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Roostertail: 1950s American Plates Meet S.F.'s 2012 Palate 

Wednesday, Feb 1 2012
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San Francisco food types are connoisseurs of the mundane. The perfect peach. The nonpareil pizza. The burger formed of just the right beef, grilled just so, and placed inside the airiest of brioche buns. It's a rather specific sort of close-up vision, though. We are mildly critical eaters when presented with a six-course tasting meal or anything bought off a food truck, but give us a burrito and we'll pull out a jewelry loupe to examine the marinade on the meat inside.

Does roast chicken fall into the category of dishes that activate our collective OCD? Not yet, but it would make for a good candidate. Consider the culinary training that the chefs of Pacific Heights' new Roostertail apply to the rotisserie chicken. The 2-month-old restaurant's owners, Gerard Darian and Tracy Green, met in the kitchens of Postrio back when it was at the height of its powers, and afterward Darian ran the kitchens at Bix for a spell. Two cooks who could by rights be running the kitchens at $40-entrée places, manning the rotisserie and serving sandwiches with fries and coleslaw on the side? Sounds like a San Francisco kind of place.

Darian and Green took over Cafe Kati after Kirk Webber retired last year, and set up the place for pre-movie dinner dates as well as Tuesday-night takeout. The space, redone, has just enough barnyard references to check the urbanity of its grey-walled, subdued interior: the floorboards resemble aged planks and large tintypes of wheelbarrows and chickens line the walls. There's a flat-screen TV looming over the front of the dining room, though it's easy to ignore if you sit at the bar or at the tables in the back. Many of the craft brews on the drinks list come in cans, and the menu is nailed up above the cash register. The owners don't resort to tractors and gingham to convey the point that this is classic food made with the American palate of the 1950s and the Bay Area expectations of the 2010s in mind.

You will not find yuzu, guajillo chiles, or vadouvan in your dishes. You may find cream of broccoli soup one day ($4.75), with the color and smoothness of jade, its vegetal flavor bright. "Didn't I used to hate this when my mother made it?" you might ask yourself, spooning in another bite. Or slices of brisket ($14.50), presented on a pool of beef juices, that have been slow-roasted so long the fibers in the meat appear to be held together by gravity alone. Held up against a thousand truffled, lobster-riddled mac 'n' cheeses, Roostertail's straightforward version ($5.50), with just the right cheddar bite and an enduring creaminess, makes you wonder why we're so intent on doctoring up a dish that just wants to be made correctly.

Darian and Green have designed an interlocking menu of meats, sandwiches, and salads for the tiny open kitchen at the front of the room. Roostertail's two meaty focal points, rotisserie chicken and brisket, can be eaten alone or in sandwiches. The same barbecue sauce that comes in a tub on the side of the roast bird is used to coat pulled pork. Bacon is a recurring theme, but not a cheap gimmick.

And that chicken ($5.75 for quarter of dark meat, $6.50 for white, $10.50 for a half, and $18.50 whole)? On two of my four visits, it was as good as the spit-roasted birds from Roli Roti or Goood Frikin Chicken. The cooks slather free-range Mary's chickens in an herb-and-garlic paste that becomes a savory, cola-colored varnish as the bird roasts. It's hard to top to the evenness of cooking a chicken on the rotisserie, and Roostertail's thigh meat, shiny and tender, pulls off the bone with the same ease that the breast meat does. I encountered a few seasoning problems — on one visit, the bird wasn't salted long enough, and on another, too much sage in the marinade gave the flavor a medicinal, mossy cast — both of which were resolved by dunking the meat in the sharp, verdant parsley salsa served with the chicken. (They use the same sauce to coat crisp-skinned chicken wings, which may be the restaurant's most innovative dish, and one worth sneaking into the Kabuki to break out after the opening credits.)

The meal-sized Cobb ($9.50) and Goddess ($8) salads were meals I wouldn't order again, dominated by bland romaine lettuce and overly acidic dressings, and the restaurant's barbecue sauce, whether served on the side with the chicken or on the pulled pork, blared a note too sweet and loud for me.

But the side dishes are good enough to cover the table with. The none-too-sweet coleslaw ($4), for instance, coated in enough mayonnaise to smooth over the cabbage crunch and then dosed with enough red onion and a little horseradish to prickle the sinuses. A great gold frizz of onion strings ($4), sweet onions shaved so finely that they melt before they stop crunching. Chard ($5.50) sauteed with enough lemon juice to flash and spark, and brussels sprouts ($5.50), shaved as fine as down, stir-fried with just enough bacon and garlic to tame their mustardy bite.

While you order at the counter, the ebullient counter staff checks on drinks and clears plates as regularly as at sit-down restaurants. As of last week, the servers double as carhops, too: Call your order in 15 minutes ahead of time, and when you drive past they'll hand it to you through your car window. Which gives you the opportunity to take the roast chicken home, break out the silverware, and leisurely examine it under the microscope of your expectations — one more small pleasure made worthy of your expert opinion.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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