SF Chronicle Doc Ricketts harmonizes food and entertainment
Nov 23, 2014 Published in San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco is a city of paradoxes. We honor tradition, but we aren’t afraid to break it. We’re known as a petri dish for innovation — born out of our sometimes quirky history — but we’re also about respecting the past, and you’ll find examples of that everywhere.
Few people, for example, know about Ed Ricketts, but this marine biologist from Monterey held salons in his lab during the 1930s and 1940s and was a character in several of John Steinbeck’s books. His story inspired Christopher Burnett of Darwin Cafe when he took over an important space that straddles North Beach and Jackson Square.
With Justin Deering, formerly of 15 Romolo and Conduit, at the stove, they’ve created a multifaceted restaurant in the building that once housed the Purple Onion, the club that launched the careers of Phyllis Diller, the Kingston Trio, Robin Williams and many others.
The bare-bones subterranean room is now called Doc’s Lab, and the place is booked nightly with comedy, music or literary events, with much of the food coming from Doc Ricketts upstairs, with a separate entrance and an independent identity.
In the restaurant upstairs, large windows overlook Columbus Avenue and allow passersby to see the traditional wood bar, the hefty wood tables and the banquette along one wall. Many of Deering’s dishes incorporate a modern California approach, but he serves two audiences, and, throughout the night, waiters head downstairs to deliver well-charred hamburgers, fries, spiced nuts and other items from the menu.
Yet Burnett is savvy enough to know that he needed to distinguish the two venues. Hamburgers and booze may fuel the audience listening to the Foxtails Brigade or Doc’s Comedy Open Mic (every Monday), but Deering’s food draws an audience as well. So dining at Doc Ricketts is its own event.
The eight appetizers include albacore confit ($13), three generous chunks of tuna topped with strips of marinated celery and tender leaves served on white beans and a creamy tonnato sauce. Fluke crudo ($13) is spaced evenly around an oval bowl scattered with pomegranate seeds, chunks of cucumber, sprouts, shiso and a soy-based sauce that accentuates the sweeter qualities of the fish.
I initially avoided the celery root soup ($11), because it sounded like something I’d seen a dozen times before, but it turned out to be one of fall’s delights. The thick, smooth puree has an intense, earthy flavor offset by a burst of apples, a crunch of nuts and deep-fried cavalo nero leaves.
Many items sound familiar, including an excellent chicory salad with blue cheese, pears and walnuts ($9), and oysters served with mignonette (three for $10; six for $18).
Deering often adds his own interpretations, but they aren’t 100 percent successful. One appetizer features at least three kinds of cauliflower ($11) each prepared differently — roasted, warm, chilled, shaved and chunked — arranged separately on house-made vadouvan yogurt with sultana grapes. It was fine but needed a unifying element to make a culinary statement.
The even more expected charcuterie selection ($7.50 each; $24 for a tasting plate) also holds surprises because Deering has his own curing room. He creates a small ramekin of chicken liver mousse that’s as rich as foie gras, along with chunky duck rillettes and fatty head cheese.
The seven main courses include the hamburger — made with short ribs — and an even more substantial bavette steak with potato puree, mushrooms and Swiss chard ($26). The standout is roast chicken ($22) in a sherry sauce served with fingerling potatoes, broccolini and toast smeared with chicken liver mousse.
The pork chop ($26) is a close second. It’s sliced from the bone over spaetzle with a sauce balanced with whole-grain mustard and maple — rich and not too sweet. Branzino ($25) is an equally generous portion, with three fillets arranged on piles of quinoa, with wedges of fennel dolloped with milky kefir and puddles of foam. The dish speaks to the evolving bridge between the modern and the traditional.
However, coho salmon with Brussels sprouts, cipollini, mushrooms and amaranth ($24) was much like the cauliflower; each element was well handled but didn’t meld into a unified whole.
As is often the case in Bay Area restaurants, there’s a well-thought-out vegetarian main course ($22), and this one is as substantial as the steak: farro mounds with melted leeks on a puddle of carrot jus; whole baby carrots cooked to just tender add another visual and textural element.
Dessert includes a puff pastry square ($8) with poached pear, caramel, almonds and a showstopping peanut butter ice cream. Deering also creates a classic creme brulee with mixed berries ($8) and an ultra-rich chocolate cake with peanut butter ($8); it’s a touchstone for anyone who likes the combination of these two ingredients.
When it comes to the bar offerings, Charlie Brown and his crew have mastered the classics such as the Martinez ($9), Vieux Carre ($10) and an aged Negroni ($9). However, on one visit, the Hemingway Daiquiri ($9) with rum, grapefruit, lime and maraschino, seemed astringent and watery; we wondered if the maraschino had been left out. However, the waiter noticed we weren’t drinking it and let us order a different cocktail, turning what could have been a disappointment into an asset as well as showcasing the service.
On a later visit, I ordered the same drink, and the bartenders had reformulated the blend so it tasted as good as I remembered this classic.