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Fish & Farm: 'Tis the season for comfort food 

Wednesday, Dec 9 2009
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'Tis the season for comfort food, for bountiful platters of rich, soul-stirring grub brimming with fresh veggies and juicy cuts of meat and hillocks of pasta and potato and polenta, of fruit crumbles and spirit-lifting cocktails and the sort of warm ambience that encourages the festive spirit to prevail against the long dark night abiding.

Fish & Farm, a cozy little hideaway off the lobby of the Mark Twain Hotel, is just the sort of place you crave after a strenuous day of elbowing your way through the holiday shoppers at nearby Union Square. Chef Chad Newton serves up fresh seasonal produce, organically raised meats, house-made pastas, and other locally sourced ingredients in intricate yet satisfying combinations ideal for sustenance and general good cheer.

This past spring, owner Frank Klein decided to take his two-year-old venue in a new direction. "Up until then, the restaurant had been serving farm-to-table California cuisine," says Newton, an alumnus of Postrio, Baraka, and Urban Tavern, and an aficionado of what he calls "New American comfort food: simple, familiar dishes like fried chicken and a really good burger as well as fun stuff like the tater tots we serve in the bar. Our basic goal was to serve very good food and have fun." The restaurant instituted its unique surcharge-free pricing structure at the same time, in which the price on the menu is the price you actually pay, all taxes included (don't forget to tip the highly professional waitstaff, though). It also closed for a week or so and gave the dining area a new brown-and-gold color scheme to match the room's antique knickknacks.

The restaurant covers three small dining spaces and a dark, clubby cocktail lounge, home of a Tuesday-through-Saturday happy hour with $3 drafts and a menu of inexpensive noshes. The hot, crunchy tater tots ($3) don't have a whole lot of flavor despite the rumored presence of Hobbs bacon, but there's nothing wrong with the house julep ($9), a mint-limned libation potent with Buffalo Trace small-batch bourbon. The intimate main room resembles a rustic farmhouse, with beadboard paneling, wooden shutters, and a variety of antique clocks, cupboards, and agrarian memorabilia. Sumptuous banquettes and mood lighting create an elegant atmosphere, and the mood is friendly and festive.

A fine way to kick off a late-autumn meal is with cauliflower soup ($9), a rich and satiny bowl of cream, chives, a shimmer of golden olive oil, and a barely pungent suggestion of the title vegetable, nicely accented with toasted almonds and a pickled red grape. The equally hearty potato gnocchi appetizer ($13) complements the delicate little dumplings with tender, juicy shreds of wine-braised beef, sweet and earthy cipollini, a healthy dusting of Parmigiano, and a spiky, tastebud-awakening hint of fresh horseradish. Or opt for the house meatballs ($12), three generous (yet surprisingly feathery) orbs of coarsely ground beef touched with just enough currants and almonds to deliver a hint of sweetness and crunch. They're served with a lush, peppery romesco sauce and an apple-cabbage slaw with plenty of tang and bite.

Although the entrées aren't quite as impressive as the starters (and the desserts — more on them later), they're still robust and delicious enough to invigorate any holiday-beleaguered corpus. The pork chop ($24), for instance, is a jumbo Niman Ranch special cooked medium rare (sinking your choppers into a succulent slab of rose-colored meat is a bit unnerving, yet perfectly safe) and is served with adequate puréed potatoes, undercooked mustard greens, and a wonderfully smoky Worcestershire-based pan sauce. The fish and chips ($19) feature four healthy-sized filets of sustainably harvested local cod, dipped in a beer-based batter and fried until the fish is moist and yielding and the coating is crisp and light. The fish is good, but the tarragon tartar sauce and the pillowy fries tossed with little bouquets of fried parsley are even better. Fried chicken ($21), everyone's favorite down-home delicacy, is perfectly executed with a juicy interior and a spicy, crunchy buttermilk-batter crust, even if the blandly spiced braised greens and black-eyed peas don't live up to the fowl. Marvelous cornbread madeleines, though.

A few side dishes are available to augment the already generous platters. The market vegetables du jour ($6) just might feature Brussels sprouts, a baker's dozen or so parboiled and then sautéed in rich, thick olive oil until barely tender and absolutely buttery. That New American standby, mac and cheese ($6), is nothing special — the cheese sauce is a bit on the slender side — but shards of smoky ham hock give it a nice flavor.

Fish & Farm's outstanding dessert is the chocolate peanut-butter mousse ($9), a rich, creamy, densely textured globe of the sweet and salty with the pungent flavor of puréed goober. Set upon a buttery chocolate-cookie crust, topped with a disc of crystallized sugar, and accompanied by a scoop of bittersweet chocolate gelato, it's as impressive to look at as to savor. More rustic but equally striking is the cheesecake in a jar ($9), in which light, lemony house-made ricotta and a contrastingly tart layer of cranberry jam are packed into a mason jar with lots of crunchy butter crumble on top — a tasty medium for spooning and scarfing. At any other venue, the apple tart ($9) would be a warm, comforting, softly yielding pleasure, but alongside the other desserts it's a merely serviceable meal-closer.

The all-California wine list offers a wide array of thoughtfully chosen and affordable options (half of the three dozen vintages are under $50 per bottle), taking in Pey-Marin's crisp, fragrant West Marin Riesling ($49) and Lytton Springs' darkly delectable Sonoma Zinfandel ($71). Another six are available by the half bottle, 11 by the glass. The brief beer list includes Anchor's excellent Liberty Ale on tap ($5.50) and Dogfish Head's Palo Santo Marron ($8), a syrupy, bittersweet brew worth avoiding.

Service is well informed, affable, and attentive; you feel the staff wants to make your meal a special occasion. With skilled kitchencraft, potent cocktails, and winter solstice convening, how could it be anything else?

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