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.