Pub date May 20, 2008

› paulr@sfbg.com

Spork’s sporks are surprisingly elegant utensils, considering that the word itself is lovably ugly, like a dog with a crumpled face, hopelessly short legs, and/or absurdly wrinkly skin — and considering that the thing itself, a spoon with a clipped mustache of fork tines, is no lovelier. The spork might be the apotheosis of Southern-fried American cheesiness; it’s easy to picture one replacing the pitchfork in a redraw of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, with Homer Simpson as the farmer. But if your spork is made of handsome stainless steel and has a nice weighty feel in your hand, you have probably drifted into Spork, a Mission restaurant that opened about a year ago in a tired Kentucky Fried Chicken space on Valencia, and you are almost certainly not Homer Simpson, though you might be ravenous.

The KFC was incongruous to the point of camp, and I never saw anybody in it despite my frequent visits to Valencia Cyclery across the street to have broken spokes replaced. Like the Days Inn near the symphony hall, it was a remnant of an earlier time and — in the case of KFC, a greasier one. The Sporkers (led by chef-owner Bruce Binn, whose distinguished vita includes stints at Delfina, Postrio, and Bix) are well aware of the past and, in a series of clever moves, have simultaneously embraced and distanced themselves from it. The interior decor of the restaurant incorporates bits of the previous occupant’s design; the stump of an old venting hood has been turned into a handsome light fixture, while refrigerator cooling fans have been repositioned in a transom above an interior door. There are also plenty of booths along the window with a familiar fast-food angularity, but the color scheme — gray paint and blond wood — isn’t one you’d be likely to find in any fast-food restaurant in the country.

Since the restaurant’s mantra is "slow food in a fast food shell," we were not surprised to learn that the kitchen places a heavy emphasis on sustainability and locavorousness. All the seafood is wild and taken from well-managed fisheries; more than two-thirds of the restaurant’s waste is recycled or composted; and used cooking oil gets turned into biodiesel. Like a child determined not to repeat a parent’s mistakes, Spork corrects for the culinary sins of KFC about as much as it possibly can.

Yet Binn’s food isn’t at all precious or fussy. It’s hearty and vivid — a glimpse of what all-American food might look like in a better world, or at least a better America. There’s even a dish that comes with a spork: mussels and pork ($18), basically a plate of mussels steamed in an unnamed (but dark?) Belgian beer and plated with a slab of slow-roasted pork loin, some whole-wheat toasts dabbed with chipotle aïoli, and a substratum of asparagus. The spork in question is rather handsome; it’s a stainless-steel spoon with the fork tines subtly shaved into the far end of the bowl, like a grille, and more decorative than useful.

For deals on a menu, it’s hard to beat an item that costs $0. That’s the charge — right there, in print! — for Spork’s dinner roll, a tripartite, wonderfully soft bun sprinkled with crunchy sea salt and presented with a pat of whipped honey butter. They’ll bring you more than one, too (as many as you want, probably), but one is plenty for two people and more than satisfies the daily white-flour quota. Softness does have its price.

Given the fresh tartness of strawberries, it’s long surprised me that they aren’t used more as tomato substitutes, particularly in the spring, when such tomatoes as we find around here are coming from distant locales we don’t even want to know about. Binn makes a lovely little salad ($9) from organic strawberries; the slices are marinated in aged sherry and plated with effusions of wild arugula, almond slivers, a syrupy balsamic reduction, and a warm goat cheese fritter on top.

As if to offset the white-flour megadosings in the dinner rolls, the kitchen serves an Alaskan halibut fillet (at $24 the priciest dish on the menu) on the slope of a farro hillock. Farro is an ancient wheatberry much used by the Roman legions; it’s quite similar to barley but different enough from both ordinary wheat and barley to be nutritionally valuable, not to mention tasty, especially when cooked with leek. (Although farro is a whole grain, Binn’s grains were plump and fluffy, which mystified and impressed me until I made my own a few nights later, having first soaked the farro overnight, and voilà.) Apart from the fish itself, sautéed to a golden tender-crispness, the plate held a royal flush of red-beet slices whose vivid, Burgundy-colored sweatings added some welcome color to a floe of fiery but wintry-white horseradish cream.

The Spork experience might be at its most quasi-Southern when your swift and friendly server, clothed in black, presents the dessert menu. Beignets and root beer floats? Elvis would like those, but he’d probably like "Elvis has left the building" ($6) even more. Despite its arty deconstructedness, it was a housemade peanut butter cup beside a blob of vanilla gelato beside a chain of banana slices, with caramel sauce underneath and salted peanuts scattered all around. All of it was good and swirled together nicely, but the peanut butter cup was quite spectacular. It had been warmed through in the oven to the point of melting, and its peanut butter filling was granular and (unlike the blindingly sweet commercial kind) not particularly sugary — a close relation of homemade peanut butter, which you can make in a food processor with good quality unsalted peanuts and some neutral vegetable oil as a binder. You could even scoop it out of the bowl with a spork, if you have one. *


Dinner: Mon.–Thurs., 6–10 p.m.

Fri.–Sat., 6–11 p.m.

Lunch: Tues.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.

1058 Valencia, SF

(415) 643-5000


Beer and wine


Loudish but bearable

Wheelchair accessible