Chef Mark Sullivan Spruces Up Pacific Heights

Sometimes the heavens align, the restaurant gods smile, and a new place seemingly emerges without any visible growing pains. Such a place is Spruce, although its immediate neighbors on Sacramento have been viewing its growing pains for some time. What was long ago an auto body shop (and had more recently housed the eatery La Table and an antique shop side-by-side) has been transformed into one of the city's most chic and comfortable restaurants.

Its arrival in Pacific Heights had been highly anticipated by fans of its sibling, the Village Pub, in Woodside. And apparently Spruce has been besieged since its opening — for the first time in many years when I called for a dinner reservation a week in advance, I was offered only 5 or 9 p.m. Unlike the similar refrain heard almost reflexively in New York, it didn't feel like a ploy. I was cheerfully told that their dinners were almost fully booked a month in advance, but if a time more to my liking opened up, they'd call me back. I took 5 p.m. and crossed my fingers.

On the day of our reservation, after the restaurant called me to confirm, I was indeed called back a few minutes later and offered a cancellation spot at 6:30. Eager as I was to dine at Spruce, 5 p.m. feels like a nursery supper.

It's a big room with big chairs.
Jen Siska
It's a big room with big chairs.

Location Info

Map

Spruce

3640 Sacramento
San Francisco, CA 94118

Category: Restaurant > New American

Region: Richmond (Inner)

Details

931-5400, www.sprucesf.com. Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner nightly from 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: Valet after 10 p.m., $10. Muni: 1, 2, 4, 23. Noise level: Low to moderate.

Charcuterie selection $16

Sardines agrodolce $13

Moroccan chicken $22

Pork tenderloin with pork belly and beans $26

Mussels $16 at lunch

Bavette steak $18 at lunch

Brandy cherry ice cream soda $9

3640 Sacramento (at Spruce)

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But Spruce looks nothing like a nursery. You enter through lacy iron gates onto a small patio. On your left is a small, shiny takeout shop with its own entrance, through which you can see glass cases filled with pastries and cheeses. Even more alluring is the small room on your right, fitted out like a luxurious living room with a fireplace and dark, comfy leather furniture set against creamy stone walls. Coffee-table books are carelessly yet artfully stacked here and there, in order that Spruce might call the little lounge, where it would be pleasant to linger with a drink, the Library.

The first impression of the big room is that it's dark, yet gleaming. The walls are a rich chocolate brown, the ceilings have been opened up to the rafters and seem impossibly high, and the furnishings are large and look almost as comfortable as they prove to be: huge chairs covered in expensive-looking caramel-colored faux ostrich leather, set around expansive tables cloaked in white linens. "It looks like Texas," I said to my friends, not meaning any disrespect: I meant the moneyed, outsize Texas of Edna Ferber's Giant. Anyway, we loved the room: the huge paintings, both black-and-white figural and colorful abstracts; the massive yet airy sculptural wooden divider and waiter's station separating the dining room from the bar; and most especially the carefully contrived Rembrandt-like lighting, individual spotlights cradling each table in a pool of golden light.

The concise two-page American menu, ten first courses on the left, nine main courses on the right, with terse yet intriguing lists of ingredients on one or two lines, offered much temptation. I couldn't quite imagine just how sweet corn and salt cod chowder with turmeric dates would taste, nor spearmint and harvest greens ravioli with citrus and parmesan. I was fascinated by both, but chef Mark Sullivan (now shared by the two restaurants) is famed for his house-made charcuterie at Woodside, and I had to have it. Covering a big white platter were a pot of duck liver mousse, coins of spicy soppressata, slightly grainy bologna dotted with horseradish crème fraiche thinned with buttermilk, cured beef tongue drizzled with a vinegary salsa verde, and the thinnest slices of fromage de tête imaginable. All of it was easy to love, especially the dark, very livery, almost liquid and earthy-tasting mousse. I was surprised by the burnt edges of the grilled bread that accompanied the lavish assortment, but they were easy to trim off. Still, that bread should never have been allowed to leave the kitchen.

I liked my friends' choices, too, especially the silvery whole sardines in a well-balanced agrodolce (sweet and sour) marinade, set on a warm slivered fennel salad and dusted with gremolata (minced parsley and lemon peel). Almost as good were the sophisticated seared sweetbreads wrapped in pancetta, served atop toothsome lentils and glazed apples. I wished I also could have tried the lush-sounding preserved foie gras with grape gelée and pickled grapes, or the raw and cooked zucchini with soft and dry ricotta.

But any first-course yearnings were erased by the arrival of our three superb main courses. Anita, the orderer of the tart sardines, had another exceptionally well-flavored dish: a crisp-skinned, juicy Moroccan chicken, imbued with cumin and turmeric, on a bed of summer vegetables (zucchini, onions, and peas) tangy with preserved lemon. Her husband, Peter, enjoyed a thick chunk of charred Berkshire pork tenderloin, smoky from the grill yet still moist within, paired with a rectangle of melting pork belly, and sided with an assortment of shelling beans. My slow-roasted beef short rib, bone removed, was a perfect rectangle of luscious shreds of fatty meat, barely held together, oddly sided with only two chunks of grilled peach and (not enough) horseradish sauce. I wished for some greens or mashed potatoes, but there were no vegetable sides on offer; the rich meat was delicious on its own, but I wanted another contrasting texture and flavor.

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