The restaurant business is one of those with a clear glass ceiling, where many executive chefs are often men rather than women. Few female chefs have been able to garner much attention, even in the diverse and food-crazed San Francisco Bay Area.
But one of the women who are making waves in the city is Kim Alter, formerly of Plum and Haven and now behind her own recently opened Nightbird in Hayes Valley. After months of renovating, the restaurant opened with what can be viewed as either an elaborate prix fixed meal or a scaled down tasting menu (but basically five courses for $125 a person).
I made reservations for dinner Saturday night when my sister was in town. She and I have a birthday just a day apart, so we decided to have an early birthday celebration. Joining us was my niece Margot, and we started the evening at Nightbird’s tiny backroom bar, the Linden Room, where I got to try a creative cocktail called the “Flower Root & Stalk” ($13).
The drink is made with gin, genepy, rhubarb, lime and camomile, but gets a scoop of sorbet, which makes it like an adult float. The flavors were balanced and subtle, and ironically less aggressive than a complimentary aperitif sent to us at the bar from the kitchen.
The tiny bar was packed, and by the time we made our way to our table, so was the main dining room of Nightbird. One of the downside to the simple decor of the room (save for a few owl statues hidden throughout) is the loud ambient noise.
The menu, printed in a hand-written script, changes every week. You can do a wine pairing for $65, but I simply went with an Oregon pinot noir ($16) for my meal. The five courses are supplemented with a few treats before and after the meal, including an amuse bouche of quail egg presented in a nest made of fried shallots. The pronounced flavor of the accompanying sauce previewed the well-seasoned dishes that Alter put together in her fixed menu.
A starter of chickpea, English pea, and scallop in a clear soup was a lovely signal of spring time, with a light broth that accentuated the peas and scallop. Then a French white asparagus dish was elevated with a scoop of caviar, and I enjoyed the slightly al dente texture of the white asparagus stalks.
The favorite dish at our table was the rabbit course, which was made into a roulade and served with smokey grits, lardo and nasturtium. The rabbit roulade was nicely made, and the savory grits was an excellent foil to bring flavor to every bite.
A slice of dry aged beef “Jorge cut” was also perfectly cooked, served with ramps and meaty foraged maitake mushrooms.
What is probably a weakness in what’s otherwise a solid and well-thought-out menu is the dessert phase. An intermediate offering of a simple scoop of ice cream was a nice palate cleanser to the main dessert course of sesame cake with matcha ice cream and pixie tangerine. But the sesame cake course seemed pretty standard and not necessarily creative, and just seemed like a more elaborate version of what was served right before.
Still, it was tasty and pleasing. The sesame flavor give me a bit of childhood nostalgia since it was my Dad’s favorite flavor as well.
The last bite
With so many tasting menus in town, it’s hard to standout and carve your own course. But Alter’s Nightbird seems to be making a difference, not necessarily in plating but in flavor. The midpoint pricing allows this to be a more affordable spot for a special meal, and I look forward to seeing how Alter grows in her own space.
The rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Nightbird, 330 Gough St., San Francisco. PH: 415.829.7565. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. Reservations recommended. Major credit cards accepted. 16% service charge added to final check. www.nightbirdrestaurant.com
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