Kookez looks like a name from The Epic of Gilgamesh, or perhaps the name of some lost city in ancient Persia — near Shiraz? — but really it’s a kind of phonetic or spoof spelling. Hint: Resist the urge, almost irresistible in this city, to see the word kook; remember that we deal in food and restaurants here and visualize … cookies! (No, not whirled peas.) For Kookez Café is, indeed, in part about cookies; they are the pride of founder, owner, and baker Lynn Marie Presley, and a selection of them, along with other tempting baked goods, is on display in a glass case just inside the entryway.
But Kookez is about more than cookies. It is the successor to the long-running and successful Miss Millie’s (recently decamped to the East Bay) and accordingly has inherited the pole position in Noe Valley’s busy weekend brunch derby. It is also a cozy evening spot, serving "coast to coast" American comfort-food dishes — many with a decidedly Southern accent — in as appealingly old-fashioned a setting as you’re likely to find around town. The look is that of some venerable, family-run café on a narrow lane in Paris or London: lots of warm wood, yellowish wall lamps, snug booths, and a small garden in the rear whose charms are, thus far in this indescribably dreary spring, hypothetical. Those with long memories will recall that the space, before becoming Miss Millie’s, belonged to a coffeehouse named Meat Market, which took its name from the butcher shop that once occupied the premises.
An overhead rail for hanging split carcasses is still mounted from the ceiling just in front of the small exhibition kitchen, where the chef, Amir, goes about his business. When Miss Millie’s opened, in the mid-1990s, the original menu was vegetarian, and the rail was left in place as an ironic reminder, a kind of memento mori for meat eaters, or maybe non–meat eaters. But Miss Millie’s later expanded beyond meatless offerings as the neighborhood changed, and as Kookez picks up the baton, the neighborhood continues to change.
Noe Valley is known as the city’s "baby belt," and really you can’t go a block without encountering a baby stroller, a nanny, a pack of tots, or a young father carrying an infant in some kind of chest sling. The Kookez brain trust is on the case; in addition to the cookies, the restaurant offers a kids’ menu (cupcakes included), the waitstaff seems unfazed by strollers zooming to and fro inside, and the cards of fare are laminated. I understand the precautionary nature of taking this last step, since children do have a way of spilling, scattering, smearing, and otherwise making messes with their food. At the same time, the menu card entombed in plastic does summon for some of us the ghosts of forgettable meals in chain restaurants near freeways at the outskirts of cookie-cutter cities in the heart of the heart of the country.
For the most part, Kookez pulls off its Comfort Food Nation conceit pretty nicely. The familiar stuff is the best: a bowl of New England clam chowder weighted with potatoes and bacon and heady with black pepper ($4.95); a chicken pot pie ($10.95) with a lovely golden pastry crust and a pea-rich stuffing; an excellent hamburger ($8.50), subtly swabbed with chipotle aioli and served with a stack of garlicky home fries in need of but a sprinkle of salt to come to attention; an herb-roasted half chicken ($12.50), tender and moist and plated with garlic mashed potatoes (under- and perhaps unsalted) and sautéed zucchini.
The chilled tomato tower ($7.75) — basically a napoleon, layers of red and gold tomato slices buffered by disks of mozzarella and seasoned with basil and balsamic vinegar — would be a lovely dish in summer, when the tomatoes are soft, juicy, and deeply flavored. At the end of winter, one tastes mainly the chill. The mango quesadilla ($7.50) is a worthy attempt to dress up a possibly overfamiliar friend; the decorations include a nippy blend of jack and brie cheeses, the aforementioned mango, and slices of strawberry on top. The strawberry slices looked a little forlorn on the golden half disk, as if the door to a party had been shut in their faces and they were left to pace around outside. At the same time, their presence did suggest not just seasonality but the possibility of some clever innovation: How about pureeing them with some garlic, cilantro, cayenne, and lime juice into a kind of spring salsa?
One of the best of the Southern-inflected dishes is the bayou butter-BQ dippin’ shrimp ($21.50), eight or nine big sautéed prawns accompanied by three lengths of grilled fresh okra — a surprisingly appealing bit of exotica — and not one but two dipping sauces: a peppery bourbon-butter number and a fruity-sharp jam of ginger and chilis that’s reminiscent of something you might be served with pot stickers. I would say this dish is well worth its sticker price, while noting that the sticker price is slightly lofty for a neighborhood joint. And it isn’t alone in being on the high side of $20; two other dishes also wander above the tree line, while several more are in the upper teens. But … this is the new Noe Valley, the Beverly Hills of the Googleocracy.
This can be a depressing line of contemplation, and a ready antidote is the infantile pleasure of dessert: a slice of rich amaretto cheesecake ($7.95), say, with blood orange sorbet. Or just a cookie — maybe chocolate chip ($1.50) — if you’re not nuts about such a rich finish. SFBG
Dinner: Wed.–Sat., 5:30–9:30 p.m.; Sun., 5–9 p.m.
Brunch: Sat.–Sun., 9 a.m.–2 p.m.
4123 24th St., SF
Beer and wine