistently innovative, even exciting. Certainly some dishes shine more than others but I’ve not had a bad dish and a number of them border on revelatory. The signature dish is already apparent: the hopper ($9), a Sri Lankan street food dish akin to a crepe (made of coconut milk, rice flour) shaped as a bowl with an organic, soft-cooked jidori egg in the center, weaving seamlessly into the crepe. There’s ground coconut, chiles, lime and spicy sambal sauce to sprinkle over or tear off and dip the crepe in. It’s unique, simple yet complex, delicate in taste.
At many restaurants, soups for me sometimes hover a little too close to boring or uninspired. But not so with Chef Fernando’s soups. This summer a chilled beetroot soup ($9) was strikingly vibrant with ginger, grapefruit and turmeric.
What at first glance appears to be the all too common menu item of recent years, a kale salad ($9), arrives with fresh perspective. Here raw kale is interspersed with coconut meat and Parmesan, tossed in a black garlic-lime vinaigrette. Another seemingly common dish is local halibut ceviche ($13), prepared like a silky halibut crudo, topped with a cube of compressed cucumber, silvers of serrano chilies and coconut milk. Similarly, a house-smoked salmon ($12) is almost meaty, itsl texture accented by burnt onion creme fraiche, ethereal with compressed apple and turmeric gel.
Take nothing for granted. That plate of pan-seared cauliflower ($9) is not just any old serving of the vegetable. Sweet cumin and lime pickle emulsion give it verve. Braised sturgeon ($18) makes an impression coated in black curry, resting on red basmati rice and garnished with crispy preserved maitake. Roasted squab ($17) is almost sexy with whispers of star anise, marked by plump blackberries over forbidden rice. Lamb-pork meatballs ($13) are crowd-pleasers – again, not so much traditional Middle Eastern or Spanish meatballs, but ones redolent of cinnamon, punctuated by green chickpea relish and spoonfuls of Straus yogurt.
While I’d often prefer to order another savory dish, here I appreciate warm banana fritters ($8), cooled with Greek yogurt and treacle (an uncrystallized syrup).
Even when it’s not perfect, 1601 is refreshingly different thanks to Chef Fernando’s inspired touch. A winner, by all accounts, offering a blessedly needed perspective.
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