Something always appeals to me about restaurants in the liminal zones between neighborhoods. Whether they’re on a steep hill or not, they’re often fighting a Sisyphean battle against inertia. Unless it’s a destination — Wild Flour Bread outside Sebastopol, say, or even the Old Clam House — being as little as a block off a major artery can all too often signal the death knell. But there’s still a fascinating chicken-and-egg dimension: How might something off the beaten path become an icon in the first place?
Easily found at the intersection that gives it its name, Mason Pacific is along the Powell-Mason cable car route, so it’s not as if it’s on a penal asteroid or anything. But it feels a little detached from Nob Hill — and certainly from Russian Hill or Chinatown (which is technically around the block). After a fire last March and a four-month hiatus, Chef Max Mackinnon — who won a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2012, for Pistou in Burlington, Vt. — took over from opening chef Sean McTiernan, but he only lasted a few months before moving back to Vermont.
Now it’s Justin Wright’s turn. Mason Pacific is unquestionably priced for its immediate environs, luring Nob Hill dwellers and business travelers and people who splurge on shoes that cost more than a tablet. But Wright isn’t hoping the staff pulls off a gilt serving dome to reveal a cloud of steam and maybe a beef Wellington; it’s altogether contemporary. Just breeze through the menu: scallop crudo, agnolotti, a half-chicken. (Well, that last one’s a classic, but a perpetually fresh classic.)
Start with the endive salad — or, rather, the $14 sunchoke Caesar that used be known as an endive salad. It’s a bit pale in terms of coloration, but not of flavor, with curlicues of sunchoke over a walnut crumble that’s, in turn, over a judicious quantity of dressing. Dotted with avocado, the tuna ceviche ($19) is considerably prettier, with fat cubes of tuna daring the citrus to do its worst. Apart from the proportions of fish to serrano chile, there’s nothing out of the ordinary here; it’s simply very good.
There’s avocado on it, too, but in lieu of avocado toast, there’s a sardine caponata ($16) that’s larded up with eggplant and capers. As a peasant dish from Sicily, the ratio of sweet to sour to salty is entirely up to the cook, but as a personal point of preference, I would have preferred more of the first two and less of the third. Chunky tentacles of grilled octopus — $18, and irresistible to me, as always — have enough chorizo on them to keep things hot even when the shishito peppers fizzle, plus olives. There are curiously prepared potatoes that felt almost freeze-dried, or as if the moisture had been vacuumed out of them and they’d begun to collapse. You’d expect them to be oily, though, so I enjoyed the novelty of the texture. But the albino-like fennel, as startling as a ghost bike chained to a stop sign, felt grafted on.
You can go for poached trout with artichokes and clams or duck breast with maitakes and kabocha squash, but if you want a tried-and-true late winter rib-sticker, there’s braised lamb ($34) with lentils, carrots, and cipollini onions — with more shishitos on top. In other words,
it’s boeuf bourguignon busting out of a lamb dish, as dark as the Caesar salad was light. (There’s an almost chiaroscuro quality to the tone of Wright’s dishes.)
Even though it means the reappearance of sunchokes — that cheffiest of cheffy ingredients — the scallops ($38) are elegant and flawlessly seared. Plus, there are eight of them atop a jumble of brassicas, and a bonito broth that sharpens everything against an umami whetstone. For dessert, chocolate pot de creme ($10) is hard to beat, although if a restaurant is going to offer after-dinner cheeses, it would be awesome to have more than two, a Marin French brie and a Alpine cheese from Upstate New York called Dutch Knuckle.
So quiet was the transition between chefs that I only realized in hindsight that the brunches I ate at Mason Pacific were under the previous regime. To be evenhanded, I’ll keep my yap shut, but things look largely the same as before, with a stronger dinner-for-breakfast approach. There’s avocado toast and a sourdough waffle with maple and bacon, but also a New York strip steak with potatoes and hollandaise and beef tartare with eggplant, shallot, and mustard. And they take reservations for brunch, too.
What you go here for is wine. Not pairings, per se — it’s still a neighborhood bistro in spite of sommelier Dustin Wilson’s stints at RN74 and (wow) New York’s three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park. Wilson works this gig remotely, so beverage director Eric Railsback, another RN74 alum, is the face of the house expertise. To wit, a $15 glass of vanilla-herbal Mascarello Dolcetto is fairly magnificent, and the dark berries in the Iberian Remix Red ($13) are palpably dandy.
Back to the prices. In absolute terms, they’re quite high: Where $30 is a ceiling many places try hard not whack their heads on, here that figure marks the floor for entrees. It’s not disqualifying, but there’s a particular type of casualness that gives me pause — doubly so, when hearing a sentiment like that come out of my mouth. It’s not that forks are clattering left and right or everyone’s taking a smoke break, but a bro-ish, business-casual vibe pervades. If you’re going to roll up your sleeves to serve $38 entrees, why wear a dress shirt at all?
What’s especially odd in this context is the framed art. There’s a pic of a kooky-looking finger puppet with the caption “The people loved him / The critics hated him.” (Cheeky talisman or not, we can’t possibly be talking the vox populi here, right?) Apart from that, the atmosphere is well-done. Together, the main dining room and the less beige, more relaxed lounge are capable of handling every type of party: big groups, dates, business associates, friends in threes, even the odd singleton reading at the bar. It’s all but begging for a nighttime establishing shot in a rom-com montage with the Bay Bridge lights twinkling in the background. The critic really liked him.
Mason Pacific, 1358 Mason St., 415-374-7185 or masonpacific.com