One of the secondary consequences of the restaurant world’s #MeToo reckoning has been the end of the chef-as-rock-star mythos. Hopefully, some of those abuse-riddled kitchens have become more collaborative, democratic places. But as with auteur directors, there will always be brilliant people who are led first and foremost by their own vision.
Quince and Alain Passard alum Peter J. Hemsley would appear to be one such person. As the “chef, artist, and founder” of Palette, a conceptual restaurant and gallery space on Folsom Street in SoMa, where art and food are strongly intertwined with a noticeable nautical motif. Not to be confused with the even-bigger dim-sum palace Palette Tea House at Ghirardelli Square — although, puckishly, there’s a seared squid dish here called “Palette Dim Sum” — this Palette tempts your palate with dishes like a root vegetable tartare or a “Blanc de Blancs” offering of halibut with dragon beans and Champagne butter, much of which might be served on plates decorated with thematically consonant designs. (There might be a squid on the plate, next to some actual tentacles.)
Hemsley’s method is the kind of thing that’s usually described as “elevated, yet approachable,” a banal turn of phrase that seems to suggest something lacks the courage of its convictions. Except that Hemsley is most definitely doing his thing, to an admirable extent — and with a wood-fired oven.
For all this emphasis on an artistic pedigree, there isn’t a great deal of self-seriousness. Hemsley’s flavor combinations are meant to be savored more than Instagrammed, and several dishes are dosed with humor. Some of the best are on the happy hour menu, including the flawless baked oysters or the “chicken + egg situation” with a rich jus poured tableside over slices of chicken skins that are as flavorful as reconstituted chicharrones.
The signature Gochujang giant, practically a kraken served with long beans and daikon, is a must-try, while the fingerling potatoes with caviar (plus a bit of eggplant and ramp yogurt) take something that’s roaring back in fashion in this Second Gilded Age of ours, without making it ostentatiously lowbrow by scooping it onto a ruffled potato chip.
It’s SoMa and it’s 2019, so you bet there’s a 28-ounce ribeye priced at $98, but there are plenty of options at or around $20, like Monterey globe artichoke fries, Fort Point Mosaic beer mussels with plenty of garlic, and a kielbasa with IPA mustard.
Almost without exception, these dishes are beautifully arranged, especially the beet-purple tartare with its variously pickled, cooked, and raw components. (The Blanc de Blancs, however, is tres, tres blanc.) But taking Palette in its fullest context, will people thrill to this vision, or even get it? You get the feeling that Hemsley and co. want it to be casual in the sense of having people mill about before, during, and after their meal to peer at the art in the gallery and browse through the handmade ceramics in the shop.
Without a doubt, everyone should check out “Recurring Patterns.” Drily subtitled “A Rich Weaving of Layers, Colors, and Organic Form,” it sounds almost like a compositional study, but British-born Oakland artist Sharon Virtue’s jubilant paintings of Black women crackle with life. The shop, which is staffed, is another matter. Fragrant though they are, coconut-soy wax candles feel like something you can get anywhere. You want to happen upon more idiosyncrasy, but then again, it’s not a museum. These products have to move — although not during a two-week period later in August when Palette takes a break.
In a city that can’t seem to shake its addiction to white walls and exposed ductwork, Palette’s teal interior and whalebone ceiling are a refreshing break from all the groupthink. There are more than a couple dubious aesthetic choices, though.
One chair in a prominent corner looks like a throne made of thick scallop shells draped with a sort of dried-seaweed-and-potpourri, as if the model for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus hadn’t wiped her shoes first. Two vitrines near the host stand contain stylized “lobsters” standing on their tails, one of which is decked out in the colors of the American flag. They look like something Delia Deetz from Beetlejuice might sculpt, but anyway you slice it, this is pure kitsch that doesn’t mesh with the otherwise sterling culinary presentations.
An emphasis on seasonality and local purveyors is nothing new — breaking from that tradition is essentially taboo — but if Palette can keep its focus on the food without the ancillary aspects overtaking it, it has real potential to make an indelible mark.
Palette, 816 Folsom St., 415-865-0529 or palette-sf.com