Slow Club prospered for an amazing 24 years across the street from the Muni depot at the corner of Hampshire and Mariposa streets. Unlike pockets elsewhere in the city where beloved restaurants seemingly gave rise to whole neighborhoods, it didn’t accrue many companion eateries. Even today, there’s barely anything else to eat — apart from the wonderful Coffee Bar — for two full blocks in any direction, or more if you venture north or east. Attempting a neighborhood restaurant in a liminal non-neighborhood is no easy task, and Slow Club’s long, respectable run ended last August (living on, in a way, in Serpentine, over in Dogpatch).
That space has since become the home of Paul Einbund’s The Morris, a project that exerts strong industry-insider appeal. On paper, that description could sound as much like an invitation as a cautionary warning, but there is enough here that’s unique enough to sustain it in this isolated corner of a neighborhood that has exploded with options since Slow Club’s debut.
While most restaurants of this caliber are chef-driven, The Morris’ center of gravity lies with its sommelier, Einbund (formerly of Frances) and his encyclopedic cellar. The full list of “booze & stuff” runs to 61 pages, of which more than 50 are devoted to wine; the table of contents alone is two. The layout is smart, with categories like “versatile whites that pair well with anything” and “pinot noir from the rest of the world,” but if it’s still too dizzying to contemplate, the regular menu keeps it to two pages. On advice from the server, I went with Gamling & McDuck’s Hyparxis #2, a multiple-vintage, Cabernet-based, moderately tannic treasure that drank as smoothly on its own as it did with a motley assortment of dishes.
And what an assortment. To call The Morris “New American” is basically to admit that the category is now a synonym for “miscellaneous.” This menu is French-ish, California-ish, and East Asian-ish, all at once. Start with the dumplings ($3 each). Both types, chicken and foie gras, were little flavor grenades, served in a corona of broth — but if you don’t object, the foie gras is truly extraordinary. The Tartine bread with duck-offal confit, was one of those things you tell yourself to stop eating because you know how much more is coming, and then blow right past your own internal finger-wagging to finish. Somehow, some way, it’s only $4 ($2 each for the bread and the confit). How can you not? The server brought us more bread without us having to ask. “I really want you to try it in the sauce” with the squid, she said. How could we not?
That squid was technically the blistered pole beans ($12), but it’s fair to say the order is reversed on the menu, the sauce being a broth that nailed the spicy-citrus combination right on the head. Deceptively simple, this is what you wish your neighborhood Thai takeout place was capable of, the kind of quiet superstar that, if it’s not available on your second visit, puts sad-face emoticons in your thought bubble.
I had conflicting thoughts about the salmon crudo, which was way too heavy on the celery and lacked much flash to differentiate it from ordinary lox — until the Thai basil came out in the end and locked arms with the brininess to create something of a palate cleanser. Crispy pork trotters ($7) were completely anodyne, any barnyard earthiness they might have had extinguished by the batter. (“I already don’t remember if I ate it,” my dinner date said.) At $5 per slice, the shrimp toast — which was avocado toast by another name, because that stuff is just plain unavoidable — was ordinary and unexciting. By this point, I was a little irritated with the habit — by no means exclusive to The Morris — of coy menu descriptions that omit a lot of ingredients. Because in retrospect, the things that would have sounded a bit dull had they been explained in full were exactly that: dull.
But in the tug-of-war between misses and hits, the hits triumphed. The crab porridge ($16) hinges on lemongrass and — surprise! — tempura, but plenty of crab within the carrot-infused, massa brown rice porridge itself. At some point, my friend and I were getting animated talking about the election until I lost my train of thought completely, having hit the mother lode of beautifully cooked crab. But the wow is the smoked duck, which takes more than five full days to ready. (They know it, and they want you to know it, too. The Morris’ day-of reservation-reminder text informs you it’s “quickly becoming a favorite.”) As I write this, I still have turkey in my fridge plus turkey in the fridge in the garage that we only turn on before and after parties, and you couldn’t ask for a better contrast with turkey’s grainy stolidity. The half-portion is $48, the whole $96, and the honey-and-espresso jus is a marvel.
And dessert: A pile of chili powder-dusted buckwheat doughnuts with a slightly too-boozy crème anglaise ($8) isn’t half as gut-busting as it sounds. However wine-centric The Morris may be, it’s no slouch in cocktail land, with an Improved Whiskey Cocktail ($13) being a solid aperitif. Hot Toddy season is upon us, and that good-for-what-ails-ye beverage ($12) sheds any utilitarian connotation here, as it’s the color of bone broth or a rich cider and comes in a rustic-looking ribbed mug.
Slow Club’s bones remain largely intact, and there are lots of lovely incidental details, such as the servers’ herringbone aprons and their gray, long-sleeve dress shirts. Sound dampeners are everywhere, including one entire wall. This not only rescues diners from a crescendoing feedback loop of chatter — something that once culminated in a brawl during the Slow Club days — but saves the interior from looking starchily loft-like, too. While using the restroom, you can watch a video projection with ambient audio — which reminds me of the Scenery Channel from Back to the Future II. If The Morris aspires to do for duck what Zuni did for chicken, it’s got a solid shot, but even if it just stays a neighborhood joint in an odd neighborhood, at least it’s a sexy spot to eat in.
The Morris, 2501 Mariposa St., 415-612-8480 or themorris-sf.com