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Wine Kitchen: Small Plates and Gentrification on Divisadero 

Wednesday, May 15 2013
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Divisadero is under construction. At least that's how it feels walking the stretch between Fell and Geary — on every block there's at least one storefront boarded up with plywood or a land parcel set aside for condo development. All this construction, of course, has brought a flurry of new places to eat and drink. This year, Divisadero has already seen the opening of Four Barrel outpost The Mill, with its three-dollar gourmet toasts, and the second location of boutique grocery Bi-Rite Market. In the works are a 110-seat "mezcaleria" and a juice bar.

A few weeks ago neighborhood stalwart Da Pitt BBQ unceremoniously closed its doors, giving further fuel to hand-wringers proclaiming Divisadero the "New Valencia." Those who love the neighborhood for its laid-back, unrefined character (and bloggers who like to complain about such things) are worried that the once-scruffy corridor could turn into the slick, pricey scene that's spurred leaders in the Mission community to call for a ban on new restaurants on Valencia Street.

In January, in the middle of all this debate, Wine Kitchen moved onto Divisadero — a quiet, unassuming wine bar across the street from the glittering destination restaurant Nopa. Wine Kitchen is the dream of two chefs and co-owners, Greg Faucette and Jason Limburg, who put in time at illustrious local kitchens like Commonwealth, Bar Tartine, Per Se, and Spruce before opening their own spot. That experience has translated to a restaurant with an impressive wine list and an ambitious, though less impressive, small plates menu. Despite all its potential, Wine Kitchen is strangely soulless — hopefully not a harbinger of the fate that could befall the Divisadero corridor.

Wine Kitchen's lack of personality starts with the interior. The long room has beige walls, a wooden bench and tables up front, and a long bar in the back set off by high tables. Art on the walls is dominated by reclaimed wooden sculptures holding succulents and candles; they're pretty enough, but because the room doesn't have a coherent theme or much other decor aside from the wine bottles behind the bar, the wooden fixtures feel tacked-on.

True to its name, the place's biggest strength is its wine list, with four local selections on tap and nearly 20 by-the-glass selections. The list is California-heavy, as you'd expect from an S.F. wine bar, but its glass and bottle choices span the globe. And if you don't know what to order with your food, there are thoughtful pairing suggestions for each dish on the menu.

Small plates are the only thing on offer, and they are at their best when at their most simple. I would happily come in again for a glass of Oregon pinot noir paired with the gnocchi, the best dish on the menu — fried potato dumplings as light as marshmallows inside but with a crispy crust, calling to mind a sophisticated tater tot. The dish comes with al dente mushrooms, a generous sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, and thyme, but the highlight was the soft, yielding texture of the potato dumplings.

I also keep thinking about the sweet peas. With daubs of ricotta, perfectly cooked and salted English and snap peas, and a blast of fresh mint, the dish summoned all the promise and freshness of spring. If this is what the kitchen is capable of doing with seasonal ingredients, I look forward to seeing what comes of the bounty of the summer.

Many of the small plates weren't original enough to overcome their flaws, though. Tuna crudo, a small plates menu mainstay since the '90's, tasted of little but sesame oil — both the raw fish and the bed of quinoa it sat on. It didn't help that the dish was garnished with unappetizingly brown slices of avocado. And a scallop dish had overcooked seafood and undercooked fennel, the result leaving both much too chewy.

Some items seemed like they could be successful if only they weren't so ambitious, like the hanger steak and egg, a bistro mainstay. The plate was anchored on one side by a mass of watercress mush that tasted a bit like I would imagine a swamp would taste — I pushed it as far to the side as possible. At the other end of the plate, basically in a different zip code from the steak, sat a poached egg, the fancy sous vide kind that's all oozy and gelatinous. We cracked it but couldn't figure out what to do next; in the end, we dipped the bits of steak in it, but without salt or fat to give the egg some unctuousness, it didn't add much to the meat.

One of the best parts of the meal was dessert, a fragrantly spiced orange chocolate pudding topped with nut strudel. It had just enough orange to make its presence known without stealing the spotlight, and was just sweet enough to satisfy without tasting like something you'd get out of a plastic cup from the supermarket.

All through one meal I eavesdropped on a group of fashionable thirtysomething women out for a girls' night, who spent the evening discussing pregnancy, what happens to one's sex life after a first child, and so on. Throughout the bar were similar groups having similar conversations. There's nothing wrong with the topic — I'm liable to find myself in those discussions from time to time — but it made me wish, perhaps unfairly, for the conversations about dream journals and kombucha at the parklet at Mojo Bicycle Café down the street.

I don't mean to pick too much on Wine Kitchen. It's across the street from Nopa, meaning they're sure to get some solid overflow traffic, and it's a perfectly pleasant place to have a glass of wine and a snack. The neighborhood's average rent for a one-bedroom is above $2,500; it has supported upscale restaurants like Nopa, Nopalito, and Bar Crudo for years. Gentrification is par for the course in a city like San Francisco, and there's nothing wrong with ambition when it's executed well. I just hope that it doesn't mean a neighborhood as gritty as Divisadero has to lose its roots.

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