San Francisco is not afraid of the grand gesture, just as long as it's the right kind. We tend to snicker at opulence and hiss at blatant displays of power, but we'll back any offbeat project driven by idealism. Which is why the expectations presaging the opening of Thad Vogler's idealism-fueled Bar Agricole approached the mythic in tone.
Bar Agricole was to be, they said, a farm-to-shaker place whose commitment to DIY would surpass the thousands of bartenders out there concocting their own pineapple gum and bitters. Lemon trees on the roof! Foragers on call! Soda brewed in house! Biodynamic farms supplying the produce and some of the meat!
Given Vogler's legendary stints at Slanted Door, Beretta, and Camino, the enterprise didn't seem quixotic so much as the vision of a master craftsman. And once he recruited Brandon Jew from Magnolia to run the kitchen, Mark Ellenbogen from Slanted Door to oversee the wine, and Eric Johnson and Craig Lane to work the bar, the place began to seem like an industry supergroup. New Pornographers: The Restaurant.
Once the restaurant opened a few months ago, after construction delays that surpassed the year mark, it turned out there were grand gestures operating at Bar Agricole — the integrity of the ingredients and the dramatic aesthetics of the space. The long ramp up to the great gray box of a building, set as far back from the street as a Pacific Heights mansion, passes a wood-fenced patio. Broach the front door, and it's hard to decide whether to focus on the bar — as much a showpiece as a spray of flowers — or the stratospheric ceilings. From them hang brightly glowing, curvy boxes, which initially resemble folds of thick felt but turn out to be formed of hundreds of clear tubes. One wall is tiled in thousands of raw-wood barrel staves, irregularly placed so they resemble a school of herring fleeing the fishing boats. Every diner I've brought to Bar Agricole has greeted the decor with the same gesture: head cocked back, mouth a vacant O. Any wonder a seven o'clock reservation is impossible to get?
Vogler's cocktail list (all drinks $10) changes frequently, and the drink descriptions are marked by cognoscenti-approved ingredients like barolo chinato (a sweet Italian digestif) as well as local touches (rum agricole from St. George Spirits, myriad bitters made in-house). There's a story behind each of the ingredients — ask, and the waiters will tell you, but they don't greet you with hyperbolic descriptions of Vogler's sourcing. (Another characteristic of the kind of gesture we San Franciscans love: modesty.)
The drinks are as deftly composed as Vogler's reputation suggests. One night, I sucked down a rum punch, a flossy, flashy little drink tinted pink by hibiscus, served in a faintly fluted coupe; across the table, my friend paused over his tequila cocktail, a brooding, rakish blend of silver tequila, sweet vermouth, and stone-fruit bitters. A bourbon old-fashioned with cherry and aromatic bitters slid across massive hand-carved ice cubes, while a rhum dandy (brightened with lime, softened by vermouth, and perfumed daintily with absinthe) came in a glass mounded high with cracked ice; we sipped it through a metal straw attached to a spoon.
After half a dozen reviews of restaurants audaciously experimenting with forms and flavors, it was a nice change at first to eat food so simple and garden-focused. Perhaps the best dish of my two visits: grilled half-moons of kabocha squash ($13) with a tangle of shredded treviso (radicchio) on top. The bitter bite of the chicories was mellowed by a pool of stracciatella — basically what happens if you scoop out the gooey guts of burrata — and the flickering distraction of fresh chervil. Thanks to Jew's training in butchery at Quince, charcuterie is one of the kitchen's strengths. Two slim, curled rabbit sausages ($19) had mousselike interiors and grill-crisped skins; cilantro leaves proved the captivating twist to an accompanying salad of shaved carrots, wheat berries, and dandelion greens. Similarly, a boudinlike sausage of black cod and crawfish ($22) was all custard inside. Slices of it floated with strips of smoked black cod, lozenges of uni, and marsh grass in a clear dashi broth. While a dry peach upside-down cake was unaided by a medicinal lavender chantilly ($9), another night's crisp-shelled tart ($9) filled a delicate pumpkin custard so fresh-tasting it seemed to shimmer on the tongue.
While Vogler's presentation of the cocktails resolves any conflict between the restaurant's idealism and aesthetic grandeur, the impact of Jew's food relies heavily on the former. Half the time it works: With such fine-tuned drinks I couldn't think of a better bar snack than just-blanched yellow haricots with warm, rose-hued potatoes and mustard sauce ($12), or Jew's pickle plate ($6), discreetly brined instead of flagrantly vinegary. The innocuousness of other dishes — blini-sized zucchini fritters ($8) with feta sauce and chioggia beets, a beautifully cooked quail ($19) mismatched with a bland pool of spinach leaves simmered in a ton of cream — appealed only when I kept my head down and pretended I was in a Sonoma farmhouse.
And as every California cuisine chef from Jeremiah Tower on has demonstrated, when you cook naked food, painstaking attention to detail is a must. One night's baby squid ($17) came off the grill too late to prevent them from getting leathery, and were served with broccolini and white beans that were still firm-centered and floury. On another night, several of the dishes were salty enough to push the pleasure-pain barrier. And at the risk of sounding petty, when I pay $19 for two slightly overcooked sand dabs, still some of the cheapest local fish on the market, the least I'd expect is for the cooks to fillet them for me. The brown-butter sauce napped over them was classic and correct, but deboning by candlelight is no fun.
It became clear after my second meal that my halfhearted feelings toward Jew's food reflect my own prejudices — the prospect of eating grandiose food in downtempo settings holds a more potent appeal than dining on comfort food on an opera set. I don't know that I'd make a night of it at Bar Agricole again, but cocktails with a few farm-to-table snacks? Any night of the week. I'll warm to any grand gesture that leaves me garrulous and flushed. That'd be the effect of the decor, of course.