The vertical neon sign outside The Saratoga says, “Established 1908,” which is something of an exaggeration (although the building was constructed post-1906 earthquake).
At two floors, with an opulent chandelier in the atrium and branded china, it unmistakably evokes the 1920s, but its cubic dimensions are also subtly reminiscent of an Apple Store — maybe one on, say, a White Star Line steamship. The lower level, which contains barely one-third of the seating that the upstairs does, looks like a century-old Manhattan steakhouse, albeit one with mohair walls and pat-of-butter-shaped Art Deco ceiling fixtures. It’s classic, bordering on conservative, and garlanded in holiday spirit (for the time being) in a way that isn’t gaudy in the least. And on every visit, there was a distinct seamlessness to the service, a level of attention in which simply gauging your surroundings is likely to result in inadvertent eye contact with a server who isn’t “yours,” and who comes over to check on you all the same. It might sound like gentlemen must wear a jacket. But chef de cuisine Jason Wittek’s menu goes in the opposite direction.
Well, not necessarily — at first. Start things off with a hyper-classic Parker House roll ($2) and be generous with yourself when it comes to the butter of the day. One recent evening’s butter was kalamata, which sounds like it would be sharp and pungent, but it was mild and mellow, never overpowering the sweet simplicity of the lightly crusty roll. Rolling pin in hand, Fannie Farmer would approve.
Far better than even the freshest bruschetta, the bagna cauda ($12) was a remarkably proportioned mix of salt, garlic, tomato, parsley, olive oil, and cream, on levain. Although on the swampy side, visually speaking, it’s a must. But for the pickled Fresno chile, the refreshing hamachi crudo ($16) kept things strictly Japanese, a fairy ring of amberjack and bits of pear with vinegary beech mushrooms. You could quibble that the shrooms overpower the fish, or see it my way and say they’re delicious.
Arguably the easiest item to replicate at home, the Brassicas Grenobloise (mostly cauliflower, and with pine nuts, capers, and currants, $12) were a bit oily and ordinary, falling through the cracks amid all the rich, cusp-of-winter vegetable sides out there. A bit on the quiet side in spite of the intact heads, the grilled New Caledonian blue prawns ($18) came doused in a perfectly fine chili-oil vinaigrette — but they were nothing beside the berbere-spiced chicken paillard — which, in spite of its seasoning’s Ethiopian provenance, tasted exactly like a chicken curry. For something as humdrum as a baked chicken breast, that one’s enough to lure me back.
However, it’s the cheeky dishes that established the real mood. In spite of the lowbrow reference, the ‘Toga Tots (with scallions, chorizo crumbles that look like Bacon Bits, and shavings of Fiscalini cheddar, $8) were a jumble of stacked cubes. Similarly, the hot dog — I mean “Cubano Frank” — was a $15 wonder of slow-roasted pork, yellow mustard, and mojo relish, on a lightly grilled bun. The meat was unafraid of the ballpark-wiener tones, and the discord between its brazen folksiness and the surroundings made me laugh. You might think, “Why would a place this fancy serve a hot dog?” But the real question might be, “Why not elevate a hot dog and elevate its surroundings, too?” I almost couldn’t tell if I was deep inside a bubble looking out — onto the Tendernob, no less — as The Saratoga had a laugh, but I came to believe they’d pulled off a neat trick. Starchy purists would shatter a monocle, eating here.
The $12 to $14 cocktails are, in a word, dynamic — and aptly named. The Sibling Rivalry is like two twins who wrestle each other to a draw: a superlatively balanced rye-and-St.-Germain beauty made with Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, and both Regan’s and Peychaud’s bitters, as well as an erect, Abstract Expressionist lemon peel. Giving the taste buds a Batman-style ka-POW!, the Green Goblin — made with Botanical vodka, Green Chartreuse, and Maurin Quina (the devil figure on whose famous poster is probably where the name comes from), plus lime and basil — is right-up-to-the-line tart.
The Free-Trade Agreement is basically a Pisco sour with Singani and cachaça added; I’m guessing that name refers to Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, the spirits’ respective countries of origin? Its bitters are added with a medicine dropper, while the flaming sugared pineapple that crowns the Walking Dead (i.e., a Zombie variation, with rum, lemon, papaya, pomegranate, pineapple, and tiki bitters) is exactly as Tonga Room-esque as it sounds. And, of course, there is a large-format situation, the Stag Special (a $100 vat of bourbon, rum, Maraschino, green tea, pineapple, lemon, and mint).
But because The Saratoga is also owned by Bacchus Management Group — the same parent company as Spruce, which contains one of San Francisco’s largest wine cellars — you needn’t order something shaken or stirred. The full list of drinks runs for pages. That always sends me into paralysis, so I asked for a recommendation. (The $15 glass of Crozes-Hermitage from Paul Jaboulet Aîné was the way to go.)
And maybe even more than the tots or the frank, the desserts embody what The Saratoga’s all about. A plate of reimagined Ho Hos made with frosted-chocolate roulade, vanilla cream, and sugared pralines ($9) paid homage to the Hostess with the least-est without a trace of partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil, but the Scotchy Scotch Scotch pudding ($9) was in another league. A humble jar of pudding topped with Black Label caramel, it was creamy to the nth degree, probably the best dessert I’ve had in all of 2016. Getting all impish like this would be off-putting if the prices were sky-high — all the more so given the surrounding neighborhood’s poverty — but they’re not. Don’t let the dapper doorman, the dozens of single malts, or the chandelier that looks like it was made out of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude fool you. This is a ‘toga party masquerading as an exclusive club.
The Saratoga, 1000 Larkin St. 415-932-6464 or thesaratogasf.com