Note: This story has been amended to clarify that Alta Group and not Daniel Patterson Group operates Alta. Additionally, the former Alta CA on 10th Street is now known simply as Alta, as well.
While it’s not entirely accurate to call Mid-Market a restaurant graveyard, the cascading failures of so many high-profile projects have spooked most restaurateurs from attempting anything ambitious there for the foreseeable future. Since Cadence, Bon Marché, Oro, and others of that ilk imploded and fast-casual eateries started nibbling away at the desirability of large-scale destination spots, cavernous vacancies remain. But there are a few enduring success stories around the intersection of Market and 10th streets, like The Perennial — and Daniel Patterson’s Alta, formerly Alta CA.
Alta Group has good reason to think its model of California cuisine is a winning one, which is why it has effectively cloned itself in another neighborhood that’s newly rich with restaurants: the Dogpatch. The 10 or so galleries inside Minnesota Street Project — many of which were booted from their original homes at addresses like 77 Geary St., not far from Mid-Market — have won international renown since the space opened in early 2016. And meanwhile, the surrounding neighborhood’s dining scene — long anchored by Serpentine and Piccino — has gotten stronger with the addition of Smokestack at Magnolia Brewing, ’aina, and others.
That logic is sound, but this Alta feels simultaneously like too much and not enough. It’s not especially pricey, as the gratuity is folded into the prices, but it’s a little bit sterile, the same industrial aesthetic you see all over. While there’s a lot of polish to Chef Matt Brimer’s menus and presentation and in the way he holds trends at arm’s length without pushing them entirely away, Alta lacks a cohesive identity of its own beyond the fact that it serves lunch and brunch and the other Alta does not. For dinner, I’m having a hard time coming up with a compelling reason to go here and not to the mothership unless you live in the immediate neighborhood. Unlike at the first Alta, there’s no full bar, and some of the drinks feel almost barren — especially the de minimis Summer of Love (Carpano Bianco, peach, lemon, and wheat beer, $12).
So the focus is on the food. You can call yourself an “art bar” and get away with it, but you can’t do that with a restaurant. (In Situ, Corey Lee’s project inside SFMOMA, comes closest to embodying an idea of an “art-restaurant,” but it’s phenomenally ambitious and globally unique.) Alta wisely avoids looking desperate by trying to ingratiate itself into Minnesota Street Project in any cutesy ways, although there are a couple of nods to the location here and there. One is a drink called the Cindy Sherman, an homage to the chameleon photographer famous for her Untitled Film Stills series. Made with rosé, strawberry, Contratto aperitif, mint, and tarragon, it’s the best of the low-ABV cocktail list — and as the ice melted, it opened up and became more herbaceous and less fruity. Drinks without a quote-unquote “real” spirit as the base are almost never my favorite, but if the Summer of Love tastes like nothing, the Cindy Sherman tastes like the Summer of 2017.
I very much liked the $9 rice puffs, which bear a strong resemblance to chicharrones yet disintegrate in the mouth in a way that’s halfway between a soft crunch and the melt of cotton candy. A glossy-smooth avocado puree was a lovely dipping sauce, and although it chickened out on the piment d’espelette, the whole shebang is high on the addictability scale.
Santa Rosa plum gazpacho ($15) was acidic to the nth degree, its delightful Marcona almonds no match for the vinegary quality. Had it had more cucumber and dill, or maybe a few crumbs of goat cheese, even Luther Burbank would agree that it was stellar. (Such a beautiful color, though: too close to salmon to be Millennial pink, properly speaking, but close enough.)
Things get prettier as they get smaller. In my head, I appreciate that an $18 bowl of halibut crudo is reasonably priced as that once-plentiful fish becomes rarer, but the thin ribbons of nectarine felt outright skimpy. With the presence of quinoa and turnip in there, this baby was starting to leave the realm of crudo; it really wanted to be a full-on salad. The peach slices and studs of almond in the fromage blanc atop the grilled levain bread ($11) were a smarter use of stone fruit. It reminded me of something you ate at a summer barbecue in the backyard of the neighbors who made a point of clipping recipes out of fancier magazines than everyone else on the block read.
The Brentwood corn ($17) was stronger still. Although it looked like garmonbozia from Twin Peaks, it was the very opposite of pain and sorrow, a supremely happy mix of corn and tomato and trout roe and even salsola soda — aka agretti, the seaweed-like strands of that spring succulent prized by chefs for its minerality. But as you should sometimes take one thing off before leaving the house all dressed up, here it would have been the curiously undercooked padron peppers.
A Monterey squid porridge (over koshikari rice, spring peas, and preserved lemon, $28) was puzzling. As the crudo wanted to burst out of its box, so did this want to become paella. Rings of red chili pepper added pockets of heat — and a clever counterpoint to the squid rings — but the peas added nothing and the dish just failed to achieve much depth. Concluding “Where’s the beef?” was impossible with the aged beef strip loin ($32), three perfectly cooked pieces of meat over braised oxtail as rich and decadent as any carnitas I’ve ever had. Putting charred onion, Thai basil, and fairytale eggplant in there sounds like it might become a generic stir-fry, but it was more like someone interlocking all their fingers. It’s an unabashed win in flavor and concept.
Judged by its best dishes, Alta undoubtedly has merit. And with time, it’ll almost certainly find the necessary room to breathe. Meanwhile, another Alta Group project is in the works, too, this one only blocks from the first. Maybe Mid-Market will be a better place to re-create Mid-Market.
Alta, inside the Minnesota Street Project, 1275 Minnesota St., 415-580-7662 or altaca.co