Since the 7.3 billion humans on this planet seem almost certain to blow well past the two-degree rise in temperature we are told will lead to a world without polar bears, coral, or guacamole, a little cheer couldn't hurt. The latest restaurant to appear in Mid-Market is The Perennial — a socially conscious project from foodie power couple Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint (of Mission Chinese Food fame) along with head chef Chris Kiyuna — and its sunny emphasis on “progressive agrarian” cuisine sounds like just the right response to imminent environmental doom. Through aquaponics, agricultural practices that sequester carbon in the soil, and food waste composted on the farm, The Perennial wants to be a model for enlightened food production and consumption, leading us away from dystopia by our taste buds rather than our noses.
Unfortunately, it's a very pricey model, and that's where The Perennial started to lose me. I'm sorry to go Debbie Lawrence Downer, but here's what we need in order to stop climate change: compulsory veganism, the cessation of all jet travel, the immediate closure of every coal mine, and probably a 25-year moratorium on human reproduction, too. Even if homo sapiens vanished overnight, we've already set in motion enough self-reinforcing feedback loops that it will take centuries to get Greenland alone to stop melting. Incrementally more prudent consumer choices by the haute-bourgeoisie (as opposed to massive, systemic changes) are not going to save us. But mostly, my gripe with The Perennial is that the food didn't taste that great.
Throughout, we met weird textures, uninspired flavors, and unpalatable wines. That it mostly arrived in tiny portions probably won't surprise anyone, either. Our server made a point of noting that “the portions maybe be smaller than what you're used to … but they're not gourmet,” and specifically talked us out of ordering enough food. (I get that “gourmet” has fallen out of favor as a buzzword, but if this isn't gourmet dining, then the word has absolutely no meaning. We dropped $240 and left not-quite-satiated.)
I didn't grok the division of the cocktail menu into four categories: highballs, lowballs, fun, and complicated. The first two are straightforward, but when I asked if “complicated” referred to complexity of flavor or difficulty or composition, I got no answer. I went with the Shaddock Rose (Tapatio blanco tequila, grapefruit cordial, bitters, $12), which was like a velvety punch in the kisser, with a slice of dehydrated grapefruit. The well-named Rust & Char (Sonoma County Distilling rye, charred walnut honey, $12) was plenty inventive but too sweet to be an aperitif (which explains its reappearance on the dessert list). The cocktails were better than the wines, though: There are only four reds by the glass, and the two we tried were as cold as if they'd been refrigerated. I rode out dinner with a Chenin Blanc that seethed with internal turmoil.
This is minor compared to the food, which was a parade of disappointments. I'm almost always skeptical of tableside theater, and the art-poured pumpkin seed bisque (with sunchokes, cardamom, and lemon oil, $12) lacked any heft. When I saw the cauliflower toast ($12), I was curious. Would The Perennial do something innovative with this increasingly ubiquitous cruciferous vegetable? Would it mirror the luscious avocado toasts you find around town? Would some little-known local cheese tie it all together? No, not really: It was florets on bread with some greens — but also the rare item with generous portions.
Although a dish called “Crisp and Tender Grains” ($12) sounds like it might bore itself to sleep, it was one of the most flavorful, like risotto with a crunch. (But among those buttery trumpet mushrooms was a fair amount of grit.) The potato confit with clam bagna cauda ($14) was an outright mystery. Bagna cauda is a variation on fondue usually made with tons of garlic and anchovies, but this potato-forward shabu-shabu was as humdrum as chowder. That makes sense in retrospect, but I'd pushed for it on the hope that that tater would explode with umami, and it didn't. Walnuts added a nice crunch, but the radishes contributed nothing. Worse were the celeriac gnocchi ($19), more oily-gummy than pillowy, although brightened a bit by apples and preserved sudachi.
Of the entrees, the lamb was mediocre. Essentially one (small, fatty) chop with a slice of lamb sausage and a small asteroid field of Brussels sprouts and brassicas, it was $25 worth of non-excitement. Much better was the Stemple Creek beef ($25), which, however oversalted, was cooked nicely and presented beautifully among slices of beet and curlicues of carrot. Along with the grains, it was the best glimpse of The Perennial's potential.
For dessert, the buckwheat financier ($11) was basically a log of parsnip ice cream rolled up in the bready part of a Fig Newton. I liked the subtle maple flavor of the candy caps with the faintly mushroom-y earthiness of the buckwheat, but buckwheat isalready such a heavy grain — or pseudocereal, technically — that the chill of the ice cream only toughened it further.
The most impressive feature of The Perennial is the interior, with beautiful wood everywhere and a striking lattice ceiling. And the team made a sound decision to commission S.F artist Wendy MacNaughton to draw postcards explaining the restaurant's philosophy, and her charming aesthetic nixes any semblance of preachiness. (Whew!)
Overall, though, it became clear that the excitement of The Perennial's ideology was fogging its windshield, making it impossible to drive anywhere interesting. Given its physical size, its pedigree, its location, and its clearly stated ambitions, I had high hopes that this would be a statement restaurant, as ethereal and revolutionary as Chez Panisse, but virtually everything was as overly thought-out as it was underwhelming. Meanwhile, the Aliso Canyon gas leak near L.A. spewed enough methane into the atmosphere to cancel out The Perennial's good intentions ten thousand times over. We're still fucked.