One of the most highly anticipated restaurant openings this year burst onto the scene last month in a quiet block between the outer Mission and Potrero Hill. Central Kitchen is an industrial wonderland for Chef Thomas McNaughton to create playful and sophisticated dishes.
McNaughton, who made his name at the popular Italian restaurant Flour + Water nearby, focuses primarily on California seasonal ingredients interpreted through a changing menu. The limited ala carte menu pales in comparison to the daily five-course tasting menu, where Chef McNaughton and his chef de cuisine, Michael Gaines, truly reflect the emerging Central Kitchen personality.
I tried the $79 tasting menu recently with my regular foodie dining partner Sandy of the delectable Foodhoe’s Foraging blog. Sandy arrived early and shopped at the adjacent Salumeria, a deli also owned by the restaurant.
Central Kitchen feels like it was squeezed into an open corridor between old industrial buildings because the layout is part industrial chic meets urban farmhouse, cobbled together to create the new space. The main seating is split between a narrow dining room facing the open kitchen and a covered patio area with a long communal table.
Sandy and I ended up sitting in the covered patio area, which felt like we were having a summer dinner. It also felt like summer because of the warm weather we were experiencing in San Francisco and the industrial heat lamps that made it downright balmy.
Despite the hot seats, we were cooled by the refreshing tasting menu, which started with three canapés that were a mix of the predictable and the unusual. The predictable was a refreshing bite of smoked salmon belly with cucumber, dill and crème fraiche. The unusual was a duo of fried head cheese (nicely fried but not overly funky of head cheese) with fava bean puree and a shot of celery soda with red cherry puree. (I’m a fan of celery and this salty drink captures the essence of the vegetable).
Every dish came beautifully presented, with the ingredients dancing on the plate with an assortment of ingredients that predictably are too plentiful to spell out in the menu. Take, for example, then dazzling shellfish plate of mussels and clams dressed in a bone marrow vinaigrette. It had a sprinkling of purple specks that added a pop of color, but Sandy and I couldn’t tell what they were.
An earlier chilled beet soup with goat curds and whey had a brilliant color with a refreshing taste for the hot summer night. I did feel there was a bit too much whey adding way too much texture, but it was still an enjoyable soup when everything got mixed.
An olive oil baked halibut was counterbalanced on the plate by an artichoke puree and a wonderfully cooked egg yolk that had an incredible form and texture, not quite poached and not quite soft boiled. Something unique to Central Kitchen’s cooking technique.
The main meat plate of duck (my favorite meat to dine on) was presented in two ways: the typical-but-still-satisfying pinkish duck breast slices with an intensely flavored shredded duck meat that was crisped on the edges.
The two dessert courses were simple and nice, but at this point don’t quite reach the standards set by the savory dishes. A loquat sorbet was simply followed by a bowl of whole wheat beignets with a scoop of blueberry ice cream. The beignets had a free-form shape and would have been quite filling if I ate a lot of deep-fried foods. (But since I didn’t, I only ventured at eating just one.)
Looking at the other diners who ordered off the ala carte menu, I saw that some of the portions of the dishes were almost the same as ours on the tasting menu. So I feel the best value looks like the tasting menu, where you not only get a lot for your $79 but you get to experience the true range of tastes and techniques of Central Kitchen.
The food at Central Kitchen is nothing like the comforting pasta and pizzas McNaughton cooks at Flour + Water. While still a casual and comfortable setting, Central Kitchen is a dining experience of refined plates pushing people to explore new flavors this city has to offer.
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 camera snaps
Central Kitchen, 3000 20th St., San Francisco. PH: 415.826.7004. Open Mon.–Sun., 5:30–11 p.m. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. Additional $1.95 for SF health tax added to tab. www.centralkitchensf.com
Check out Sandy’s photos of our dinner on her post at Foodhoe’s Foraging.
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