Heart doesn't play by the usual restaurant rules

A few hours before my visit last week, Heart — which puts the "bar" back in wine bar — tweeted that it was Corey Haim tribute night. A digital projector was screening the late actor in The Lost Boys 10 feet above the heads of the drinkers, and the room vibrated with the music Haim would have been smoking out to then — the Doors, Pink Floyd, Bowie. A dozen men in their early 30s had filled up the tables underneath the screen, though they didn't seem to be License to Drive fans gathering in memoriam. Tacked up on the bar's white gallery wall, large-format photos of naked pregnant women sneered at the grid of bottles pegged up on the other side.

As for my friends and me, well, we'd lurked at the corner of a pectoral-high plank table near the front door, two claimed stools our bulwark against the tides of people washing past, until the woman across from us shut the cellphone she'd been texting on for the past half-hour and stalked off. We moved over quickly, clambering up onto our stools, and sat like proper diners, ready to fill the space with glasses and plates.

First, though, we had to navigate a few eccentricities. On Heart's Web site, owner Jeff Segal, a former journalist in his mid-20s, gleefully calls the place "chaotic" and writes, "Take your notions of a typical wine bar and throw them out the window." And indeed, the setup will put off anyone who expects a wine bar to be a place to sit down with a $120 bottle of Bordeaux, but not a generation of diners who see the quirkiness, the jagged edges, as creative and endearing.

A mason-jar toast to a cheese-and-pear sandwich.
Jen Siska
A mason-jar toast to a cheese-and-pear sandwich.

Location Info

Map

Heart

1270 Valencia
San Francisco, CA 94110

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights

Details

www.heartsf.com, twitter.com/heartwine. Noon-10 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat.-Mon. Muni: 14, 49. Reservations: none. Noise level: loud. Bring cash for tip.
1270 Valencia (at 24th St.)

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Our server came by and told us she'd be happy to talk about anything on the menu with us as long as we didn't expect her to take our order. Instead, we had to place our first order at the bar, trading a credit card for a number. From there on, she'd deliver plates and take additional orders for food and drink. Water, silverware, and napkins were self-serve. Stranger still, we discovered at the end of the meal that the credit card slip didn't include a tip line; when I queried the server, she explained we didn't have to tip, but if we did it needed to be in cash.

All around us were the bar's signature glassware: half-pint mason jars. On one round, I requested a glass with a stem and received a balloon capable of holding two-thirds of a bottle of wine. I held it gingerly, feeling like I'd just slapped a "DOUCHE" sticker on my forehead. Mason jars it was.

And then there was the list of wines and ciders, most of them from tiny producers, obscure grapes and regions, and "natural" (less industrialized, more idiosyncratic) wineries. Segal described that night's wines by the glass with phrases like "as surprising as Sandra Bullock's Oscar win" (that'd be a French white from Jasnières, $10) or "a rockstar" (that'd be a Sicilian red, the Occhipinti SP68, $14). Words like tannins, boysenberry, French oak — absent. The aim seemed to be to lock out oenophile culture, with all of its alienating language, and invite everyone else into the party.

In short, Heart is more in tune with its neighborhood than a fixie repair shop selling homemade sauerkraut and ballet flats. And Valencia hearts Heart for it. The bar did feel like a party, and a good one. Underneath the Jim Morrison, the roar of conversation was constant and pleasant. And whether I could attribute the mood of the place to the wine drinking, the very unbarlike lighting, or the memory of Corey Haim, the crowd's energy was more reminiscent of First Thursday than Super Bowl Sunday. By the time the first of our snacks arrived, I realized I was having a good time.

But what brought me to Heart was the other half of its unconventional business model. Segal contracted with Douglas Monsalud, the owner of a high-end catering company called LRE (Living Room Events), to prepare the bar's food. Monsalud is better known to the Heart crowd for Kitchenette, the popup he opened last year selling sandwiches — great sandwiches — off the loading dock of LRE's Dogpatch commercial kitchen space.

If the wine list seems timely, the menu is even more so: artisanally produced hams, farmstead cheeses, house salt-cured pickles (if the night's offering is beets, skip them unless you like chewing your floorboards), dishes like tongue sandwiches with short ribs and roasted plantain, with most menu items listing the provenance of at least one of the ingredients. It's modest food with ambitious ingredients, and every dish piqued my interest, especially since the food is prepped in LRE's kitchen and designed to be finished on a minimal kitchen setup — a couple of hot plates, a convection warming oven, and some press grills — not that different from the kind caterers bring to parties served on the lawn.

That first bite of Monsalud's food was everything I hoped for. The goat tacos ($8) were mounded with shreds of meat, fragrant with chiles but not searingly hot, and then topped with goat cheese, onions, and cilantro — all the flash and spark of a proper taco, all the succulence of a long-braised daube. A fillet of oolong tea–smoked black cod ($9) was surrounded by cress leaves and finely shaved slices of citrus fruits and cucumber. I picked at the salad separately in order to concentrate on the delicate, floral tea smoke, which tasted as if the fish had been waved over an incense brazier for a few minutes. The "coeurs [hearts] lite" ($8) turned out to be a straightforwardly composed and dressed salad of hearts of escarole, palm, and artichokes.

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