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.

Squid salad with cumin-dusted chickpeas and mint-flecked grapefruit.
Jen Siska
Squid salad with cumin-dusted chickpeas and mint-flecked grapefruit.

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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