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Given the fast-food quality of most of the AT&T Park menu, Public House's cooks don't have to accomplish anything more elevated; we'll have to wait until baseball season ends to see whether Des Jardins' steakhouse-to-pub switch succeeds. A $9.50 brat and a $6 Trumer at Public House is a steal on game days, but in January the bar will have to compete instead with Magnolia, the Toronado-Rosamunde one-two, and ThirstyBear.
If Public House's beer sommeliers work on the curatorial model, Rich Higgins, brewmaster and the public face behind the three-month-old Social Kitchen and Brewery, takes the artisan approach. For the moment, there are just five of his beers at the brewpub — no guest taps, no bottles, and no vodka, for heaven's sake. The waiters started the meal with the smartest move possible: Rather than let us grumble over the lack of choice, they brought us tastes of every beer, served in votive glasses. By the time they returned to take our drink order, we had argued over our preferences, mulled over the tasting notes on the menu, and started feeling the buzz. Extra appetizers were inevitable.
24 Willie Mays
San Francisco, CA 94107
Region: South of Market
24 Willie Mays Plaza (at Third St. and King), 644-0240, www.publichousesf.com. Bar open noon-midnight daily, restaurant 4-11 p.m. daily; earlier for day games and special events. Muni: 30, 45, N, T. Noise level: loud to obscenely loud.
Social Kitchen and Brewery
1326 Ninth Ave. (at Irving), 681-0330, www.socialbrewsf.com. 5-10 p.m. daily. Muni: N, 6, 43, 44. Noise level: low to moderate.
When I spoke to Higgins about Social Kitchen before all his permits came through, he painted a picture of a revolutionary brewpub. Not only is he determined to make the food beer-focused and attract more women and vegetarians, he also wants to tweak expectations with his beers—brewing low-alcohol, food-friendly styles like Social kölsch, which drinks like the cava of beers, as well as a peppery, none-too-sweet Belgian golden ale (l'Enfant Terrible), or Duvel dressed up for the Folsom Street Fair.
His beers, with the exception of a nondescript altbier, are worth stopping in for, and repeatedly. The crowd, restrained and casual with almost as many women as men, seems to be exactly whom he was marketing Social Kitchen to. It's still possible to find a stool at the wavy wooden bar on a weekday evening, but on weekend nights the bar, the ground-floor tables, and the mezzanine are all filled up (the restaurant doesn't take reservations).
Rob Lam, the chef-owner at Butterfly, has been brought on to develop the menu, highlighting sustainable, local ingredients and Higgins' beers. It's great that his cooks steam the mussels ($8) in spiced kölsch and kumquats (not that the bivalves tasted too strongly of the shoreline for us to finish them), or add a handful of toasted, malted barley to the mâche clusters and kumquats in the beer lover's salad ($8, though we learned quickly to avoid the pickled jicama threads tossed with them, which were saturated in vinegar).
Some of the dishes, such as a beef pot pie braised with Rapscallion ale ($15) and capped with a lofted, feathery puff-pastry lid, looked gorgeous but tasted like unsalted Dinty Moore. A decent-tasting mushroom bread pudding ($15) required a few minutes to get past its gray-brown, pasty appearance. Even the dessert, a deep-dish oatmeal cookie served hot from the oven, was overwhelmed by a mammoth scoop of a mismatched mint-fudge ice cream. And why, we kept wondering, were there kumquats in everything?
There were successes, including both the tempura sweet-potato fries ($5) and the regular Kennebec potato fries ($4), both up to snuff. There was a lovely roast duck breast ($17), juicy if not as pink as the waiter promised, with roasted blackberries and kumquats (ahem). And the one dudelicious dish on Lam's otherwise aspirational menu — the loco moco burger ($13) topped with ground Spam, a fat onion ring, and a fried egg — was the dish the carnivores at the table most enjoyed. We didn't like it because it marked out new territory or because it was perfectly calibrated to Higgins' brown Belgian ale. We liked it because it was good. Would that the rest of the dishes reach such heights.