*Hold on to your hats folks, you’re in for a rather lengthy post (we promise it’s worth it!). Though State Bird Provisions is not on the 2011 Big Eat List, it is on the 2013 list for the State Bird with Provisions dish.*
Though we eat at a lot of different restaurants, we don’t often target ones in the upper echelon of the culinary industry. Though we’d love to go to your French Laundrys, elBullis (now closed), or Nomas, they seem almost unattainable. Whether it’s the cost, the difficulty of getting a table, or just their reputation, the best restaurants in the world don’t seem very approachable. They’re the type of places you may daydream about, but never really make any real attempt to go. However, when we heard that State Bird Provisions in SF was having a soft opening that was first come, first served, we thought “Hell, let’s give it a shot”.
So we do need to give this story a little more context. First off, State Bird Provisions is fairly new to the scene (about 2 years), but has already won the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant, been declared in the top 10 restaurants in the world by Zagat, and named Best New Restaurant by Bon Appetit as well. As you can see, the accolades are there, but the restaurant itself has stayed pretty humble. It’s not in a “prime” location, there aren’t valets, no wine captains to be seen, and you don’t need to pawn your jewelry to cover the check.
So we showed up an hour before service started, but as you can see some other people had the same idea (good thing we did too, cause after about 20 minutes the line had doubled). When the doors opened they sat the first round of customers and took names and numbers for the second round (which we were in, but we were willing to wait). Once we got the call we hurried back and readied ourself for a gastronomic adventure. The restaurant is small and simple in a functional way. It’s not that it lacks style, it just seems stylishly practical. It’s best design draw is the kitchen, which as you can see is proudly put on display through the front windows of the restaurant.
If you wanted to get deep you could say that this positioning is a representation of the mentality of the restaurant. Focus on the food first and foremost and don’t worry about the other frills that often come with other high end (read: snooty) establishments. Of course, the reason could easily be that it’s the only place the kitchen could fit, and our attempt at a metaphor is just in our heads. Who knows, we aren’t exactly specialists here. Anyways, let’s get back on track, we have a lot to cover here. The kitchen is beautiful, looking almost like a workshop or laboratory, covered in small pots and beakers filled with exotic ingredients. The chefs work quickly and precisely and it’s pretty entertaining just to gawk at them as they prep and create your food.
The staff is the kind we thoroughly enjoy. Casual but attentive, very nice but not fake, extremely knowledgable, and willing to crack a smile at our dumb jokes. We had the chance to chat with the GM Ryan Anderson outside the restaurant after our meal and he just confirmed our suspicions that everyone that works there is pretty awesome (not only was he humble, but he had the type of honest enthusiasm about his work that is impossible to fake). State Bird’s style of serving is Dim Sum (roughly half the items you can order off the menu, while the other half is brought around on trays and carts and you decide what dishes you want). We’ve always loved this way of eating but usually only see it in Chinese cuisine or some sushi spots.
So we’re just going to come out and admit we ate a boatload of food that night. It’s going to be easier to just list the dishes and then go over them after (in our defense these are smaller dishes, but it’s still a lot):
- raw oyster with spicy kohlrabi kraut & sesame
- lobster ‘salsa’ salad
- wild coho salmon tartare with fermented turnips
- steak tartare with jimmy nardellos
- pork belly plum salad
- hamachi-avocado & seaweed cracker
- garlic bread with burrata
- smoked sturgeon ‘everything’ pancake, beet & horseradish condiment
- CA state bird with provisions
- chocolate macaron ‘ice cream’ sandwich, curried pecan streusel
First off, this Dim Sum is not the type you’ll find at your local restaurant. This is grown-ass Dim Sum. This Dim Sum does not mess around so you better be ready for combat cause it will mess you up. Each tray and cart wheeled by makes your eyes bug out. The ordering process was a bit of a blur, but we definitely remember the food enough to carry on.
