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Baker and Banker: Don't say Californian 

Wednesday, Jan 27 2010
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Lori Baker and Jeff Banker, owners of the two-month-old Baker and Banker in Pacific Heights, are not the ones to break a winning streak. They're the third pair in a row to run a successful restaurant in the same spot on the corner of Octavia and Bush. The first was the Meetinghouse, John Bryant Snell and Joanne Karlinsky's bistro, famous for its warm biscuits and playful American fare. Then in 2003, Michael and Lindsay Tusk turned the space into Quince, source of some of the best pastas on the West Coast. The Tusks refined their food and service until they earned a Michelin star, then decamped for a larger, more soigné space north of the Financial District this winter. Baker and Banker quickly moved in after them, opening for service Dec. 1. Who knows what rituals they've had to enact to keep the streak alive — wearing lucky underwear, sacrificing a chicken on the doorstep — but it seems to be working.

Though the husband-wife team (he runs the savory side, she the sweet) are hewing to the standard rules of high-end dining in San Francisco — sourcing meats and vegetables direct from farmers, constructing their menus with a locavore's disdain for off-season produce, yadda yadda — Banker says he doesn't like to call their food "California cuisine." He says that term is too restrictive for his tastes, so he prefers "New American."

"'New American' allows me to use all kinds of different ingredients Japanese, Indian, Moroccan," he explains. "There are a lot of different ethnicities in the U.S., and I like reflecting it in the food." You'll see what he means when you read down the appetizer list, spotting successive references to Spain (salad with calamari cooked a la plancha and fried chickpeas), classic California (baby lettuces with brown-butter vinaigrette), Eastern Europe (smoked trout and latkes), and Japan (vegetable tempura).

This isn't the rampant eclecticism of the late 1980s and early 1990s, however — the disparate flavors are filtered through the cooks' precise, nuanced palates. Take the squid salad ($13): Tucked into fronds of frisée are tiny squid bodies, flash-roasted in a hot iron pan so that their flesh never seizes up, interspersed with cumin-dusted fried chickpeas and mint-flecked white grapefruit. The salad is garnished with what first looks like clover blossoms but, when you squint harder, turns out to be the tentacles. The flavors glimmer, always winking and disappearing, never staying around long enough to lodge in your thought. Same with the pieces of house-smoked trout ($12), mounded with shaved fennel and pickled baby beet wedges on a crisp celery-root latke. A sharp twinge of vinegar cuts across the beets' sugars and flares out quickly; the smell of smoke rises to the nose and then disperses in time to taste the mild fish underneath.

The decor has morphed with the restaurateurs, too, from butter-yellow Shaker style to serene white to B&B's new pubby, masculine style: The pillars and wainscoting are now the darkest brown, as are the leather banquettes and bare wooden tables. The old pharmacy shelves now box in mirrors and blackboards listing the day's beer and wine specials. When the restaurant is full — as it is on weekends — it's a little thick with noise, but not so much that you need to shout.

Baker and Banker seems to be designed as a weekday restaurant for people who think nothing of a $45 dinner when they're too tired to cook, and a destination for those of us in middle management and below. In short, it's perfect for the neighborhood. And Banker, in particular, knows his target audience. Backing up the waiters, who rarely skip an opportunity to swap out silverware or wax excited about the wines on the list, the chef exits the kitchen on the half-hour to meet customers. If he catches you just as you're cutting into an entrée, he'll be back by dessert, asking what you'd thought of the pork.

Banker's last big job was as the executive chef of Home for three years, a role he more or less stumbled into en route to opening his own place, but he has also worked for Postrio and Acme Chophouse, and did a five-month internship at a Michelin three-star in Paris. Baker, who handles the desserts, has a more straightforward San Franciscan résumé, which includes being a pastry chef at Home, Bizou, and Laurent Gras' Fifth Floor. Her half of the business is still getting up and running; if you peer through the windows along the side of the building into the kitchen, you'll see bakers' racks where Michael Tusk's chef's table used to be. And what you can't see from the ground floor is the large production kitchen in the basement, where she'll be baking breads and special-event cakes as soon as the permits go through. (One Pacific Heights wedding cake can make up for a month of slow Tuesdays.)

Having loved meals I ate at all three restaurants (in fact, the Meetinghouse was the subject of one of my first published restaurant reviews in 2000), I couldn't help thinking about how my meals there have reflected the evolution of Bay Area cuisine, too. The Meetinghouse's bold, brightly defined flavors and obvious wit (steak tartare with sun-dried-tomato ketchup) gave way to the restrained, clean Italian-inspired food of Quince, which, in its early days, emblemized California cuisine at the height of its minimalist phase. The rowdy creativity of the molecular gastronomists and Top Chefs working outside San Francisco have exerted their influence on local chefs, and under cooks like Banker, the pendulum seems to be swinging back.

These days, there's more complexity to the dishes I'm seeing on San Francisco plates, but it's subtler than a decade ago. At Baker and Banker, a sautéed skate wing ($24) — the striated meat pulled apart in long, moist threads — was laid over a velvety, buttered-up sunchoke purée. On the side was a pile of millimeter-thin shreds of brussels sprouts tossed with julienned Asian pear and toasted hazelnuts. The slaw, which oscillated among savory, sweet, and nutty, was garnished with brittle, savory dark-green curls of sprout leaves, deep fried. Duck breast ($24) was roasted just until the center of the meat faded from red to fuchsia, then fanned across a "hash" of duck leg meat, roasted sweet potatoes, and bitter greens; the port–star anise sauce on the plate hinted at the lacquer on a Cantonese barbecued duck, but didn't force it.

Asian ingredients and techniques are the only section of the New American palette that Banker doesn't have under control. There were lovely touches to a mixed vegetable tempura ($10) — braised and then fried carrots that turned custardy inside their battered shells, a lovely dipping sauce combining Japanese mayo, sesame oil, and Sriracha — but they couldn't make up for a central flaw, which was that the batter was dense and thick where it should have been lacy. A gorgeous pan-roasted black cod ($25.50) was served on a loose pile of glutinous rice that melted into the pool of an overwhelmingly sugary teriyaki sauce.

The playfulness of Lori Baker's desserts (all $8) is subtle, too: Right now, there's a butternut squash cobbler, a spiced purée baked under the golden cap of a single biscuit. It's topped with a scoop of mace-flavored ice cream studded with candied pumpkin seeds; the molten sugar puffs up the seeds as it coats them, and they pop-pop-pop in the mouth as you eat the ice cream — the sugary equivalent of bubble wrap. And the XXX chocolate cake plays off the mashup meme currently in vogue (pie-stuffed cakes, doughnut-bun hamburgers). The 6-inch high, improbably slim wedge stacks three cakes together, more forms of chocolate than one human ought to eat in a week. There's a moist flourless chocolate cake as the base, the soft tang of chocolate cheesecake in the middle, and the lightest devil's food cake layer on top, not to mention the glossy fudge icing. You taste each layer separately, you taste them all together, you mix and match — and suddenly the slice of cake is gone, and you're not quite sure whether to feel guilt or stubborn pride at your accomplishment.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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