I had the chance to get back to San Francisco in May for a wedding (yes I realize it’s July but other duties called) and one of my targets was the progress, the newish spin-off of the highly successful and quite enjoyable State Bird Provisions. I went there last year and it was easily one of the best restaurants I went to in 2014. The progress boasts a choose your own adventure 6 course family style meal for $65. Keep in mind that the table needs to agree on six dishes which may prove to be a very daunting task depending on your table mates. On this night I was meeting two people I had never met, so in essence it was a blind date minus the romance. I had no idea what they liked to eat, what aversions they had and what their culinary hot buttons were.
It turns out these two were rather laid back and choosing the menu was really not that difficult. One was rather naive to the nuances of the foodie code (ie. ramps are another word for cool onions) while the other was driven by a value proposition which made her gravitate to ordering the perceived most expensive dishes on the menu. I had no issues with this at all. So, after a deliberation much faster than the OJ jury, we chose our six dishes and waited with anticipation. While waiting, I noticed the decor and buzz was less chaotic than its sister restaurant. The service was more traditional meaning there wasn’t an army of cooks and chefs offering you a bite at every turn. It still had a high hipster factor, driven by both the staff and the patrons sitting at the bar and around the tables.
The first offering with a complimentary amuse bouche which featured seven snacks including zucchini blossoms, sauced-up radishes, broad beans, fried mussels, a twist on chips and dips, spicy citrus and some jerky in the middle. It was a pleasant start and opinions as to what was the best was all over the board, Personally, I enjoyed the jerky and the citrus.
One of my choices was the salad of wild king salmon with basil-marinated zucchini. The main reason was my vivid memory of a king salmon dish I had from State Bird the year before. At this point it was evident that the menu description only offered a fraction of the secrets each dish held. There were salty, crunchy and creamy tastes and textures immersed in the aforementioned listed stars of the dish.
Next were the razor clams on the plancha with kimchi piccata. Other than sounding like a Jimmy Buffet tune, it was served with the very foodie friendly watermelon radish. The star of the plate was a little less than spectacular but in the end the dish was pretty good.
Third was a treasure chest of fermented sausage, trout quenelles and sweet onion-rice dumpling in a creamy pork broth. I loved the absolute confusion of this dish. They pretty much took every food fetish I have and threw it into a bowl. I’ll eat anything fermented, any sausage, any dumpling and any broth…especially if it is poured in front of me. I’ll admit I was a little perplexed but it was like a buffet in a bowl in a blissful foodie dream.
Next was more sausage and seafood; this time lamb merguez (I conceded this dish given my distaste of lamb) with yellow eye beans, octopus and crispy squid. As expected, it wasn’t my favorite dish. Despite the crispiness of the squid, it wasn’t as texturally balanced as the other dishes. The octopus was just ok.
I was probably most excited about the maitake, tofu and bok choy stir fry with smoked black cod ponzu. I love mushrooms, smoked food and black cod and my bliss was amplified when it was presented covered in one of my favorite morsels…sweet peas. I was a little disappointed since the cod ironically lost that beautiful texture through the smoking process. It was a little too salty as well.
The final dish (we decided against dessert) was the aromatic spiced squab with salted chili paste. Once again, the dish presented with a bit of a surprise when it was evident it was meant to be eaten like a cross between a lettuce wrap and a tequila shot. It only came with two legs (complete with the claws) for three people but there wasn’t a huge fight over who got them. The quail itself was cooked nicely and they were fun to assemble but the overall flavour was pretty average.
There is always a danger when it come to a spin-off or sequel , especially when the first effort is so good. The list of sophomore flops is endless; take Three’s a Crowd, Flo and Joanie loves Chachi for example. In the case of State Bird Provisions, there were high expectations when it came to its neighbour and sister restaurant, the Progress. Some of the dishes lived up to the State Bird name while others missed the mark. The progress’ offering of the salad of king salmon and the treasure chest were amazing whereas the lamb/octopus and the cod, although good, missed the high bar set by its predecessor. So, the Progress is in no way the X-Files’ ridiculous spin-off the Lone Gunman. Instead, I see it more as Breaking Bad’s slightly more than mediocre Better Call Saul.