“Spaceballs the Flamethrower” is among the mystical guru Yogurt’s most popular licensed meta-products in Mel Brooks’ 1986 sci-fi spoof, but it took megalomaniacal would-be overlord Elon Musk to bring one to the market. Chef Anthony Strong of PRAIRIE is one of the lucky people to obtain one, and it sits somewhere in the kitchen at PRAIRIE, his fun and relaxed Italian restaurant on 19th Street in the Mission, where Hog & Rocks once stood. It’s hard to tell what it’s used for — if anything — but just knowing that a Not-a-Flamethrower is in there should bring a smile to your face. And as in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, dinner there is a little like a carefree motorcycle ride through Italy.
A little bit like Robin, Adam Tortosa’s unorthodox Hayes Valley omakase operation, PRAIRIE bends rules in the service of creating a fun environment with inventive dishes. An 11-year veteran of Delfina, Strong gives the impression that he’s had a lot of ideas bottled up for a bit, workshopping them on his own time. You pretty much have to get the guanciale-wrapped mochi (three pieces for $10), as they are blissful and gently scorched little bites that herald all the charcoal to come. And you also have to get the pane distrutto (chunks of bread drowned in olive oil and Early Girl tomato pulp, $8). Is it more Catalán than Italian, a pa amb tomàquet or pan con tomate? Yep. So what?
Considerably more authentic is the white bass crudo with carta di musica ($16), a cracker traditionally so thin you could swap it for sheet music — except that it’s not that thin, and the crudo is more of a ceviche owing to the “green juice.” It’s snappy and vivacious, so again, who’s gonna argue? Minty and mushroomy, the slices of rice gnocchi ($17) nearly matched the mochi’s chew, even if the parmesan disappeared on a subsequent revisiting. Pasta portions are shrinking everywhere, but the luscious Gulf shrimp and burrata tortelli come seven to an order ($19) and they’re rich enough that the overall presentation feels generous, the celery sofrito popping up around the margins to keep it tight. A full pound of mussels ($21) came with an even bigger slab of open-faced ’nduja toast, spread unevenly as if to rub its spicy rusticity in your face — but still the ideal vehicle for mopping up the buttery broth.
A side of spigarello ($9) is a restorative palate-readjuster, as is a pot of Romano beans with yet more Early Girl tomato sauce and a wisp of chilies ($9). In another context, they might come off as sloppy, but here they’re part and parcel of the confident epicurean vigor. While I love the idea of jazzing up roasted cauliflower with bonito bagna cauda ($11), even that garlicky hot bath couldn’t save this overcooked, too-thick, and somewhat discolored cruciferous error.
It was rare misstep, though. Bigger dishes like the pancetta-wrapped hen “piccata” with umeboshi-caper brown butter ($25) take something that’s the bane of bad wedding receptions and sales conferences and defibrillate them. (I had a tough time branching out to try new things, even after just the first visit.) Virtually everything coming out of this kitchen feels like a skilled home chef on an adventurous tear for a big dinner party, without showiness or fussiness.
PRAIRIE is brawny without being off-puttingly hypermasculine, you might say. The wine list is good, with an Aglianico that enlivened almost everything, and cocktails that balance experimentation with the solemn duties of an aperitif. Try the Prairie Sour, a take on the Slanted Door’s Filibuster made with rye, egg white, lemon, Aunt Jemima syrup, and Angostura — or go with the bitter orange Black Manhattan, made with Amaro CioCiaro. Dessert is real good, and if a big irregular chunk of chocolate baba with vinegar whipped cream ($8) is borderline ugly, it still jives nicely with a round of house amari ($10 for two).
Probably the worst thing that can be said about PRAIRIE is that the Mission can sometimes be absolutely fucking horrible to be in and/or look at. On one visit, a guy had a laptop out on his table at 8:30 p.m. as if it were a cafe (and as if its screen weren’t polluting the entire space with its horrible glow, slowly killing everybody else’s rods and cones and fun). We gossiped about him with the server, who maintained a level of professionalism and claimed it had never happened before. But it can still happen again, and a manager should have shut that bullshit down. Another note on service: The initial idea was to keep interactions to a minimum by ordering on cards, but it seems as though PRAIRIE might be leaving that idea at the Alamo Drafthouse where it belongs. The flow is unobtrusive but still very capable, with superb coursing on two of the three visits.
A couple of stylistic quirks will be minor to almost everyone and evening-ruiners for the rest, like paper napkins and menu print so tiny it could thwart a tarsier. [UPDATE, 11/18: PRAIRIE is switching to linen napkins.] And is there anyone in San Francisco who doesn’t miss Hog & Rocks, at least a little bit? It couldn’t retain a chef to save its life and now it’s dead, but it would have been nice for it to have relocated. But now we have guanciale-wrapped mochi on radicchio and a whole lot more in its place. A restaurant that’s happy to be seen as fun — imagine that.
PRAIRIE, 3431 19th St., 415-483-1112 or prairiesf.com