We started things off by being presented with the seafood cart (seen in the first pic of the post). We decided to be strong and start slow, then promptly broke down and ordered everything on the cart. This included the oysters, the lobster, and the salmon. The oysters were fresh with a nice spicy smokiness to them; a great way to start off a meal. Both the lobster and salmon were light and refreshing as well. To be honest, at this point we were still unsure if the place would live up to the hype, and while the seafood was good, it wasn’t making us see stars. Of the two we liked the salmon better. It had a very interesting combination of flavors that were nicely enhanced by the turnip. Still, we were both wondering if maybe we had built things up too much and were just in for a good meal, but not a great one. Turns out we were wrong, like 2 + 2 = 0 type of wrong. Turns out the seafood was just the setup for the consecutive knock out punches that the forthcoming dishes would deliver.
Our next wave of food included the steak tartare, pork belly, and the hamachi avocado cracker. The steak was very rich and was accompanied by thick cut potato chips. The chips seemed like an interesting addition at first glance but proved to add a great texture and saltiness to the meat. The pork belly was just straight up ridiculous. You may know that we’re biased towards pork belly, but this is something else. They fry up chunks of pork belly and toss them in a lime chili sauce with fresh mint, satsuma plum, and sliced jalapeños. The combination of sweet, spicy, tangy and porky (is porky a flavor?) is almost too much to handle. If you thought the pork was good, the hamachi avocado was right there with it. A nice thick seaweed cracker was topped with fresh hamachi, avocado cream, sesame, radish, and some other important ingredients that we honestly can’t recall. Where the pork was in your face delicious, the hamachi gently played with our tastebuds with a symphony of flavors. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed a piece of sushi or sashimi would place this on their top 10.
For the last round we had the state bird with provisions, garlic bread with burrata, and the “everything” pancake, and finally the chocolate macaron ice cream sandwich. The state bird was a breaded and fried quail (we didn’t know that was the state bird!) and set atop onions stewed in lemon and rosemary. The balance between the dark richness of the bird and the tart, almost pickled flavor of the onions surprised us with how good it was.
The garlic bread was a simple dish, with a knotted sourdoughish bread roll topped with fresh burrata. The further you got inside the knot the moister and tastier it got. Now we get to the “everthing” pancake, which was probably the dish that really made our jaw drop. This is not a traditional pancake and you will find no syrup nearby. The “pancake” was quite thick and had a consistency similar to a potato pancake. It was covered in poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and possibly more. Stacked on top were thick slices of smoked sturgeon topped with some frisee, fried leeks and fennel. The pancake was accompanied by a beet puree and a horseradish creme (note: we are re-creating some of these dishes by memory so we may have got a few ingredients wrong, lo siento). When you combine all these ingredients and flavors together it creates what we can honestly say is one of the most unique dishes we’ve ever had. The closest thing we could liken it to would be having the best everything bagel you’ve ever tasted with smoked fish and five more layers of amazingness. We’re not quite sure what else to say about this dish. These are all flavors we have had before but never together in this way (we kinda wish we hadn’t already used the word symphony to describe the hamachi because we want to use it again here!).
Just when we thought we couldn’t fit any more, dessert came in the form of an ice cream sandwich tower with god knows what in it, topped with toasted pumpkin seeds and plums. Good Lord, let’s just say that for the next five minutes we were completely silent (rare for us) as we just slowly ate what was the perfect ending to an amazing dinner.
I think you can tell where this is going, but yes, go to State Bird. In fact, stop reading this and go right now. No? Ok, I guess that’s a lot to ask.
We’ve always hated the term “food experience” as it sounds kinda corny, but there’s really no other way to describe the meal. What’s so great is that while the food is completely unique and new, it’s very approachable. These are ingredients you mostly know and that you’ve had before in your life, just never at this level or in these combinations. We want to say we are at a loss for words, (though if you’ve read this far into this lengthy post, you know that’s not true) because try as we might we won’t be able to fully describe the meal or the dishes. We were kinda dubious that the place would live up to it’s growing reputation but we were entirely proved wrong. State Bird completely nails what makes a great dining experience; amazing food and quality people preparing and serving it. We can chalk this up as one of the best meals of our life and we hope you get the chance to try it some day.
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