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Belcampo's Jack London Square Restaurant Is a Meat Palace - August 23, 2018 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Belcampo’s Jack London Square Restaurant Is a Meat Palace

Duck poutine. Photo by Eric Pratt

You have to give it to Jack London Square, which is moving with gusto past the carcass of Il Pescatore and the too- many-parts-for-its-own-good fun zone that is Plank. In the past few months — on opposite sides of the plaza that’s oth erwise home to the wonderfully crooked, 135-year-old, and refreshingly honest Heinhold’s First and Last Chance Saloon — two large-scale, full-service restaurants have opened: Dyafa and Belcampo.

Otherwise little alike in style, they anchor the entire area and breathe life into it. Revitalized waterfronts don’t always seem like they’re intended for a city’s residents, and Jack London Square could have cultivated the kiss-of-death feel of a city-sanctioned coolness district. But it’s a genuine destination now. We’ve covered Dyafa; let’s go to Belcampo. The new flagship of Anya Fernald’s Siskiyou County-based meat purveyor scooped Brett Halfpap up from the Santa Monica location to take over the kitchen at this 230-person space (the former Bocanova). With a customer-facing butcher shop and a large retail area for packaged goods and that inimitable bone broth, it’s more than just a restaurant, although that’s probably leveraging the square footage to capitalize more on square the tourist trade than to serve as a neighborhood meat market.

Strictly as a restaurant, there are many praises to sing. The postindustrial interior has enough natural light, enough charm, and enough pillars with pitted capitals to feel welcoming rather than cavernous. On sunny days — in regrettably short supply this summer in the West Bay — a happy hour, burger-and-beer combination in Belcampo’s semi-shaded outdoor area is simply unbeatable. (Long, long walk to the restroom, though.) In or out, Halfpap and crew have walked a fine line between offering meats galore and foisting an involuntary passport to some donkey sauce-slathered exclave of Fieri-landia.

The “meaty salads” brag that they all contain seven ounces of protein, yet they never feel over-the-top. One of them, a $13 chopped salad with mortadella, cherry tomatoes, gem lettuce, radicchio, white cheddar, and Italian vinaigrette, would be a dead ringer for the cold antipasto at any New York pizzeria, right down to the pepperoncini (but only if you subbed some dried cucumber for those fancy greens). Even something as neutrally agreeable as a Calamansi lime and chicken salad ($12) has plenty of chicken skin in the mix, for flavor and texture in equal amounts. Larb is among the Lao-Thai dishes that seem curiously resistant to non-Thai reinterpretation, but Belcampo’s ($16) is very well thought-out, with appealingly oily minced lamb bursting with citrus-y heat and rolled up in butter lettuce cups.

I like the 28-day dry-aged burger ($16) plenty, as any burger that’s on brioche is automatically good — partly because brioche is the best, and partly because if the kitchen couldn’t trust it not to collapse, they’d have to serve it on some lesser bun. The lettuce-and-caramelized-onions build is simple, a nice alternative to the In-N-Out copycats — and the Kennebec fries hold their crispness until you’ve popped the last one in your month.

If not necessarily superior, the lamb burger (also $16) is at least more imaginative, a softer patty whose assertive animal spirits are darkened with black-garlic aioli, and a pinch of sprouts for the lightest of crunches. Avoid the roast pork sandwich ($15), dry on one visit, tough on another, and engulfed in ciabatta both times.

But for dessert, a $10 peach melba sheds all its fussiness, taking the form of a grilled peach with a scoop of vanilla ice cream over macerated raspberries, with a budding flower in between. It’s gratifying.

One odd shortcoming of this nearly two-month-old restaurant is that the staff frequently seems a little scattered. Ask for a recommendation and you might get a long-winded spiel that provides almost no helpful information, and on a night when we let an eager bartender wanted to show us some new stuff, we regretted it. Stick to the wine list, like a 2014 Condo de Haza Tempranillo, or else get creative with the occasionally wacky beer list, including a malty Federation Utopia Planitia rye beer, which can rub two French fries together to make fire. (Don’t forget about Heinhold’s, though.)

Belcampo raises its animals on 25,000 acres of organic ranchland in the Shasta Valley, where skies are probably much darker than ours these days, and for different reasons. The entire set-up aims to provide the animals, out of a sense of compassion and to avoid stress hormones from degrading the quality of the meat. Wastes are mulched without runoff, nothing uses petroleum, and the healthy grasslands sequester CO2. In terms of reconnecting urban eaters with the Northern California foodshed, it’s almost like a bovine CUESA. (They host meat camps throughout the summer, too.)

This is a long way of saying that if you’ve deprived yourself of a top-notch cut of beef lately, the $42 New York strip is a forbearance-killer. Taking the butter of a classic Delmonico steak to the next level by wrapping it in tallow, it’s the platonic ideal of what you want in a steak: barely seasoned and oozing juice over the potatoes beneath it and pooling all around the plate. If good short loins come from muscles that barely got any exercise in the cow’s life, this was from an odalisque who was fanned with palm fronds. You can cut it by looking at it, but it could blow out the candles on your birthday cake just by looking at you.

Belcampo Restaurant & Butcher Shop, 55 Webster St., Oakland, 510- or belcampomeat.com