The Velvet Underground and Nico famously sang “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” But in San Francisco, a restaurant called Nico now inhabits the former home of the sequin underground, where all yesterday’s parties ended in raids.
The Michelin-starred French restaurant decamped to the Financial District from Laurel Heights earlier this year, to the site of the former bohemian-gay bar The Black Cat (not to be confused with the current Black Cat, in the Tenderloin). It’s a considerably smaller space, which necessitated a slight change in format to a pared-down menu. But while owners Andrea and Nicolas Delaroque forfeited their etoile for now, they haven’t let go of an ounce of ambition — and the FiDi is much more hospitable terrain for a continental lunch than Sacramento Street, now home to Sorrel.
It’s funny. All around San Francisco, you can feel the city choking on its own sense of history but here, a light touch and some cat-print restroom wallpaper make for a cool environment. Nico stifles nothing in itself to acknowledge its past, but it doesn’t lay down in its folds, either. Once a hangout for the Beats, the Black Cat later became the place where Jose Sarria staged his outlandish Carmen parodies.
Nico isn’t outlandish at all, although it is home to the openest possible open kitchen and to the most beautiful cocktail I’ve seen in ages. Le Chat Noir is a mix of Calvados, gin, genepy, apricot, tarragon, meringue, and activated charcoal, and it takes on that last ingredient’s matte gray hue under the thick layer of eggless foam. Garnished with a deep-red rose, it almost resembles an Irish coffee, but with a lively, floral flavor and a hint of graininess from the charcoal. And while the wine list is tiny, if you play your cards right — i.e., conduct yourself well — you might get an off-menu treat, because “we always have fun things open.”
At present, there’s a four-course prix fixe menu for $62, with a six-course, $82 expansion pack debuting in late summer. Normally, I’m not a fan of menus including things you can’t actually order, but in this case, it’s a footnote. Having been $70 for five courses in late 2016, that represents a principled resistance to the college-tuition-esque inflation that afflicts most menus of this caliber. (I would still expect it to go up, and soon.)
In any event, you start off with irresistible sourdough from B. Patisserie and little ramekins of Irish butter and move on to a beautiful dish of snapper crudo with kohlrabi and basil. Betraying no evidence of the vegetable’s natural alien-probe appearance, these shreds of kohlrabi look like jicama — and they arc over a portion of snapper alongside a dollop of yogurt. Contrary to myth, yogurt and fish together don’t cause vitiligo, but the basil oil underneath was a little out of whack, overpowering even the wakame.
In a wink at Sorrel, a little gem salad with twice-shucked peas and oxalis — aka sorrel — very lightly sauteed in brown butter followed, with a sabayon like the world’s airiest nog. It’s spring incarnate, the butter there in force even though everything retained its virginal color and texture. Let the world be free of foams forever, and full of sabayons instead.
Poached steelhead trout with anchovies and avocado floated atop a sharp tomato-centric broth that contained something described as “black lime oil,” which I only know of as an indica-dominant hybrid. The avocado felt gratuitous and a little easy, but partly because it’s impermeable to the broth.
This third course is the only one where you can vary things up, and the other option was a dish of chicken with morels and asparagus, like something Louis XIV might have on a Monday morning during the off-season. It’s perfectly lovely, although more technically excellent than daring — and it begs for some sourdough, dipped in what looks like an early-stage roux that’s just begun to turn nutty.
For lunch — two courses for $32, three for $38, with an optional wine pairing ($25) and cheese course ($8) — fat spears of white asparagus with a generous dusting of lemon zest and more sabayon opens with a ceremonial gunshot of decadence. A 2015 Syrah connects to the solar plexus of a plate of veal with porcini mushrooms, which would be the cherries, cooked until most of the sweetness is gone.
For dessert, a rhubarb galette with sorbet executes the maneuver of being satisfying without especially sweet, and unusual without being bewildering. Alternately, a fudgy scoop of soft ice cream with a fuller scoop of blueberries under a shattered square of violet meringue makes for a better diurnal ending somehow. Only after you’re done do you realize how few gimmicks or trends show up at Nico, and how remarkable that is. And I don’t know where else in the Financial District feels quite this romantic.
Nico, 710 Montgomery St., 415-359-1000 or nicosf.com