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Country Meets Caribbean 

The Front Porch rocks with a homey yet sophisticated mash-up of flavors

Wednesday, Dec 6 2006
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A front porch is not something one generally expects on an urban dwelling, but San Francisco is the fortunate city where certain felicities of weather and architecture permit them. For the lucky who possess one, a porch is a treat for both them and us. An outdoor room where the inhabitants meet their neighbors halfway improves the neighborhood in the classic Jane Jacobs way: An eye on the street makes it homier, cozier, and safer, therefore happier. San Francisco's restaurant landscape is as varied as its residential one, not only in its diverse cuisines but also in their settings, whether palatial or divey. I especially cherish those places that transport you in locale or time as well as cooking: the noodle shop that is as steamy, noisy, and blunt as one in Hong Kong, the local diner whose setting and menu evokes the Forties.

I didn't know that I was going to find that kind of place when Hiya invited me to meet her and her husband Jonathan at the Front Porch for dinner. All she had to say was "fried chicken," and I was there. Fully half an hour early, in fact, due to certain unexpected variables of traffic and parking, so I thought I'd grab a cup of coffee across the street.

But I heard my name being yelled at me from the front porch (more of a covered patio, really) of the Front Porch, by Hiya, clutching a wine glass, and perplexed as to why both her husband and I were half an hour late. A conundrum explained, sweetly, when she realized that her cellphone's clock was still on daylight-saving time, more than a week out of date. It was a trifle too chilly to linger outside, though the assorted tables and chairs included a couple of inviting rocking chairs. We perched at the venerable wooden bar while we awaited Jonathan's timely arrival. The room seemed barely changed from its former incarnation as a neighborhood bar — a few booths lining the walls, nondescript tables and chairs, the only objects catching the light in the dim, not to say dark, setting being a big mirror behind the bar and a gleaming pressed-tin ceiling that looked too shiny to be vintage and, we learned, had been recently installed by the proud owner himself.

I felt as though we were in a Southern juke joint. But the beverage list, albeit fairly brief, was laden with interesting and sophisticated choices, featuring fruity Belgian beer and biodynamic wine as well as champagne and alcoholic cider. We felt like regulars even though it was our first time there, thanks to our friendly and knowledgeable bartender.

When Jonathan arrived, locking his bike outside, we were led to a table across from the brightly lit open kitchen, in a smaller space separated from the room by a small railing. The two-page menu, typed on colored paper, is headed "southern mission hospitality," and the dishes it contains seem to alternate between Southern as in the American south (deep-fried chicken livers on toast, Miss Ollie's fried chicken), and Southern as in more exotic island cooking (ceviche, tuna tartar, red bean and coconut soup). The first menu page offered a few items identified as bar snacks (sweet and spicy nuts, pickled veggies and eggs, chicken liver and Mount Gar rum pâté with spicy mango chutney and toast), half a dozen called appetizers; the second page, five mains and four sides, signed "love, sarah kernon, chef, the front porch." Kernon, a native of Barbados, and one of the owners, Josey White, are veterans of another funky, inexpensive neighborhood joint just a couple of blocks away, Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, where the menu also ranges far and wide. They're serving things they like to eat to people who like what they're dishing out.

Everything on the menu looked so interesting, and sounded so appetizing, that my immediate impulse was that I wanted to try everything. Perusing the list again, right now, I feel the same way. We did our best, over-ordering a little, and I still feel a little sad, seeing things we didn't try that weren't on the menu the second time I dined there. The heirloom tomato salad topped with pickled carrots, green beans, and beets and tossed with watercress and spicy Creole mayonnaise, for instance, especially as the pickled vegetables were shining at us in big jars on the kitchen pass-through, looking like stained glass. But I was insanely happy with my massive portion of deep-fried chicken livers, still moist under their crust, on buttery brioche toast, saturated with a flavorful, sticky onion gravy: "This would make a perfect brunch dish," I said. We enjoyed scooping up the bright-flavored tuna tartar with crisp green plaintain chips, the fish's biggish chunks topped with salty flying fish roe and chopped scallions. I was less enamored of the sludgy red bean and coconut soup, its center enlivened with a scoop of spicy avocado mash truer in flavor than the soup itself.

The fried chicken was quite marvelous, instantly becoming one of my favorite fried chickens: first brined, we were told, then rubbed with an herb-and-spice mix before being dipped in cornmeal and fried. I also loved its accompanying unusual mixture of black-eyed peas and collard greens, flavored with pork belly. The night's special grilled steak was surprisingly large and flavorful, with more lively beef snap than I'd had from a couple of recent steakhouse cuts at twice the price. But I fell completely in love with something I'd chosen only because they were out of the nightly fish and chips: spicy Dungeness crab and sweet white corn grit porridge, touched with lemon juice and shallots. The grits, like a silky soft polenta, tasted very corny; there was an extravagance also of silky fresh lump crabmeat scattered atop them, touched with the sharp citrus and the pungent shallots. Eating it felt both very childish (spooning up porridge!) and excitingly adult (the adult pleasures of crab and onions). The last bite was as exciting as the first, which instantly made me think of Brillat-Savarin's aphorism: "The invention of a new dish is of greater importance to the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a new star." (And, again, I thought what a perfect brunch dish.)

We ended with homey desserts, less remarkable than what had gone before: ice cream with wine-pickled peaches that needed more time in their bath, chocolate cake with brandied cherries.

When I picked Peter up at the airport, it was dinnertime, and he was amenable to the suggestion, so we drove straight there, on the spur of the moment, and perched at the counter when we were told that a table would be a 20-minute wait. Well within that time, we'd polished off a platter of assorted house-pickled vegetables (carrot, beet, green bean, zucchini among them), crunchy and appetite-arousing, as well as a lightly pickled hard-boiled egg half, and a delightful crisp and pungent filet of soused (pickled in vinegar and aromatics) mackerel, accompanied by a sharply dressed (a vinaigrette with a touch of habanero) pomelo and papaya salad topped with crunchy deep-fried shallots. We shared our mains, too: I longed for a rerun of the fried chicken, even more for another plate of crab-topped grits, but we tried a nightly special of salty yet pleasurable sturdy corned beef hash, the saltiness mitigated with a mouthful of the sautéed sweet potatoes alongside, and a "Barbados bistro salad" composed of frisée in an apple cider vinaigrette adorned with firm dice of pork belly, several lightly fried oysters in a crunchy cornmeal coating, and quarters of an egg halfway between hard-boiled and the soft-boiled advertised. Gazing at the menu, I wonder now why we didn't order the trio of fries (home, sweet, and French).

I almost gave in and ordered some fried chicken to go. But at my last meal our leftovers had been crammed into Chinese takeout containers, which, though witty, were altogether too small; I feared for the bird's integrity. But they do a "bucket" ($29.50 with two sides of your choice), which I'm told serves three generously, so I envision a family meal here in the near (hopefully, very near) future. And, of course, I wish they served brunch, maybe even on the front porch, when it's warm enough. But even sitting inside I felt magically warmed and transported to a bit of country within the city: a timeless fantasy Mississippi dive by way of Barbados.

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Meredith Brody

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