The local jazz scene hasn't really thrived since the days when the Fillmore played host to Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, while Miles Davis held court at the Blackhawk in the Tenderloin and Duke Ellington premiered his Concert of Sacred Music at Grace Cathedral.
But there's been something of a jazz renaissance about town lately, especially in the area of intimate, retro-moderne venues where hepcats can sip cocktails and have a nice meal while the sounds of what jazz scribe Grover Sales called "America's classical music" works its magic.
Joining Yoshi's, 1300 on Fillmore, Rasselas, and Savanna Jazz in the supperclub sweepstakes is Coda, a two-month-old venue on the northern edge of the Mission. Six nights a week, this friendly and attractive hangout features live bop, bossa nova, Afro-Cuban, and modern jazz with an occasional hint of tango, funk, R&B, and hip-hop — not to mention food, drink, and that irresistibly Copa Room "dinner and a show" ambience.
Owner-musician Bruce Hanson and chef–general manager Chris Pastena have created a space that certainly looks like a jazz club, with mood lighting and exposed brick walls, banquettes and barstools, and original neo-noir avant-garde artwork by Georgianne Fastaia. Cool blue drapes part to reveal a stage where Mucho Axé, the Broun Fellinis, and other jazzpersons practice their craft. The backlit bar is a swingin' place to hang out and enjoy the music. And while the food isn't always up to the joint's high spirits and 'Round Midnight vibe, the total package is well worth experiencing.
The menu is divided into four sections (Vegetables, Salads and Soups, Starches and Grains, Meats and Fishes), each featuring half a dozen à la carte items in a range of prices and proclivities. This way, hungry jazz fans can assemble a full-fledged meal, a noshfest for a few friends, or just a cocktail-friendly small plate or two. The vegetable offerings in particular are surprisingly inexpensive, considering the abundance of roughage proffered, but results were mixed. The broccoli rabe ($4) was sautéed in just the right amount of garlic and olive oil to accent the greenery without overwhelming its fresh, slightly pungent flavor. The lush, earthy pleasures of the sautéed spinach ($3.25), on the other hand, were subverted by too free a hand with the salt shaker. But the tricolored cauliflower ($3.50), while a tad al dente, had a subtle buttery flavor that made the dish worthwhile.
Among the starches was a gummy risotto ($8.50) that absorbed enough red wine to color it a striking deep purple, but the combination of grape and carbs and overtangy goat cheese was oddly unexciting and overwhelming at the same time. Another starch, the trio of sauces with rosemary toast ($4), makes a nice snack for a group: a dozen spears of slender, crunchy sourdough served with housemade salsa verde (chunky, sharp, and tasty), aioli (too much salt, not enough garlic), and romesco (a sweet, garden-fresh pleasure). Our favorite salad was the Israeli couscous ($4.25), luscious pasta pellets draped in parsley and tender bits of sautéed zucchini. It was simple and irresistible. The squash salad ($7.50) wasn't as successful: long unwieldy strips of raw zucchini tossed with an overly subtle lemon dressing, a few clumps of goat cheese on the side, and pretty boring. And the seared tuna ($11.75), while perfectly fresh, had all of its creamy texture cooked out of it, although its bed of Napa cabbage jazzed with beets and horseradish was bright and delectable.
One of the seafood dishes, the roasted halibut ($18), was moist, delicate, and perfectly cooked, but the best part of the dish was the bed of slender soba noodles soaking up its wine-infused broth. The crab ravioli ($15.50) featured good rustic housemade pasta, but the minimal filling tasted more of pepper than of crab, and its sauce was overrich and oily to boot. Happily, pork loin ($14.50) is on the menu as well. Two thick filets of tender, richly flavored meat were served in a luscious cream sauce spiked with a dollop of Irish whiskey and dusted with just enough ground coffee to jolt the dish out of its own gaudiness. A saucer-sized croûte is provided to soak up the yummy drippings.
Booze (in the form of Jack Daniel's) also ignited our favorite dessert, the pecan tart ($6.75), a miniature pie so tipsy with Tennessee whiskey you almost don't notice that its pastry is flaky and rich; its filling is dark, sweet, and decadent; and its nutmeats are crunchy and absolutely abundant. Not so good: the lavender panna cotta ($5.50). Unlike the delicate, almost ethereal panna cottas we've known and loved, Coda's is burdened with a thick, chewy texture as well as a perfunctory hint of lavender and a sour, watery strawberry-fan garnish. An excellent alternative is the grapefruit Campari sorbet ($5.75), a bracing, bittersweet, taste-bud–expanding digestif with a somewhat redundant drizzle of balsamic syrup on top.
An interesting aspect of Coda's wine list is the selection of wines "on tap," vintages purchased from wineries by the oxygen-free barrel instead of the persnickety bottle and available by the glass ($6.50-$12) or carafe ($26-$48). Aside from these four options (Truchard's 2008 Carneros Chardonnay, Sutton's 2008 Rattlesnake rosé, Saintsbury's 2008 Carneros Pinot Noir, and Miner's 2008 Napa Cabernet), the restaurant offers 21 thoughtfully selected French, Italian, and California wines, seven of them by the glass. It would be a shame to pass up one of Coda's impressive house cocktails: On the Skizz ($9), for example, a tall, cool, ruby-red concoction of Jameson, ginger beer, orange bitters, and pomegranate juice that's all tang, zap, and zest; or the BaCu Sour ($10), in which Stolichnaya, Hendrick's gin, lemon juice, cucumber, and fresh basil attain a perfect balance among the sweet, the tart, the spicy, and the potent. Not unlike America's classical music itself.