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Shaded by a row of tall cypresses and wedged between a dental practice and an all-you-can-eat sushi joint, nearly year-old Bottle Cap seemed a million miles away from the glitz and glamour going on across Washington Square at newly deemed "it" spots such as Park Tavern and Original Joe's. A pianist played saloon favorites on a vintage Yamaha while a genteel crowd lingered at the wooden bar, a relic from the old Washington Square Bar and Grill days, discussing spending on Proposition 29 ads and the state of Tim Lincecum's psyche. In the adjacent, dimly lit, muted green dining room, several large parties of dolled-up twentysomethings, most of whom appeared unaware that Sex and the City has been off the air for eight years, nourished themselves before a night out at the bars. Neither a tattoo nor a beard was in sight.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
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Chef and owner Dayne Boryta's menu reads like a description of his restaurant's patrons: Some are classic, some are relics of the '90s, and a few are trying to fit in with modern times. It's nearly impossible to pinpoint Boryta's style. Here's a chipotle chicken. How about a shrimp louie salad? Oh, and don't forget the tuna poke! It's not that all menus need to be regionally or thematically focused, but Bottle Cap's eclecticism borders on zany. Although a few dishes showed what the kitchen is capable of achieving, many others were the victim of misguided ingredient combinations.
The funny thing is that perhaps the most eclectic offering was also the best. Don't miss Bortya's pierogi ($17), an homage to his Polish grandparents. Although one never would confuse San Francisco with wintertime Warsaw, this hearty dish still warmed the bones on a cold and windy June night, prompting a friend to ask why pierogi are rarely seen around these parts. Bortya kneads his sour-cream-enriched dough to form five semicircles that he stuffs with meaty portobello mushrooms and Bellwether Farms' sheep's milk cheese. After being boiled and then fried to a pale, lightly crisped brown, the pierogi are doused with a dill-tinged broth and topped with a dollop of garlic cream and a fistful of brilliant red cabbage that adds texture and brine.
Also a winner was a cylinder of the aforementioned tuna poke ($11), boosted by both black and white sesame seeds and a dash of red clay salt. The restaurant uses only wild caught tombo tuna that lends a slightly stronger fish flavor than typical versions made with albacore. It made for a bracing starter, especially when paired with one of the bar's signature drinks, a perfectly balanced Jalisco cooler ($9) featuring Espolon Reposado tequila and orange bitters.
In both salads I tried, a mishmash of too many items rendered featured fruits indistinguishable. A tangle of limp fried shallots dominated a baby greens salad ($8), so much so that beets and orange slices couldn't shine through. Similarly, a sweet gems and arugula salad ($8) was marred by too bitter greens and goat cheese toasts, completely overpowering the thin slices of otherwise sweet strawberries.
Another victim of over-complexity was a generous filet of Alaskan halibut ($24), perfectly crisped on the outside but overcooked to the point of being rubbery within. Its flavor was muddled by a fava bean risotto, braised turnip greens, and spinach all piled underneath the fish. The combination simply didn't work. I tried to take an unadorned bite of the fish to no avail.
Simpler plates also didn't fare well. Fried chicken thighs ($8) were all batter and little meat, bringing to mind the version found at Safeway's deli counter, save for the clean oil. While a grass-fed burger ($13) was cooked to medium-rare as requested, it was dry and lacked beef flavor. A crumbly Panorama bakery egg roll and an indiscernible slice of sharp cheddar didn't help. And a rectangle of well-seared Coleman Ranch pork belly ($10) needed a longer roasting as it lacked that melt-in-your-mouth "wow" moment that's common at many local tables. The bed of luscious, fragrant creamed corn that it was served on? Phenomenal. I yearned for a bowl of it on its own.
Under the direction of Bortya's wife, co-owner Liz Ferro, service was casually friendly, sometimes too much so. Upon delivering an order of fries to the table, our server loudly exclaimed, "Wow! That's a big order of fries! I wonder why they give you so many?" We didn't quite know how to respond. Other issues piled up: a fumbled reservation, wrong dishes brought to the table, right dishes consistently placed in front of the wrong diner. Although de-crumbing the table between courses was a haute touch, crumbs were inattentively wiped directly into my friend's lap. Twice.
We left on a high note, though, due to a creamy smooth, throat-tingling butterscotch pudding ($7), perhaps even better than the reigning gold standard at Pauline's Pizza. A dark chocolate banana cream pie ($7) suffered from a limp, difficult-to-cut crust.
It would be interesting to see what Bottle Cap could become if Bortya could zero in on a style and run with it — perhaps Eastern European. The pierogi alone are evidence that the man has some serious cooking chops, the result of 20-plus years behind the stove in various kitchens on both coasts. Some menu items, such as the fried chicken and the pork belly, feel forced, as if Kortya thinks he has to serve them in order to appear current. He doesn't. Instead, a little more focus could go a long way.
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