There are certain doors one steps through only every quarter-century or so, and for me one such door is located in the heart of the heart of the Castro, at 4063 18th St. I’ve been up and down that hyperkinetic block many times across the intervening years, but the last time I actually set foot in the door, it belonged to a restaurant called the Neon Chicken, which served some of the better food in the Castro. Here I am making what in some circles is called a "left-handed compliment."
At the Neon Chicken, lo these many years ago, I think I actually had chicken coq au vin, maybe and it was pretty good, probably. But I was young and in the company of august people and quite goggle-eyed at the whole experience. Someone else paid, and this too was quite nice. But … times change. Once-goggly eyes take on a more watchful cast. One picks up the check now and then. And restaurants come and go.
Before Eureka Restaurant and Lounge opened in the Neon Chicken’s old haunt toward the end of October, the most recent inhabitant at the address was the Red Grill (on the main floor), with the Whisky Lounge upstairs. I meant to go but never quite made it. Before that it was Castro Hibachi, and I never meant to go; before that, something else. Yes, we seem to be talking about one of those spaces, and the Neon Chicken’s long run looks, in retrospect, most impressive.
If Eureka comes up with a winning alchemy, it will involve the fusing of the Neon Chicken legacy with the 21st-century-savvy of the Chenery Park people John Bedard and Joseph Kowal, along with chefs Richard Rosen and Gaines Dobbins whose new baby Eureka is. And Chenery Park, we should recall, has Boulevard bloodlines; its chefs both cooked at that Nancy Oakesrun institution on the Embarcadero, as well as at her earlier L’Avenue, in the avenues.
The Boulevard style, of full-blooded American cooking, is very much on display at Eureka. The grilled T-bone pork chop ($24) alone tells us this. The piece of meat turned out to be as big as my hand and twice as thick, and it was plated with halves of baked apple, a small pool of jus, and a handful of potato galettes protruding from a pat of mashed potatoes like pins from a pin cushion. Although I find the pairing of pork with fruit to be in the neighborhood of cliché, pork and apples is a classic American combination of autumn, for autumn means apples and, historically, hog slaughtering too costly to keep the animals fed through the winter.
Although the menu does not emphasize little plates and starters, there is no lack of them. They tend to be standards rather than exercises in innovation, but they are ably executed. French onion soup ($9) has the sweetness of slow-cooked onions and the heft of beef broth; it’s topped with a raft of country bread and melted cheese. Tomato crostini ($8) take a bit of a sharp twist from dabs of sheep’s milk ricotta. A salad of roasted red and gold beets ($10) is assembled around a crottin of goat cheese crusted with walnuts an old friend from the ’80s. Among the best of the small choices is the plate of house-made boudin blanc ($12), lengths of white sausage fragrant with caraway seed (as in rye bread) and arranged atop slivers of roasted red bell and poblano peppers.
The prices might lead you to think that these small plates are on the large size, verging on small-main-course status. But that is not the case. They are ordinary in scale, not in cost. If you want a big plate of food, you will want one of the main courses, and you will pay accordingly more than $20 for all of them. The one exception we found on our visits was a loose-leaf lasagna, stuffed with mascarpone and sauced with wild mushroom, for $16, or $9 for an appetizer portion.
I liked the pork chop it was cooked medium rare and so remained juicy and was awed at its Neanderthal-worthy proportions, but I did think it cost about $10 too much. I was more impressed with a petrale sole roulade ($26) in which the filets were wrapped, California rollstyle, around a core of Dungeness crab meat and asparagus spears. The excellent fries on the side, presented with tarragon mayonnaise for dipping, were an added value, but even without them I would have thought the fish was pricey but probably worth it.
For a fledgling restaurant, service has already been polished to a high gloss. The host radiates the warmth of someone giving a private party, and table staff are both efficient and unobtrusive about replenishing water and bread (slices of simple baguette, still warm) and replacing used flatware. You can watch them come and go in the wall mirrors that girdle the small dining room in the rear, and have I ever been in a restaurant in a gay neighborhood that didn’t have some mirror action? I have been in plenty of restaurants, in all sorts of neighborhoods, that don’t offer Voss ($7), the Norwegian sparkling water (with sublimely fine bubbles and presented in a spectacular, tall cylinder of clear glass) said to be favored by Madonna. I did not catch a glimpse of her in the mirrors nor in the lounge upstairs, but as Eureka’s vogue grows, she is bound to find it sooner or later. *
EUREKA RESTAURANT AND LOUNGE
Dinner: Tues.Thurs., 610 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 611 p.m.; Sun., 59 p.m.
4063 18th St., SF
First floor wheelchair accessible