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Theme restaurants are tricky things to pull off. Go too far, and you've got an overblown headache like the Rainforest Cafe. Don't push far enough, and the place feels half-done and hollow, like circus-ish Straw. But done just right — local bars like Smugglers Cove and Wilson & Wilson come to mind — theme restaurants offer a sense of adventure and novelty, a chance to be a different person for the night.
The Cavalier is the new British-themed restaurant from owner Anna Weinberg and chef Jennifer Puccio, the team behind Marlowe and Park Tavern, along with Weinberg's husband, James Nicholas. It's a beautifully decorated, posh space, often serving very good (if pricey) interpretations of British food, but something about it comes across as forced. The Cavalier is stuffed with signals of Britishness — fox hunting tableaux, teapots, taxidermy, and a menu full of pub classics — but for all the iconography, it feels about as British as Disney's New Orleans Square feels like the French Quarter.
The restaurant was designed by Ken Fulk, and the décor is just about as detailed and over-the-top as you might imagine from the man who recently designed tech billionaire Sean Parker's fanciful redwood wedding. There are four distinct dining rooms. You can grab a Pimm's Cup and a bite in the Blue Bar, lined with animal heads and salvaged cathedral lanterns. For an intimate dinner, you might choose The Stables, with its working barn door and hand-painted fox hunt wallpaper. Power-dine in the main room, with its red walls and white tablecloths, or pretend you're on the Orient Express in the Rail Car, equipped with vintage luggage racks and tufted banquettes. If you happen to know Weinberg personally, you can visit the private bar in the back, named for Marianne Faithfull and decorated like the photo shoot for the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet with oriental rugs, velvet divans, and flickering candles.
360 Jessie St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
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British food has redeemed its reputation for awfulness over the past few years, as restaurants like the Spotted Pig in New York have shown an elevated side of meat-and-potatoes cooking. Chef Puccio's menu hits all the right notes, though many of the dishes need to be qualified: It's a "take on" steak-and-oyster pie, an "interpretation of" welsh rarebit. This doesn't mean the food isn't successful most of the time — it is, it's just not the food I ate when I lived in the U.K., and the reinvented dishes didn't always improve on the classics.
One of the most buzzed-about items on the menu, and rightfully so, is the lamb scrumpets, a gimmicky snack that's nonetheless as fun to eat as it is to say. Scrumpets are a traditional British dish: here lamb ribs, breaded and fried, that come stacked like a pile of luxe mozzarella sticks with a side of vivid mint dipping sauce. Bite into one, and the succulent texture and flavor of the lamb floods in, although there were a few gristly bits on the ribs that you had to pick out of your mouth, feeling very much the opposite of posh.
Venison tartare was a less innovative, but very tasty appetizer, even if it wasn't so much tartare as it was seared slices of rare venison. But the meat was tender and moist, despite its leanness, and was sprinkled with fried shallots on a bed of watercress and a garlicky, anchovy-garlic sauce.
In the odd "Cheese and Eggs" section of the menu, I wasn't sold on the Scotch egg, a soft-boiled egg coated with a duck/mushroom mixture and deep fried; it tasted overpoweringly of truffle oil. Much better was the decadent Welsh rarebit souffle, an inspired take on the traditional hunting dish with a cheese sauce pooled atop a dense souffle that was almost like a warm, savory cheesecake.
In the fish and chips, the petrale sole was chippie-perfect, with a crunchy, light crust and moist, flaky fish within. The "chips," however, were thin, American french fries, crisped within an inch of their lives. One of the great pleasures of fish and chips is the way that the two elements combine into a lovely, malt vinegar-laced mush. These two felt as far apart as Britain and Ireland, though the citrusy, fresh pea-shoot salad on the side handily outshone the typical mushy peas.
Steak-and-oyster pie, another pub classic, was very elegantly plated, with one oyster on the half shell sitting atop a small cast-iron tureen of beef stew, with a ceremonial circle of puff pastry sticking out like a sail. The stew had a complex red wine flavor but not enough beefiness, and the oyster just created confusion (you can eat it separately, according to the restaurant, or mix it into the stew to poach).
Both Marlowe and Park Tavern are famous for their burgers, and the Cavalier's Blue Bar Burger came with high expectations. It came close, but the kitchen has some more tinkering to do. The beef was juicy, the Panorama bun was fluffy, but the toppings were all bitter — instead of watercress, a few thick slices of bacon would bring some much-needed richness.
The whole time I was dining at Cavalier, I was wondering who it was for. Marlowe and Park Tavern are so successful in part because they blend seamlessly with their neighborhoods; they give off the sense that they evolved organically, rather than pushed an arbitrary theme. Part of the disconnect might be Cavalier's location in the lobby of the new, self-consciously hip Hotel Zetta. Hotel restaurants are their own entities, and half the crowd at the bar seemed to be business travelers eating burgers and looking at smartphones. The rest of the diners were the well-dressed, late-30s/early-40s crowd that you'd find at Weinberg's other restaurants — the type who can afford $16 burgers and $22 fish and chips. The Cavalier is for them, I suppose. It just wasn't my cuppa tea.