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.
Treasure Chest Pour
treasure chest of fermented sausage, trout quenelles and sweet onion-rice dumpling in a creamy pork broth.
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.
I have a confession. Let’s set the stage. State bird in San Francisco is known for next to impossible reservations. At midnight pacific time, a small block of reservations open up for the date exactly two months later. So, I crawled out of bed at 3 am eastern time, wearily opened my computer, entered the security code (the demand for reservations forced them to implement a security measure through open table similar to the one where you buy concert tickets) which I thinks was either “goodluckbuddy” or “youareafool” or “gobacktobed” and was shut out. It seemed my only opportunity would be to get in line and wait it out with the rest of the lottery losers. Despite the fact that state bird has very minimal outdoor signage, it’s not hard to figure out where it is….it’s the place with the line. Located on the not nice side of Fillmore, I arrived about 45 minutes before to find about 15 people waiting. During the wait, I thought about other things I have waited 45 minutes for:
I waited 45 minutes with my daughter to get on that swan ride at Wonderland. You know, the one where you ride a plastic bird at a quarter mile and hour in 2 feet of stagnant water for what seems like an eternity so your kid can feel like the queen of water fowl.
I once waited with my grandmother for 45 minutes in anticipation of the next K-mart blue light hourly special. Elated by securing some fancy glassware she just bought, she was more than happy to wait for the opportunity to snap up the next deal on women’s hosiery.
My mother asked to me wait in line for almost an hour to get her a limited edition commemorative royal family beanie baby a number of years ago. I stood in line with a bunch of blue hairs bragging about their collection ranging from the Princess Diana purple rose bear to some rare fish named Bubbles.
Come to think about it, I ordered a pizza in university circa 1993 that I’m still waiting for so I guess 45 minutes isn’t that bad. As time went on, the line got longer and it also got fatter. I never read the memo where one person was allowed to get there early and hold two or three spots for friends showing up later. By the time 530 rolled around, there were more like 20 or 25 ahead of me. When the doors finally opened, the line quickly funneled in to the open doors. Group by group, patrons were seated. I was starting to sweat a little when I finally got to the front of the line. The two groups in front of me were still waiting for truant tablemates so they were asked to move aside until the whole party arrived. I gladly proclaimed “Table for two and we are both here!’. The woman at the door (who turned out to be one of the owners), yelled out 3/4 as we entered State Bird Provisions. It turned out 3/4 means we were seated right in the middle of the chef’s table. Let the fun begin….
The concept is simple. About half the menu is served dim sum style. As members of the illustrious chef’s table, you not only get to witness the creation of this dishes, you also have first dibs at the eats. As each comes up, the chef explains the dish (don’t ask before hand!), tells you the price and you decide if you want it. My will power melts like hot butter when offered food so I had a hard time saying no. If you agree, the chef, waiter or any other staff member checks off the number that corresponds to the cost. The other half of the menu consists of larger dishes which you order a la carte. Included in this are things like trout, bone marrow and the famous pancakes. Given the fact I tried a number of dishes, it makes sense to list them in order of preference to try and bring some order to what turned out to be a night of modest gluttony:
1/2 dozen cast iron quail eggs $12
The best dish of the night. Six quail eggs are flash fried in a hot skillet among a flavourful broth boasting a nice blend of heat and acid. I asked the chef about it and he let me know the heat came from pressed jalapeno juice (not brine from a jar of picked peppers). Brilliant! It was also served with chunks of Mt. Tam cheese, pea hummus and a few garlic chips. I discussed this local cheese in a previous blog but as a reminder it’s a local brie-like cheese that added a wonderful silkiness to the dish. Combined with the earthiness and freshness of the hummus and along with peppery arugula, it was a complete dish that was a cross between a destructed omelette and having the supernatural ability to consume many components of a tasty volcano.
Air-dried beef with chili juice, rice powder & garlic chips $8
I got to watch the creation of this dish from start to finish. It’s remarkably simple. Quality beef quickly fried on a flat top along with copious amounts of rice flour (which i thought was salt until he added about a cup of it on the beef) which browned nicely, keep the meat moist and added a delicious crisp coating. It was topped with fresh scallions and garlic crisps for extra visual effects and flavour.
State Bird with provisions $9
California has the privilege of having one of the only edible state birds. I find it interesting that I can’t pick a trillium in Ontario but I can eat a quail in California. I’m sure this liberty isn’t granted in every state. After all, Robin au gratin from Wisconsin or Tex-Mex Cactus Wren from Arizona certainly does not sound as appealing as a chunk of deep-fried Californian quail.The coating on the half bird was crispy and seasoned nicely. It was a tricky but enjoyable navigation to eat the small bird in fried chicken fashion but well worth the effort. Useless trivia fact: the cardinal is the most common state bird (7 states-Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana and both Virginias) followed the Western Meadowlark (6-Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oregon and Wyoming) and mockingbird (5- Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, Texas).
