UPDATE: This restaurant announced it will close its doors at the end of July 2015.
The story: Husband-and-wife duo chefs Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani made a name for themselves with their popular Terra restaurant in St. Helena and the elegant Ame in the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco. Now they’ve opened a casual French bistro called Urchin Bistrot in the food hotspot Mission District and in the very spot that launched the empire of Charles Phan’s Slanted Door.
Why I went: I love sea urchin, also known as uni in Japanese, known for its somewhat custard-like texture and briny flavor. So I definitely wanted to try a restaurant named after this delicacy of the sea. I recruited my usual food blogging dining partners Sandy of Foodhoe’s Foraging and Brenda of Bites and Bourbon. (Our other regular sidekick, Christina of East Bay Dish, sat out this time because she’s not a fan of the texture of uni. Sea urchin has a hate-it-or-love-it-fan club. Definitely an acquired taste.)
The vibe: A bit French, a touch eclectic with a sketch mural, and a bit contemporary. When we went, it wasn’t as crowded as other Mission restaurants but a lot of people walking by looked in with curiosity.
The menu: Several dishes feature sea urchin, such as the signature deviled egg (called Egg to the Third Power because of the addition of caviar and sea urchin) and spaghettini with sea urchin ($22). But there are other rich dishes like duck liver and a “Hiro Sandwich” featuring bone marrow. Of course, I shied away from these dishes but that didn’t stop Sandy and Brenda, who went on to order several of these dishes. I mostly focused on the spaghettini and creamy and filling radicchio salad ($11) with anchovy. (But you get the benefit of the photos of Sandy and Brenda’s parade-of-food-that-Ben won’t eat.)
The booze: A full bar with specialty cocktails and a wine list emphasizing California and French wine. I tried a French Malbec for $8.
My favorite dish: Urchin Bistrot’s baked mussels ($9) gives you the flavor of escargot with its escargot butter but without the chewy snails. It’s a pretty dish with orange and green in each compartment of the escargot plate. The mussels themselves were quite small, but the funky flavor of escargot combined with mussels was unique and amazing with the toasted French bread. The second runner up is the signature Egg Cube deviled egg ($6), even though the caviar looked more like trout roe than tradition caviar. Still, the creamy egg with creamy uni and briny roe was like a jewel of flavor.
Insider tip: While there’s a lot of buzz about the Hiro Sandwich ($18), it’s more of an open-faced sandwich. Really no way you can eat the marrow bone and meatballs cleanly without a lot of work removing the parts and mushing them together against the toasted bread. Sandy and Brenda basically picked apart the various ingredients, and washed it all down with the accompanying French fries.
The last bite: Urchin Bistrot is riding the current wave of uni love, but other dishes can also be satisfying if you’re into rich food. The spaghettini had too much butter flavor for me, so its symbolic of how several dishes needed a restrained hand to allow it to shine. Still, I can’t resist a restaurant who shares the uni love.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Urchin Bistrot, 584 Valencia St., San Francisco. PH: 415.861.1844. Open daily for dinner, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m (till 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). Reservations, major credit cards accepted. urchinbistrot.com
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