Sufferin' Succotash

Exposure to mediocre fare turns our critic philosophical

Once I was at a book reading of two restaurant critics, writers I had read and admired, and an audience member asked a question: "Do you ever get tired of eating in restaurants?" The two of them looked at each other and trilled almost in unison, Why, no, never, how could we, we have the best job in the world. As a murmur of happy appreciation and agreement ran through the crowd, I thought, You lying bastards, sometimes you're tired or you're not hungry or it's pouring rain or you have a headache or somebody cancels on you at the last minute and you can't find anyone else to go with you and you're dialing the phone in desperation to find a companion because you're on deadline and whether or not you want to go out to eat you have to go out to eat.

Another time when it is not the best job in the world is when you are out with friends and you want to show them a good time and the food isn't what you'd hoped and even though you know it's not your fault -- you are not in control -- you feel guilty and responsible and pretty sure they will have something else to do the next time you call to ask them out. (Not to mention you're racking your brains for somebody you can ask to accompany you to the second meal who won't hold you accountable for what you know will be less-than-stellar eats. I have a couple of friends down in L.A. who fill this particular bill because they don't really possess taste buds -- they have other talents -- but even so, there was one place I went to that shall be nameless, Smitty's, that was such a disaster I never could figure out whom to invite for a subsequent meal. Some of the people who were present at the first dinner would taunt me occasionally by saying, "I see you still haven't gotten around to reviewing Smitty's." Only they changed one of the letters in its name.)

Cathy, Jay, and I set out for dinner at Succotash, a new restaurant, anticipating "sophisticated American comfort food with a twist, under $12," as the place had described its fare. Fashions in food sometimes surprise me -- who can tell why an urge to eat spelt or tapas sweeps the nation? -- but after a year like we've had, the desire to jump into big creamy bowls of mashed potatoes or to toy with a plate of entirely compliant meatloaf should surprise no one. (Though on the whole I agree with the sage who said, "All food is comfort food.") I liked the sign Succotash sported of a bright-green lima bean, one of the main ingredients in the dish it's named after. I was less thrilled with the chilly reception we got at the door, both literally (the large barroom was icy) and figuratively -- the main dining room was full, and there was some confusion as to where to stash us before we were led into the (literal, figurative) Siberia of an additional narrow dining room (three booths, three tables) on the far side of the bar.

Cold Comfort: After a year like we've had, the urge to 
jump into big creamy bowls of mashed potatoes isn't 
surprising.
Anthony Pidgeon
Cold Comfort: After a year like we've had, the urge to jump into big creamy bowls of mashed potatoes isn't surprising.

Details

Peasant duck pie $7.95

Grilled pork loin $11.95

Garlic cheese fries $4.50

Succotash $3.50

Hot fudge sundae $5

Eggs benny $10.95

Niman Ranch burger $8.50

503-1100

Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m., for brunch Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Closed Monday

Reservations accepted for parties of six or more

Wheelchair accessible (but call first for elevator status)

Parking: easy

Muni: 27

Noise level: moderate

535 Florida (at 18th Street)

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Confusion again: A server came in, thought our table was ill-lit, promised to set a booth for us. Time passed. A couple was seated in our promised booth. I protested, mildly; we were moved to another booth, from which I could observe the wacky cloth constructions, like fabric stabiles, stretched between the booths, the fake greenery twined around some of the pipes overhead, and the changing colors of the plasma screens set into the far wall.

The room warmed up. I was surprised when I didn't find either meatloaf or mashed potatoes on the menu; in fact, none of the starters we ordered -- peasant duck pie, crispy shrimp and salmon cakes, and butternut squash risotto -- is a comfort-food cliché. I've never even heard of peasant duck pie, which turned out to be a pretty, carefully crimped, decidedly aristocratic puff-pastry disc that came with the unpeasanty garnishes of roasted shallots, arugula, and a cognac jus. The salad was nicely dressed, the pastry was flaky, but its filling was unrelievedly dark and salty. The shrimp and salmon cakes (with tiny diced vegetables) were unremarkable, and salty. Just as I was thinking that the cuisine would markedly improve if someone pried the salt shaker from the fingers of the chef, the risotto arrived, oddly tasteless despite being dotted with pistachio pesto and enriched with dry jack cheese. The best bites were those containing one of the fried sage leaves sprinkled about. It needed some salt to wake it up. (All three of us had a go at it. We ate the sage leaves and left most of the rest.)

Our main courses came: salmon for Cathy, pork loin for Jay, and "Nika's favorite chicken pie" for me. When I lifted off the top crust of my pie (well, the only crust; the filling was in an ovenproof dish), I was greeted by the singularly unappetizing sight of a congealed mass of white sauce as inviolate and unbroken as a newly frozen pond. I poked about; the gluey mush contained shreds of chicken and vegetables. Perhaps more heat would have released the bits of flesh and produce from their bondage. Maybe it would have looked better, à la Swanson's yellow, more custardy filling, but it would have tasted the same -- unrewarding. Nor was I comforted by the sturdy brick of mushroom and sage bread pudding, more bread than pudding, alongside Jay's equally sturdy, way-overcooked, stolid chunk of grilled pork loin, with its dark, salty, overreduced sauce, or by Cathy's grilled wild king salmon, usually one of my favorite fish, which tasted a trifle whiffy to me. Fortunately, Jay had ordered a side of garlic cheese fries: The potatoes were hand-cut, the cheese was blue, and the fries were compulsively edible. The side of buttery succotash -- corn, limas, diced tomato -- was very good, too.

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