Out of the Wild

Iso Rabins' foraged food is the toast of San Francisco's gourmet set. Health inspectors and environmentalists aren't so thrilled.

There were 19 guests in all, each paying $40 for the meal. The well-heeled crowd of thirtysomethings gradually took their seats at a long wooden table between walls hung with unframed sketches. Among them was Jennifer Jones, owner of a boutique clothing store around the corner. It was her first foraged meal. "I'm excited to see what it's like," she said.

Halfway through the second course — a bowl of caldo verde, prepared from wild nettles and salt cod, with a vibrant green hue akin to that of wheatgrass juice — she had made up her mind. "It's so overwhelmingly fresh-tasting," she said. "It's so potent. It's not even that the flavors are intense. They are, but that's not it. It's so satisfying to eat something that's so close to the earth."

If people like Jones or Maki don't share the concerns of San Francisco's health inspectors and parks officials, it's not because they're scofflaws, but because they increasingly make culinary decisions based on an antique ethos of food production that today's regulatory apparatus simply is not built to understand. Rabins' big idea depends upon faith in and familiarity with the men and women who procure edible things, not the bureaucratic superstructure that grew up over the past half-century to curb the excesses of industrial-scale food production.

In the world of wild food, says Bi-Rite wine buyer Josh Adler, "there's that element of trust." In other words, consumers must believe their favorite forager knows enough to distinguish an edible mushroom from a poisonous one, or a clean leaf of miner's lettuce from one ridden with bacteria. Rabins hopes his customers will place that extraordinary trust in a film major recently converted to mycological pursuits. Granted they do, it is reasonable to ask where there's room, even in the Bay Area's niche food market, for a forager facing doubts about the safety and environmental toll of his products.

The answer: at 18 Reasons, amid a chatty and affluent crowd. As the meal unfolded, a mirthful din filled the small room. The storefront windows on Guerrero had steamed over. Rabins sat at the head of the table, beaming and fielding questions about wild food, an attractive blond woman at his side. The diners around him conversed avidly, leaning forward on their elbows, sipping wine and unfiltered beer. By the end of the night, three of them signed up for CSF boxes. An eager tension seemed to grip them. The salad course was over; their plates were empty. Like the ill-fated eater in Pong's cautionary tale, these men and women had entered a state of euphoria — but their livers were still intact, and they would live to tell the tale.

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