It hasn't exactly been hard times for Valencia Street, but what was once the locus of all that is sexy and new has lately seen more closures and scaling-downs than openings.
David Lynch turned St. Vincent into a wine bar last fall, then put it up for sale. (A “pasta bar” is supposed to take over the space.) The perpetually empty Amber Dhara tanked, Grub went with quiet dignity, and Boogaloo's is unlikely to last. Abbot's Cellar, a spinoff from the delightful and perennially packed Monk's Kettle, called it quits after less than four years. Management tried to blame the minimum wage — never a good look, considering the commuting costs for a line cook from the East Bay whose shift ends after the last BART — but many rightly wondered if Valencia was simply oversaturated with dining options. Attrition was inevitable, and Valencia's trajectory after reaching peak hipster was only going to worsen it.
But not since Loló moved into the former Lot 7 space and AL's Place extended the bustle a few blocks south has the future looked this bright. In the former Abbot's Cellar space comes Brasserie St. James, all the way from Reno, where the Great American Beer Festival awarded it Best Mid-sized Brewpub in 2014.
It is a formula well worth repeating, and the best thing about Brasserie St. James is very simple: You'll just like being in there. It's warm and inviting, the lighting is good for Instagramming — and no matter how convivial it gets, you can still hear your friends.
Brasserie is French for “brewery,” but it can also be American English for “unfocused, overpriced, pretentious restaurant.” This one, however, gets the vibe exactly right.
But of course you can't eat atmosphere, however oxygenated and full of smiles. Brasserie St. James' kitchen puts out rib-sticking food, keeps everything under $30, and when things go slightly awry, it mostly does so in the wholly forgivable direction of too much rather than too little.
Take, for example, the Callos de Santiago ($22). It's a hefty portion of offal over tomatoes and chickpeas — a blood sausage cassoulet, more or less — and it's almost steroidal with flavor. You're going to want a lot of bread and glasses of Red Headed Stranger — a sort of all-purpose farmhouse ale, $7 — to hold its intensity at bay, but if the worst thing you can say about an inventive nose-to-tail dish is that it packs too much of a wallop, nothing's altogether off. (I couldn't finish it, but took it home, where it mellowed overnight.)
Elsewhere, creativity and edibility went hand-in-hand, and if Brasserie St. James has a slight addiction to blood sausage — read carefully; it shows up under three different monikers — at least everything comes out on a wooden slab. The blood orange bourbon endive ($12) was beautifully composed and came with some of the most buttery mascarpone I've ever tasted. Better still were the Moules Thaïlandais ($18), a mussel curry with lemongrass and cilantro that made everyone at the table agree: Why is this dish not in wider circulation? The $16 mac-and-cheese wasn't overly gooey or cheesy, but the grainy breading and the bits of cauliflower tucked in there imparted enough texture and flavor to make it worth ordering again.
Beautifully breaded so that it looked like coral, the Dixie chicken ($22) was surprisingly spicy, as if coated in invisible Sriracha. Its creamed kale had a kick, too, so that base of fluffy grits is helpful. But the very best dish of all was the magisterial Arctic char à la Russe, a slice of smoked fish in pastry that came with the side salad of my dreams: a dill-and-pickled-fennel affair. I can tick off a dozen restaurants where this ingenious, delicious variation on Beef Wellington would cost $40 or more, yet here it's only $28. (And speaking of à la russe, for a month-old restaurant, the kitchen sequenced everything commendably well.)
There were only two disappointingly mild plates. One was the lamb tartare ($20), which — although large and adorned with peppercorns, cornichons, and an egg whose yolk was the size of a colossal squid eye — still fell flat. Oh well, there are plenty of tartares out there. The other was the Brasserie Braise ($26), a boeuf bourguignon-lite, made with oxtail and beef cheek over polenta, which lacked depth. (Could someone lock it in a room with the Callos de Santiago until they came to an equilibrium?) And in terms of unordered dishes that require a shout-out, there's a $70 Buenos Aires Barbecue for three or four people that reads like the roll call of delegates to some conference of meat parts.
Brasserie St. James is not a terrific place for dessert, but that's by design: Craftsman & Wolves is on one side and Dandelion Chocolate on the other. (However, the former stays open only until 6 or 7 p.m., while the latter closes at 9 or 10 p.m. So if you eat a late dinner and make an exit led by your sweet tooth, you might be S.O.T.L.) The lone item, a quasi-deconstructed orange crème brûlée ($10), was more of a mousse, with glassy shards of torched orange of the kind that will yank out a filling if you're not careful. But we annihilated it.
And again, in spite of a solid wine list and a cocktail bar up front, it's a beer joint — with copper tanks along the rear wall and cicerone Sayre Piotrkowski of Oakland's Hog's Apothecary on staff. There aren't flights per se, but you can assemble your own trio of small pours for $12, which is probably best if you're inclined to obsessive pairing even with a menu full of alluring curveballs. I loved the Red Headed Stranger and the Daily Wages (a saison), and pilfered repeated sips from a friend's Black Gate black pilsner ($6). “I just like the energy of this place,” the friend said, as we took our last sips. It was then that I realized no one had said a word for a full minute. We were all looking around, comfortably digesting, happy just to be there.PKane@sfweekly.com