By Anna Roth
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
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By Lou Bustamante
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South Beach, as a concept, was unknown to me until I was invited to the grand opening of a restaurant -- the Barking Dog? the Braying Mule? -- at the corner of Brannan and the Embarcadero 10 or 12 years ago. Pac Bell Park wasn't even a gleam in the contractor's retina back then, and the nearest palm tree was somewhere in Crissy Field. But nearby Rincon Annex had just gotten its zillion-dollar makeover, the dusty old warehouses were being gentrified into a new and less unkempt corporate frontier, and shady little South Park was sprouting restaurants redolent of Meyer lemons and Chilean sea bass. Hipness is a largely manufactured concept best spawned in as low-rent a setting as possible, and this unassuming pocket of picturesque phantoms nestled between SOMA, China Basin, and the bay was ripe with possibilities. Even on evening strolls through the district's then-empty streets and up a ghostly Embarcadero that had so long ago thrummed with longshoremen, there was an unquestionable hum to the ozone. The moon-glistening water and arching bridgework didn't hurt any.
Now all roads lead to South Beach and its well-wired, streetcar-limned universe, even if it lacks the century or so of domestic tradition claimed by its Italianate namesake to the north. This prime waterfront property is burbling with froufrou and high spirits. And on the exact spot where the Chirping Wombat introduced at least one person to the potentialities south and east of the Ferry Building, LiveFire caters to the neighborhood's white-collared masses with grilled ahi, portobello mushrooms, and other nourishment endemic to the species.
The best way to get there is to walk down the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building and soak in the briny ambience that for almost a decade now has been gloriously bereft of monolithic freeway. Unfortunately, the ship traffic that created so much of San Francisco's bustling, cosmopolitan character has departed as well, but there are informative public artworks placed along the thoroughfare that pay tribute to the southern waterfront's bygone shipwrights, bridge-builders, and dockworkers. In late afternoon, just after the midsummer fog breaks but before the sun drops below the downtown skyscrapers, strollers and roller skaters and Giants-capped couples headed for a night game create a pleasant mosaic of urban humanity.
House-made potato chips: $5
Golden Gate pizzetta: $7
Braised short ribs: $14
Filet mignon: $27
St. Supery sauvignon blanc, bottle: $19
You can continue to savor the ambience from a seat in LiveFire's bar, which has the best waterfront views in the restaurant. There's a menu featuring salads, sandwiches, pizzettas, and other nibbles that's available all day long, while the bar back is lined with vats of vodka absorbing such vegetable matter as pineapple, vanilla bean, and three varieties of pepper, the building blocks of several house cocktails. I tried the LiveFire Martini, a concoction of pineapple- and three-berry-infused vodkas that tasted exactly like Hawaiian Punch. Nevertheless, the bar's a friendly spot abuzz with Jeff Kent stat chat where, despite the prevalence of such intoxicants, the guy on the next stool is likely to be sipping a scotch and soda.
The relaxed feeling carries over into the dining areas. Although it looks like another upscale bastion of California cuisinery, with its stone and sheet metal accents and open kitchen, LiveFire is too much of a ballpark-oriented eatery to preclude windbreaker-attired fans and happy, banner-sprouting families. (You don't see too many kids in highchairs at Lapis up the street.) The place is a variation on those Hayes Valley venues that fill up an hour or so before the ballet or the opera; at LiveFire, the staff determines if you're going to the game and, if you are, gets you your order with alacrity; if you aren't, you've got the place to yourself after 7 o'clock.
The menu, which initially featured several oblique hints of the transglobal, has evolved since the restaurant's grand opening a couple of months ago, with salmon yakitori skewers and star fruit cannoli giving way to house-made potato chips and lemon chiffon cake. (You can even get a hot dog at the bar.) Chef/ owner Fred Halpert, whose other restaurants include Brava Terrace in St. Helena and another LiveFire in Yountville, brought the potato chip idea from his casual Wine Country eateries into this more urban setting, and the chips are indeed the perfect ballpark snack, San Francisco style: Hot from the kitchen and bursting with honest- to-God potato flavor, they're strewn with a chunky (but not too garlicky) pesto sauce and chunks of good, pungent Danish blue cheese. (I never said the chips were healthy.) But the now-departed salmon skewers usurped by the chips were tasty as well, moist and smoky from the wood-burning cooking source that gives the restaurant its name and with a memorable cucumber-pickled ginger salad as its spiky foil. Apparently, they may make the occasional menu reappearance.
There are four pizzettas available from the wood-burning oven. They're overlaid with pecorino, white truffle oil, goat cheese, and suchlike; the Golden Gate tops its soft, warm crust with a rich yet invigorating array of provolone, fresh young garlic, sweet-smoky pancetta, and bittersweet grilled radicchio. The whole roasted tai snapper, juicy and delicate, is jazzed up with sweet, silky caramelized tomatoes and a bright vermouth reduction, although we were disappointed that the fish wasn't "boned tableside,"as promised in the menu.