For more than a decade, the king of the hill over in Bernal Heights, restaurant-wise, has been Liberty Café, one of those marvelous places that bloomed in the city’s neighborhoods after the 1989 earthquake. The quake, by damaging roads and bridges, made it more difficult for would-be suburban diners to get to the city center and its glittering array of possibilities; it also depressed the real estate market, so that a diaspora of young chefs could afford to open places of their own in the city’s many residential villages.
Given the flow of wealth into Bernal in recent years, it was probably inevitable that a pretender to Liberty Café’s crown would emerge and now one has, without benefit of earthquake. The restaurant is called Tinderbox, a "freestyle bistro" (per the menu card) opened by Ryan Russell and chef Blair Warsham toward the end of the summer on an easterly, sloping stretch of Cortland Avenue. The snug space is about as un-Liberty as could be; it’s spare and modern rather than neo-quaint: the walls are covered with recycled cork, the ceilings hung with light boxes of frosted glass, and the tables topped with burnished copper. There’s even a private dining room of sorts, a cozy nook (up a half flight of stairs) that resembles the captain’s mess on some clipper ship of yesteryear.
Warsham’s food is also wildly un-Liberty-like. While both kitchens bow to the gods of the local and sustainable, Tinderbox’s ethos is one of bold innovation. Warsham stops short of festooning his dishes with foams and gelées but isn’t at all shy about unlikely combinations most of which (to perfect our theme of unlikeliness) work.
From the get-go, you are given notice of the restaurant’s bent for artful eccentricity. A basket of bread? Forget it: Your server brings you instead some popcorn, basted with a Thai-ish blend of coconut red curry, lemongrass, and galangal. You are a little wary at first but are quickly won over; the basket is soon emptied, and the server brings you another. (Extreme traditionalists will note that there is bread on the premises, and the staff will probably bring you some if you ask for it or your children insist.)
The menu offers a la carte and prix fixe options, but the latter $35 for any appetizer, any main course, and any dessert or a glass of house wine is too good a deal to pass up. The only excluded items are the ribeye steak, T-box tasting (a kind of appetizer sampler), and the lasagnette, a loose sandwich of saffron-chervil pasta leaves plumped out with either sautéed calamari ($15) or zucchini ($13) and dressed with a habit-forming sauce of fresh paprika pepper.
Some of the dishes, it must be said, are exemplars of austere virtue: a trio of whole grilled sardines ($11), say, on a bed of white-bean purée. Preserved Meyer lemon and thyme were said to lurk elsewhere on the plate, but what we noticed was the glistening plumpness of the fish, and that was what mattered. A rabbit hot pocket ($10) wasn’t quite austere, maybe, in its envelope of gold-fried pastry but was otherwise familiar despite the substitution of slightly exotic rabbit meat for something more quotidian, such as chicken. The halved hot pocket was plated with a luxuriantly glossy salsa verde and pitted castelvetrano (i.e. green) olives whose saltiness helped balance the blandness of the underseasoned rabbit meat.
Beets and figs, together on the same plate? A nightmare scenario for the beet-and-fig-hater, but the combination ($9) beet coins laid atop fig coins and drizzled with beet vinaigrette turned out to be surprisingly tasty, with an unusual harmony between the sharp sweetness of the figs and the earthy richness of the beets. Was the walnut blue cheese popper, a knobbly golf ball like a leftover from a caterer’s tray at some holiday party, necessary, or just an attempt at comic relief?
The only high-invention dish I came away with doubts about was the grilled avocado cutlet ($17). This turned out to the pitted, peeled halves of a whole avocado, grilled to a light char and filled with lightly caramelized cucumber dice. On the other side of the plate sat a beautifully browned risotto cake whose inner layer consisted of cojita and avocado cream, which lent the cake some creamy weight but made only a tenuous connection to the cutlet itself. As for the cutlet: Why grill a ripe avocado? Perhaps the thinking was that, since the grill benefits many a vegetable many a fruit too it would benefit the avocado. But this calculation overlooked the law of unintended consequences. A ripe avocado is already soft and doesn’t need grilling to make it softer, and it has an appealing butteriness that isn’t enhanced by grill char, no matter how pretty such char might be to the eye. A main dish concocted from avocado is a wonderful idea, but this dish isn’t it; the chef is too much with us.
Desserts, on the other hand, tend toward the extraordinary. A trio of fresh-doughnut-like raspberry beignets ($7) was simplicity itself. But a cannolo ($7) dribbled forth almond cream inflected with black pepper, and was plated amid reflecting pools of strawberry and basil oils. And a Kaffir lime panna cotta ($7), presented in what might have been a dog’s water dish as conceived by some designer in Milan, was all the more amazing an engulfing denseness of cream, a bright muted acidity like filtered sunshine for being a last-minute replacement to the scheduled star, a basil version. The sole holdover detail was the little chunk of honeycomb on top the golden king of that particular hill.
Dinner: Mon.Thurs. and Sun., 5:3010 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 5:3011 p.m.
803 Cortland, SF
Beer and wine
Surprisingly not too noisy
Wheelchair accessible *