Farm Fresh Verbena Opens in San Francisco
At first glance I imagined Verbena as a vegan’s heaven devoid of tasty animal fat. At second glance I noticed this new restaurant in the Russian Hill neighborhood was opened by the creators of Gather in Berkeley—a Michelin Bib Gourmand and Best California Restaurant in the Bay Area, according to SFgate’s poll.
I turned to my calendar to set a date with Verbena.
This exceptionally accomplished restaurant, very much omnivorous and firmly tied to the bounty of local organic and sustainable producers, serves creative California cuisine in a delightful setting of reclaimed polished wood, exposed brick, artisanal pottery dishes and sconces, and warm yellow light streaming from Edison lamps suspended from a high ceiling.
Some especially impressive features of the décor include a wall of lighted glass jars with house-made pickles, an original artwork of five panels “painted” with Lindencroft farm soil, a black walnut bar, and a heavy antique front door, allegedly 200 years old and previously belonging to some kind of temple.
To follow the allegory, Gather’s and Verbena’s awarding-winning chef Sean Baker is the high priest of farm-to-table fare.
Small plate format allows diners to pick, choose, and share most of the enticing items on the menu, where every dish has a creative twist and ingredients that are hard to imagine together but play very nicely.
On the night we dined, silvery sardine was cut into bite-size pieces, each placed atop cauliflower purée made with crème fraîche and horseradish. A side of potato chips—one per bite—added a crunch. Bright-red drops of steelhead roe took it a notch above, making the taste of this seemingly simple dish layered and complex.
The restaurant’s namesake, verbena, made an appearance in a dish of grilled carrots, unusually dressed and therefore strikingly beautiful. The humble, sweet roots were spiced with Aleppo peppers and covered with light-green foam made of smoked nettles, goat milk butter, and cashew purée.
It all started with cocktails though. As opposed to most of the dishes, identified by a simple one-word name, lavish libations at Verbena have poetic titles, such as Victory and Brightness! (gin, kina, lime, grapefruit shrub, jalapeño, orange bitters) and Regards to the East (bourbon, apple brandy, Barolo, cardamom, IPA).
Meaty King trumpet and crimini mushrooms were made fragrant and juicy with rich olive oil vinaigrette, a little celeriac on the side, and green lavage powder. Tender baby artichoke was adorned with pickled green tomato, toasted pine nuts, and black garlic sauce.
Assorted chicories (Belgian endive, escarole, radicchio) with pumpkin seed milk, enriched with slices of Asian pear and Fuyu persimmon, produced an exciting sort of salad, dressed, indeed, with pumpkin seeds and their milk. Duck meatballs were creatively smothered in black mole sauce and garnished with collards, hominy, and whey.
Even bread at Verbena is very special. The simple (exceedingly fresh, of course) Acme version is served on a small wooden board with house-made butter and scales of sea salt. The more sophisticated sprouted seed bread is accompanied by house-made goat cheese and sprinkled with colorful dehydrated beet powder.
The producer-focused wine list is supervised by Michael Ireland, who concentrates on food-friendly varietals coming from European and California vintners.
Our food was masterfully paired with Austrian 2012 Hirsch “Heilegenstein” Gruner Veltliner, Kamptal; Italian 2011 Girolamo Russo “a Rina” Etna, Sicily; Spanish 2005 Lopez de Heredia “Vina Cubillo” Crianza, Rioja; and French 2012 Andre Brunel Cotes-du-Rhone.
Larger plates at Verbena include Koji quail, exquisitely grilled to utmost tenderness and garnished with a medley of Sonoma grains and mushrooms, and delicate Asian-inspired beef rib in broth with bok choy, fish sauce Garum, and mint.
For dessert, we shared yet another amazing treat: molded Valrhona chocolate mousse with parsnip (!) ice cream, cocoa nibs’ brittle, and cranberry jelly. Heavenly!
Verbena is located at 2323 Polk Street in San Francisco, California. For more information and reservations, call (415) 441-2323.