King Salmon Tartare with Pickled cucumbers and toasted quinoa $10
A very quirky fish girl snuck up behind us offering a tartare prepared table side. The salmon looked beautiful so it was hard to resist. The tartare was scooped atop some modestly pickled cucumber and topped with a delicious blend of toasted quinoa and roasted seaweed. Nothing beats freshness and the salmon fit the bill. No need for crostini..the quinoa mix gives it the perfect amount of crunch.
Guinea hen dumpling with aromatic broth $3
I missed the first go around of these single dumplings soaked in broth. Thanks to one of the chefs who hunted one down for me a little later, I was able to indulge. Dumplings are a simple creation that can be screwed up quite easily. The dumpling was crisp but not overcooked and the filling to dough ratio was perfect. As promised, the broth was aromatic although a little surprising. I’m used to salt as the predominate taste in a dumpling broth and in this case it was more sour and complex but delicious nonetheless.
Raw oyster with spicy kohlrabi kraut & sesame $3
I love oysters. They are a glorious way to begin a meal. I have been teased by friends of mine that I look like a kid in a candy store when I order them. I take great pride in the careful construction of the oyster including ensuring it is loosened from the shell and has the appropriate amount of horseradish, mignonette, seafood sauce etc. In other words, every mollusk is a canvas and I get to play with the paint. Keeping that in mind, I found the oyster delicious with balanced and unique seasoning. It’s just a shame I couldn’t play with it some more.
Duck liver mousse with almond biscuit $6
Although no dish was sold to us in used car salesman style, the most boasted item was the duck liver mousse which has been a staple since State Bird opened. I took the opportunity to take a jab at the chefs but reminding them that duck liver is not as common in Canada because we can still serve fois gras in restaurants and duck liver is a weaker substitute. The mousse was smooth, light and fresh but what impressed me the most were the almond biscuits. In most cases, the savory and liver-bitter spread is served with a neutral crostini but the sweet biscuit brought it to a new level.
“Caesar Salad” $5
A unique spin on the classic caesar, it had all the elements with a few surprises like pickled vegetables. It was a good salad, just not as remarkable as the other menu items.
Mushroom farro spezzato with smoked egg $8
I’m pretty sure I have this dish right. I remember it describe as similar to porridge. The flavour from the nicely cooked mushroom was front and centre but I did find the dish got boring and predictable very quickly. It wasn’t bad put did pale in comparison the number of other dynamic and taste bud teasing dishes I ate during the night. I loved the smoked egg yolk but it got a little overpowered by the predominant mushroom flavour.
Garlic bread with burrata $8
Although I enjoyed watching this dish being made more than any other, in the end I was a little disappointed by the flavour. The dough is rolled with precision,dropped into hot oil and fried donut style. It is then seasoned and finished with the new San Francisco treat and ubiquitous bay area cheese…burrata. The underseasoned crispy bread coupled with the bland and sloppy cheese just didn’t work for me although I did enjoy the aggressive use of the black pepper.
BONUS: Shots of ‘world peace’ peanut muscovado milk! When we decided to pass on dessert (we both had other engagements to attend), the staff almost looked sad. They take enormous pride in their dishes and would let us leave without having a shot of the world peace peanut milk. One word: outstanding. It was a delicious nectar which collected the X-factor of the delicious legume into one delightful shot.
There were some initial annoyances and misconceptions that I had about State Bird Provisions. First, I found the reservation system stupid and annoying. Second, star sightings like Ryan Gosling and the national hype made me think the vibe would be pretentious. My mind was changed with the fact that when I emailed them in advance to ask a few questions, they were authentic and cordial in their responses. Once you are in the place, you are treated like royalty or a VIP member of an exclusive party. No fewer than 6 staff members talked to us, told us their stories, explained the food and beamed with an authentic pride unlike most restaurants I have dined in. They got to know you, asked for opinions and treated you like a human, not a credit card. In summary, it was delicious FUN. They didn’t need gimmicks or loud music or dorks with attitude dressed like fools to create a self-serving brand. Instead, a cool concept with great service and fantastic food with the customer as the focal point is what earned this place a Michelin star. As for the 45 minute wait, the experience inside made it well worth it. It’s not like I haven’t wasted an hour or two of my life before; I did watch the Place Behind the Pines after all.