I had some friends visit from another city where 11 p.m. dining options are plentiful, and they playfully held it against me that this is not the case in San Francisco. Stupidly, I took the bait by getting defensive and trying to explain that line cooks pulling minimum wage can’t be expected to find their way back to Hayward at 3 a.m. if they don’t drive a car, etc., etc. Having thus lost, I decided to make it my mission to seek out as many after-hours places as I could, because yes, we do need more of it. (That Nopa subsequently decided to scale back its late-night hours only underscores the point.)
I found good things in Oola, a 12-year-old spot in Central SoMa run by executive chef Ola Fendert that closed for awhile during a liquor-license transfer and reopened with a full bar. In proper San Francisco style, Oola serves brunch, but I skipped it for a couple meals that started around my usual bedtime (and one happy hour, because I can’t help it).
Overall, it’s a good rebuttal to my friends’ smugness. Prices are good, and the atmosphere is lively. And while not a strongly lit place, you can tell care is taken to plate and present the dishes. A tray of grilled oysters ($9), three to an order, arrive lined beautifully with kelp strands. If you absolutely hate any trace of salinity or oyster liquor, these will be the shellfish for you. They’re perfectly good. Tartares seem to have such a wide price range, and I kept deliberating over whether Oola’s steak tartare represents a value or not. At $18, it’s neither pricey nor a steal, but it’s coated in truffle caviar — which is not some exalted combination of sturgeon roe and shavings of the fruiting body of the Perigord fungus, but a hybrid that seems calibrated to lure in the nouveaux riches. But as with parmesan truffle fries — which Oola also offers with its burger — it’s utterly gratifying (plus the quail egg in the middle makes it look almost like a savory pastry).
It was tough to detect much of a mushroom flavor in the plate of porcini arancini ($10) but they were lightly salted and fried. As with the truffle caviar, it’s all too easy to dive into the deep end of that cheesy, creamy goodness (smartly augmented by a rouille, the sauce most frequently found alongside bouillabaisse, in lieu of serving four pure goo bombs).
An overflowing ramekin of brussels sprouts and cauliflower ($9) that appeared with the apps was actually the highlight of the first half, perfectly seasoned with bacon. It came with aleppo, too. What is aleppo? A pepper — and, in our server’s spontaneous-sounding spiel, the “last spice on the Silk Road.” Even after I was full, I picked at the bacon chunks as if they were marshmallows in a box of Lucky Charms.
Among the mains, the Ora king salmon ($28) read like the kitchen panicked that they had to sex it up at all costs. Had the fish been left alone atop the ratatouille, it would have been great, but there’s a super intense tapenade on there, too, and the lighting was too inhospitable to appreciate its full polychrome splendor. Chicken is pretty boring and the name Mary is very boring, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a boring Mary’s chicken, and the streak continued with Oola’s $24 bird, which was crispy and juicy and coherent in exactly the way the salmon wasn’t. They kept it classic with Swiss chard, mashed potatoes, and a wine sauce, and the mushrooms had absorbed just the right amount of liquid to hit critical mass. I wouldn’t recommend Oola’s burger ($16) until they source a different bun, because this one was the pits: dry, crumbly, and smothering all at once. Or go Paleo. But the pappardelle bolognese ($18) was unimprovable, a rich, rounded pasta sauce that incorporated exactly the right quantity of heat from the chiles de árbol. It was slow-cooked pad see ew with meat sauce.
Regrettably for a restaurant of this category, the cocktails weren’t all that hot. An unbalanced Torta da Maca ($13) was a punch-in-the-face combination of Fernet and cachaca Beet Sour. The Beet Sour ($12) made with bourbon, house-pressed beet juice, citrus, and bitters, was limp and thin, as if the mixologist got spooked by the beets’ life-force. The El Jefe Rojo ($13) was indeed the boss, a perfume-y mixture of mezcal, Cocchi Torino, Ancho Reyes, and Aperol that was the only drink that came in a coupe and not over ice; ice might have tamed it. Although the Chef Ola ($12) was described to me as a watermelon cosmo, something I basically regard the way a vampire would treat garlic-infused holy water in a silver chalice, it surprised me with its agua fresca-like intensity. It was like something you might drink while walking from an outdoor wedding ceremony toward the reception. Spirit-forward, no; refreshing, yes.
In their layout, some places are just trying a little hard, and Oola is one. With its mezzanine and servers wearing all black, it feels like it’s from 1999, but the Mr. Brainwash-style art and general vibe give the impression that it wants to be rented out for private parties every single night of the week. It’s dark without being especially romantic, and the music I heard sounds like the Weather Channel without the weather (until they play Miike Snow, anyway). There’s also a square pillar very awkwardly placed inside the bar.
But go a little deeper and the underlying thought process reveals itself. For one, it’s not as though it’s an ugly restaurant, as the bar is unfinished brass and there are weathered cabinets here and there. They screen silent films on the wall above the bar, although on one visit it was an artificial moon. And Oola has a great happy hour: There are daily dollar oysters from 4 to 7 p.m., three different $2 tacos — the veggie ones were the best — and $5 beers from a wide variety of well-chosen breweries, like Ommegang (Red Vos amber ale) and Tank 7 (Saison).
And there’s a sincerity here; everyone I interacted with loves and knows a lot about food. Above all else, Oola doesn’t exude cynicism, as if — hypothetically speaking — someone with a liquor license connected with someone who found a space in central SoMa and they decided to cash in on all that tech money. (With respect to the restaurant industry’s tight margins, there are places like that.) This wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice for date night, but as an after-work spot to talk shit about your passive-aggressive coworkers with your cool coworker who totally gets you, or for a late-night nosh before you’re about to sleep it off, Oola works very well.
Oola 860 Folsom St. 415-995-2061 or oola-sf.com
Hours, Mon-Tue, 4-11 p.m.;
Wed-Thu, 4 p.m. – midnight;
Fri, 4 p.m. – 1 a.m.;
Sat, 11:30 a.m. -3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. – 1 a.m.;
Sun, 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. and 5:30-11 p.m.