Nothing cheers up an otherwise cheerless street like an inviting eatery. A sufficiently intriguing restaurant or food shop can be like a canary in the mineshaft. If it survives, the entire neighborhood can change, improving around its new inhabitants, as New York's SoHo did after Raoul's and Dean and DeLuca braved its quiet cast-iron blocks, and as L.A.'s Miracle Mile did when Campanile and La Brea Bakery moved into Charlie Chaplin's old office building. Recently general rejoicing was heard when new Whole Foods Markets opened on Potrero Hill in S.F. and near Lake Merritt in Oakland.
Destination restaurants began changing SOMA and the Tenderloin years ago — in fact, SOMA wouldn't be SOMA without them. But neighborhoods also need more unpretentious places that haven't spent millions on decor and wine cellars — the kind we call, affectionately, neighborhood restaurants. Two modest but very interesting breakfast-and-lunch places have recently arrived on rather gritty downtown blocks with few other dining options.
What attracted me to Brenda's French Soul Food was, well, the idea of French soul food, which turned out to be New Orleans soul food — that is, French-influenced Creole cooking. Even better, I thought, there can never be too many Cajun-Creole places around as far as I'm concerned.
The small storefront has been rather minimally and cleanly decorated, with dark wood wainscoting, a big mirror that not only visually enlarges the space but also serves as a surface for daily specials scrawled in white, and a few sculptural branches placed in a rustic metal container on a narrow ledge where single diners can perch on stools. The tables, most of them deuces with a couple of four-tops, are covered in crisp white tablecloths. Breakfast is served all day — well, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Lunch kicks in at 11 a.m. Monday through Friday, and on Saturday, brunch is on offer — mostly breakfast dishes, with the addition of specials and chicken, sausage, and okra gumbo. We were there in time to sample both sides of the menu. Choosing was difficult because so much appealed to us, and because nothing was over $10. The specials included meatloaf with green beans and potato hash, a barbecued chicken po'boy (joining the menu's regular lineup of fried shrimp and oyster po'boys), and the dish that proved irresistible, black-eyed peas and rice with andouille sausage. I dithered, trying to decide among a Sloppy Josephine (like a Sloppy Joe, but made with ground turkey instead of beef), an alluring burger amped up with tasso (smoked ham), or a croque monsieur (a ham and cheese sandwich enriched with creamy béchamel sauce). But I love breakfast at any time of day, so I chose the rarely-seen-outside-N'awlins grillades and grits — hesitating, it must be said, over the temptations of a gulf shrimp and goat cheese omelet or the open-faced egg and bacon tartine sandwich.
First we shared an ample house salad, mixed baby greens with shaved red onion, halved red and yellow grape tomatoes, and a sharp Creole mustard dressing, topped with a generous helping of tangy goat cheese heaped on a crisp toast. The hoppin' john, aka stewed black-eyed peas, surrounded an island of rice sprinkled with chopped scallions and crisscrossed with a split andouille sausage. It was very good, but my grillades and grits were even better: a hillock of pale-yellow, smooth grits (ground cornmeal, something like a creamy polenta), sided by the grillades, which are thin pieces of beef mightily improved by a pearly, tomatoey sauce heady with thyme and lots of pepper, and topped with two eggs any way you want them, which in my case were over easy so they could lend their liquid yolks to the general saucy richness.
Perhaps the best part of the plate, however, was the saucer-size cream biscuit, crumbly and so rich itself that it scarcely needed the pat of butter alongside. We were close enough to the table for two next to us that I could not only admire the beauty of the cornmeal-dipped fried-shrimp po'boy with french fries, Sloppy Josephine, and meatloaf plate that landed there, but could also inhale their spicy fragrance as I tried to calm my envious greed by sipping my refreshing watermelon sweet tea.
For dessert we shared a "flight" of Brenda's beignets: a plain version; two puffier ones magically stuffed with melty Ghirardelli chocolate in one case, chopped and cooked Granny Smith apples in the other; and my favorite, the savory crawfish beignet, filled with a spicy mixture of chopped crawfish, cayenne, scallions, and cheddar. On any future visit to sample New Orleans native chef-owner Brenda Buenviaje's inspired cuisine, I can't imagine not ordering an entire plate of them, even if the object of my visit was, say, the pineapple upside-down pancakes drizzled with vanilla bean cream and topped with fresh ginger butter.
More limited in its offerings but much more startling on its 6th Street block full of SROs is the enticingly named Split Pea Seduction. Its daily-evolving breakfast-and-lunch menu features housemade granola (perhaps one with white chocolate, cherries, and cinnamon), fresh soups (in addition to the eponymous split pea emblazoned on the chic green awnings outside, varieties include tomato soup with roast garlic cream and chicken with farro), and composed salads (such as hearts of romaine with croutons, soft-cooked egg, and parmesan vinaigrette; or butter lettuce with strawberries, Mission figs, hazelnuts, feta, and champagne vinaigrette). For me the most interesting offerings were the crostatas, something like a long, rustic open-faced tart, with buttery dough that rolls up around the edge of the toppings. I loved both the versions I tried: shredded roast chicken with garlicky braised fall greens, including kale, held together with a semisoft pecorino called sole di sardegna; and another topped with broccolini and fontina spiced with serrano chiles. I was less enamored of the namesake split pea seduction, a vegan soup that tasted a lot like V-8 without tomato, with strong notes of celery. I prefer my split pea with the meaty taste of ham hocks, bacon, or even rounds of good old Hebrew National franks.
Split Pea Seduction offers all kinds of combinations (whole crostatas or halves with soup or salad), nicely packed to go, or you can consume them on the spot, on 14 white saddle-shaped stools pulled up to a couple of ledges. Above the longer one hang five arty framed photos of kitchen subjects – spices, a pastry cutter, an oven thermometer, a stock pot, and, oops, a chain saw. Atop the glass-fronted case displaying the long crostatas are jars full of such just-baked treats as blueberry scones, small buttermilk cakes topped with whipped cream and chopped plums, and cookies, including, perhaps, a fragrant anise butter cookie, a dense chocolate chew, or an old-fashioned coconut thumbprint filled with housemade jam.
Split Pea Seduction's seductions are located a long block and seemingly worlds away from such upscale haunts as the Westfield San Francisco Centre. Many of the passersby seem to be looking for a needle exchange rather than a soft-cooked egg, roast tropea (sweet purple) onions, and herbed havarti crostata. But hey, there goes the neighborhood.