Six months after its opening, 3rd Cousin had yet to make much of a splash. Chef Greg Lutes — of the now-shuttered Lot 7, and highly regarded restaurants in Chicago and New York before that — operated a well-liked pop-up series a few doors down called Kinfolk, but for whatever reason, 3rd Cousin seems to have remained a well-kept secret.
Considering the inward-looking nature of Bernal Heights, that might not be hugely surprising — I bet more than a few people within walking distance like it that way — but with blogs like Bernalwood cheerleading for one of San Francisco's loveliest urban villages, it's surprising that a restaurant this ambitious has so far generated a mostly local appeal.
And ambitious it is, which is odd considering 3rd Cousin's location at the far eastern end of Cortland Avenue. Between it and the gardening supply stores on Bayshore Avenue, there ain't much there. There's an option of an $89 tasting menu with $59 wine pairing, although ordering a la carte yields a sufficient adventure. My perspective is a little skewed, since my occupation necessitates over-ordering in order to do my job right, but 3rd Cousin would make a great date restaurant — as long as your date is a big eater.
The extensive menu name-checks a conspicuously high number of Ingredients That Chefs Love, like farro, ramps, uni, fava beans, burrata, morels, and yuzu. There's also miso, brassicas, mole, crème fraîche, ramen, rapini and broccolini, and pea and brown rice “tots” (not my scare quotes). Reading between the lines a little, one gets the sense that there's a sort of frenzy at work, like a brightly colored bird displaying its full plumage to attract attention. 3rd Cousin never tucks its feathers away for even a second. I'm not opposed to a more-is-more approach, but piling on ingredients can occasionally detract from a focal point and make the aggregate effect come off as slightly compulsive rather than playful. (On the other hand, late spring is second only to the high fall harvest for chefs who draw their influences from far and wide, so maybe Chef Lutes is just trying to pack it all in.)
Case in point was the Wagyu bavette and short rib (with two-year cheddar polenta, asparagus, arugula, an onion ring, and horseradish, $32). Is it really necessary to stick so much ornamentation onto Wagyu beef? The onion ring in particular feels out of place; you could argue that it adds a bit of levity or proletarian street cred, but in a whisper-quiet, romantic restaurant, it doesn't need to be there.
Hand-wringing aside, there is much to applaud. The bright-green nettle gnocchi (with morels, ramps, peas, Parmesan and cream, $18) was a touch grainy-pasty, more like lima beans than any of its constituent parts would have led me to expect, but the cream sauce was undoubtedly a winner. Similarly creamy was a dish of burrata and grilled baby artichokes (with cherry tomatoes, pickled spring onions, rapini pesto, and green olives, $16) whose acidic touches cut through burrata's tendency to smother everything in gooey dairy.
On both visits, I had the same impression of the hamachi crudo (with avocado, green strawberry, “strawbenero” sauce, furikake tuile, and black garlic, $15). Although served on a platter that reminded me of the Federation symbol from Star Trek, the presentation was otherwise very '90s, with the different sauces represented as perfectly round dots around the plate — but what matters most is the flavor, and here, you can appreciate both the delicate nature of the fish and the stronger, almost mustard-like quality of the accoutrements. (Pair it with Cleto Charli rose Champagne, if you drink nothing else.)
A ramekin of uni crème brûlée ($19), as close to a house special as you'll find, combined American sturgeon caviar, tobiko, and flying fish roe in a delicious little carnival. Just as the burrata had been held in check from overwhelming the artichokes, here the uni is a working partner and not the end-all-and-be-all, and it's probably shocking to no one that it's tasty as hell.
Although everything was more or less heaped together visually speaking, the duck breast and duck brat (with farro, snap peas, cauliflower, fava leaves, aprium, and yakiniku barbecue, $32) might be the best presented dish, since every constituent part was discernible to the palate. You have to appreciate the labor that goes into half-shelling the pea pods to reveal the individual peas, like an illustrated cross-section in a biology textbook. And the pappardelle (with broccoli di ciccio, wild mushroom, smoked mozzarella, crème fraîche, reggiano, and truffle, $32 for an entree portion) is a marvel of well-cooked pasta, folding back on itself like Möbius strips underneath just the right amount of excess. You have the option of supplementing it with guanciale, but you don't need it. And lastly, a word on the bread: Get it. Each time I went, our table scarfed down several helpings of Pain Bakery's porridge bread with house butter.
I have a soft spot for Bernal Heights. It was my first San Francisco neighborhood when I moved here, so I have to admit a bias. If you include the strip of Mission Street between Cesar Chavez and 30th streets as Bernal territory, it's got almost everything you could want, from ICHI Sushi to Good Frikin' Chicken (although most places are pretty casual). But if you consider only Cortland Avenue, things become more scattershot — a solid Nepalese place, a decent taqueria, the less fancy New American restaurant Red Hill Station. Thus, the fact that 3rd Cousin is open until 10 p.m. is significant (although if you plan to arrive after nine on a weeknight, you may want to call ahead, because the server strongly hinted the restaurant might close if it's slow).
Without slighting Hillside Supper Club or the always-wonderful Precita Park Cafe on the other side of the hill, it's great to see a higher-end restaurant put down roots here.