Ordinarily one would be distressed, though these days hardly surprised, by the news that a farmers market in the midst of the city was being displaced by a brand-new building full of luxury condos, with a fancy restaurant on the ground floor. Although farmers markets, like coyotes, have been modestly flourishing in the city of late, they are still a delicate species whose natural habitat often parking lots invites predation by developers. Then there is the horror of contemporary architecture, which reflects, simultaneously, our fetish for the industrial and our indifference to the touch of the human hand, the small but artful detail that gives warmth and life to big buildings with expansive spaces. Without that touch, too many of our just-raised edifices are nothing more than triumphal and simplistic tombs made of concrete, steel, and glass.
The Fillmore farmers market began in the spring of 2003, in a parking lot at the corner of Fillmore and Eddy, and was of particular value not least because it brought high-quality fresh produce at reasonable prices to one of the city’s less golden neighborhoods. One chilly evening a few weeks ago, I found myself at that corner and was completely disoriented; a huge building had sprung up in the parking lot, like a giant mushroom after an autumn rain, and the few blocks of Fillmore below Geary seemed more than ever like one of Manhattan’s canyons, with the valets at Yoshi’s smiling and motioning to passersby like those guys who try to lure people into girlie shows in North Beach.
We weren’t on our way to Yoshi’s, as it happened, but to 1300 on Fillmore, a quietly glamorous new restaurant that brings a touch of Mecca SFlike magic to a historic, jazz-inflected neighborhood. (Meantime, to end the suspense, if any: the farmers market, though displaced, survives nearby, at Steiner and O’Farrell.) Although the restaurant keeps a poker face to the street just a succession of smoked-glass panels, like a display of the world’s biggest sunglasses its L-shaped interior is both spacious and clubby. A wealth of wood glows with warmth under the halogen spot lamps, while all of those windows are hung with tall, gauzy draperies, ready to billow in a breeze that will never blow through.
If we were somewhere in the South, the absence of a breeze would grow oppressive at a point well before high summer, and we would stomp our feet and demand mint juleps or iced tea. But we’re here, in our blue state and ice blue city, so we must make do with the Southern touches chef and owner David Lawrence brings to his sophisticated menu, beginning with the triangles of corn bread that quickly appear at the table, ready to be spread with butter or, for those with a bit of derring-do, pepper jelly, or best of all, with both.
The smaller courses range from homey to urbane. An example of the first is a plate of hush puppies ($13), half a dozen peeled shrimp dipped in a peppery batter, deep-fried, and presented in a crock with a side pot of ancho chile rémoulade. The cosmopolite, tempted by but wary of deep-frying, might let his companion order this dish, and maybe the fat fries too ($6), with homemade ketchup, for overkill, while choosing for himself the oyster bisque ($9) classy, but tasting at least as much of cream as of oysters or the sautéed wild mushrooms ($9) seated on a bed of white polenta. These last two dishes were brought to us slightly underseasoned, but a handsome little tray of salt and ground pepper was already on the table, which made it easy for us to take corrective action and implied we were meant to.
Undersalting was a more serious issue with the maple-glazed beef short rib ($28), a thick disk of meat with a bit of bone sticking out of the middle. It looked like a wheel that had flown off a Weber kettle. We could taste the maple on the surface of the meat, which was fork tender and moist, but once we penetrated to the interior of the great disk, we found ourselves in dim lighting indeed. The beef’s enveloping sidekicks fried onion rings on top, mashed potatoes underneath were good but peripheral in every sense.
Better was arctic char ($25), a salmonlike fish presented as a breaded and crisped fillet, almost perfectly square, nested atop a tasty hash of roasted brussels sprouts, fingerling potatoes, bits of lobster, and balsamic gastrique. I didn’t detect much Southern influence, but the flavors and textures were beautifully integrated and the portion size was ideal, especially with the wheel of beef looming across the table.
If the savory courses seem as much Pacific as Gulf Coast, the dessert menu speaks with an unmistakable drawl. There are first-rate beignets ($8), three doughnut torpedoes lightly dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar and ready for dunking into either warm chocolate sauce or coffee foam, which had a root-beerish fizz along with a hint of chicory: New Orleans coffee, we guessed. A gingerbread napoleon ($8), meanwhile, looked "like the de Young Museum," according to a tablemate with whom I’d been pleasurably commiserating about the de Young Museum. At least the napoleon an elaborate modernist construct of wafers, gingerbread pudding, whipped cream, and a square of apple-caramel jelly was edible, as opposed to bulletproof.
Service: attentive if slightly erratic (some dishes to the wrong people). These are usually teething troubles, and the best thing about teething troubles is that you outgrow them to have a long run, which you’re pretty sure you will. You’re jazzed. *
1300 ON FILLMORE
Daily, 511 p.m.
1300 Fillmore, SF