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We're wowed by the New American cooking served at the Mission's snug Maverick

Wednesday, May 2 2007
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The Web site of Maverick, a year-and-a-half-old restaurant in the Mission, identifies the source of its name and inspiration as Samuel Maverick, "a 1800's Texas cattle rancher who refused to brand his herd — forever imortalizing himself as a radical and independent thinker."

Sitting in Maverick's tiny two-room quarters, painted in chic, deep tones of orange and a purplish brown, I wonder what old Samuel would make of the place if he miraculously materialized in it. He wouldn't even recognize the relief map of America gleaming on the wall, the United States being something less than half its size back then. Maverick calls itself an "American eatery and wine bar," but it's the kind of American known as New. Between Southern fried chicken and grilled rib-eye steak, you'll find pappardelle and rapini, house-made pasta dressed with bitter greens, Meyer lemon confit, chili flakes, and Grana Padano cheese. Radical indeed.

But if Samuel relaxed and sat down, I bet he'd be happy. Jonathan, Hiya, and I certainly were, on our first visit. We'd accidentally stumbled upon Wine Mondays, when almost the entire list — and it's an impressive, thoughtful one, including interesting bottles from all over America and Europe — is available at 40 percent off. It allowed us to choose a more lofty bottle than we might otherwise have done, a $51 Lolonis Redwood Valley Petite Syrah. It was identified for us when Hiya asked which wines on the list were biodynamic, an agricultural practice that goes beyond organic toward the spiritual. For those without a calculator, on Wine Monday, the bottle set us back $30.60, a transmogrification that felt pretty spiritual to me.

The one-page menu is divided into eight First Plates, six Second Plates, and four vegetable Side Plates (if mac 'n' cheese were a vegetable). Several of the starters contain the state or city of their inspiration in their names — Iowa salad, Cincy barbecue ribs — though it might surprise an Iowan to discover sliced d'Anjou pears and candied walnuts along with the Maytag bleu cheese dressing on hearts of romaine. Two of us chose salads: the Maverick salad, a big, bright plate of mixed baby lettuces sparked with the sharp tang of ruby red grapefruit, shaved fennel, capers, and a champagne vinaigrette; and a second, even more delicious salad of ginger-marinated organic beets with sliced avocado, mache, and dried beet chips for witty textural contrast in a blood orange vinaigrette. I tried the Baltimore crab fluffs, a nice change from crab cakes, three evanescent fritters containing lump blue crab meat, again a nice change from the usual Dungeness, served with a thin dilled tartar sauce.

The cunningly conceived appetizers served their purpose. Our appetites were primed for the brimming main courses that followed. Jonathan's impressive chunk of slow-roasted pork shoulder, a little firmer than I would have liked, came in a deep bowl on a bed of corona beans (very large white beans), slightly sweetened in an allusion to traditional baked beans, with some crunchy, bright-green sugar snap peas and a few even more crunchy deep-fried Texas onion rings. I enjoyed watching delicate Hiya going after her massive Creekstone Farms grilled rib-eye steak, under a limpid black peppercorn sauce, served with Yukon gold potato wedges sprinkled with a scallion malt vinaigrette and grilled asparagus. Even after letting us sample it, she took a good chunk of it home. As I did part of my Alaskan black cod, cooked so carefully that it seemed barely gelled into a succulent fish pudding, under a savory roasted garlic sauce, upon a bed of highly colored and flavored saffron basmati rice pilaf with diced Portuguese sausage, and sided with sweet Chantenay carrots and baby fennel. This was thoughtful cooking of a very high order that frequently reminded me just what delicious was.

We shared two contrasting desserts: a warm chocolate bread pudding with caramel sauce and a scoop of excellent vanilla bean ice cream, rich and soothing, and a sharper, refreshing key lime pie with whipped cream and a sprinkling of key lime zest.

When I returned with Peter and Anita three weeks later, I was pleased to see that the menu had evolved in response to the season, seeming even more springlike than before. English pea and potato chowder instead of Madeira mushroom soup, for instance, and the pork shoulder, now bourbon-braised, came with butter beans, erbette chard, and spring red onions. I spied the pork dish on a table across the way, and this time the meat fell apart almost at the approach of a fork.

After a gift of a shot glass of red grapefruit juice delightfully flavored with fresh mint, we were tempted by a special of fried oysters, and intrigued by a salad featuring seascape strawberries macerated in sweet vermouth with mache, shaved fennel, almonds, and chantilly cream (!), but we settled on three other first courses. Three nicely trimmed, fat, oily roasted sardines, dotted with a light sauce gribiche incorporating pickles and eggs as well as mustard, were set atop wedges of grilled levain bread, interspersed with lightly oiled baby red dandelion greens and a whole grain mustard vinaigrette. A stack of three plump baby back pork ribs more than passed muster, dripping with a sweet hot barbecue sauce and sided with a sharp coleslaw that Peter said was better than any they'd had on the barbecue-and-coleslaw-intensive trip to Nashville they'd just returned from. With a side of creamy grits or roasted cauliflower, they'd do for dinner. I loved my delicately battered nubbins of fried baby artichokes, more delicate than the spiky Jewish-Italian version I'd expected, sprinkled over a simple, equally delicate salad of wild arugula in a lemon-thyme vinaigrette. All three dishes — even the artichokes — went well with the inexpensive $29 Anne Amie Willamette Valley (Oregon) riesling Peter chose from the list. Our glasses were first rinsed out with a bit of the wine, an unusual ritual that I correctly guessed was to eliminate any possible taint of detergent from the glass.

Anita had hesitated between the Idaho white trout and a ravioli dish that sounded so good we decided to share it as a second course. They'd thoughtfully plated it for us: two tender ravioli each, filled with fromage blanc and Meyer lemon confit, dressed with strands of red dandelion and jeweled with emerald-green fava beans.

I could find no fault with the mains that followed. I enjoyed the trout, served lightly sautéed under a blanket of sautéed ramps and lots of chewy oyster mushrooms, with cornmeal "croutons" that were like perfect toy blocks magically made of grits. The creamy grits under Peter's fried chicken, a leg and lovely moist breast of Rocky Jr. free-range chicken, were equally magical in their beige cloak of giblet gravy. I wanted another crack at that chicken, charmed as I was by my own pink seared duck breast surrounded by potato gnocchi sprinkled with prosciutto, with a triple salute to peas: set on a bed of sweet pea coulis, adorned with whole peas, and under a thatch of pea shoots.

We were replete, but still seducible by a dense, dark Scharffen Berger chocolate tart in a cookie crust, a strawberry-rhubarb crumble with vanilla ice cream and a sprinkling of mint that brought to mind the flavor of the tiny drink we'd been treated to a couple of hours earlier, and a beautifully garnished plate of Oregon goat milk gouda served with thinly sliced ripe pear, toasted cranberry walnut bread, and a swirl of honey. I was as dazzled by Maverick as old Sam would have been.

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Meredith Brody

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