Menu subdivisions have a way of tripping all over themselves. They have to telegraph some semblance of order while retaining a little more mystery than the neighborhood pizzeria’s takeout pamphlets your mom stuffed in the junk drawer. Like a medieval taxonomy that grouped birds and butterflies together because they both fly, some kitchens glom things together according to a crude logic, while others just seem to want to keep the physical menu easy to read. (This can be witty, like True Laurel’s “Small Things” and “Things That Are Also Small” sections.)
Executive chef Alex Hong of Sorrel didn’t bother with any of that. His menu reads mostly in ascending order of price, which partially conceals the fact that a lot of the items on it are pastas. Before taking over the former Nico space on Sacramento Street, Sorrel operated as a pop-up around town for four years, plenty of time for a concept to find its voice and work on acquiring perfect pitch. Maybe it’s an implicit acknowledgment of carb-ophobia or maybe it’s a reluctance to be pigeonholed as “merely” an Italian restaurant, but Sorrel is heavy on the pastas for a good reason. They tend toward the excellent and anchor this dining room to its New American side.
It would not have been entirely out of step for Sorrel to marshal its fan base and move toward the $200-or-more tasting-menu route, now that it has a permanent home. But Hong and director of operations Colby Heiman have moved away from that model into à la carte territory (at least for the time being).
Whatever you do, start with the loaf of sourdough focaccia ($8), which takes one of the best breads and one of the worst breads and combines them into something very special that is anything but the labradoodle of bread. The inside is dense with a moderate crumble and without focaccia’s occasionally excessive density, while the outer skin barely cracks at all. For maximum rusticity, get some with cultured butter — a leafy piece of sorrel, or Rumex acetosa, comes stuck to the pat — and a dish of garlicky, almost underripe bagna cauda ($3 each). You’ve just spent $14 on bread, but butter is the new bacon.
Like an everything bagel that’s been crushed into a disc, the cracker that accompanies the lamb tartare ($17) gives a structure to a dish that might otherwise just quiver on the fork. The nonspecific “nuts and seeds” that go with its cured egg err on the side of mild but the overall effect is stimulating — especially after the bread. A borage fritto misto ($9) is an interesting concept, and the batter is so light that they almost look like they were glazed in an ice storm, but it’s a little too delicate, disintegrating in the green coriander sauce rather than picking any of it up. Much better was the madai snapper crudo, bathed in nutmilk and fingerlime and arranged with the geometry of the Sydney Opera House.
At the top end, a dry-aged duck for two ($78) would crown any meal, and Sorrel’s combination of star anise, fennel pollen, and pistachio makes for strong aromatics that don’t detract from the meat, although that is unquestionably a steep entree. Somewhat more modest is a $41 Wagyu Zabuton with smoked cabbage, parsnips, and pea shoots.
But really, it’s most worth your time to go spelunking among the pastas — which is where Hong’s time at Quince becomes clear. The pork sugo orecchiette ($22) has the spike of Calabrian chili and the textural counterpoint of heirloom broccoli di Cicco to keep the pork’s strong flavor from being as overwhelming as an imperial roll. It’s a well-composed dish, in no small part because the pasta is so thick. Spring’s arrival is unmistakable on the English-pea-and-mint cappellacci ($18), like a tricorner ravioli, which has a dusting of little purple flowers and a sauce derived from the whey left over from the sheep’s milk ricotta tucked inside.
A smoked duck tortellini in brodo ($20) isn’t afraid to include far more crackling than fava beans, almost like a fanciful wonton soup in a saltier, snappier bone broth. The carnaroli risotto ($34) was the weak link, as it needed either more cream or more time to incorporate the stock because the rice’s starches were pointedly present on the tongue, overtaking the Dungeness crab that was essentially the point of ordering it. And the farro verde ($26), a garlicky ring of grains intermingled with white asparagus and fava greens, would have benefited from removing the olives. Their flavor is too dark and intensely cured, a wintry note that was out-of-step with its otherwise seasonal center of gravity, and probably added to give the otherwise vegetarian dish as much heft as it could manage. But should they fall away, that means four thoroughly excellent and impressively varied pasta dishes.
Sorrel lacks a full liquor license, but the titular cocktail ($12) is packed with enough rhubarb to get the sweet vermouth standing on end. Comparatively few wines are available by the glass, but while a $15 Domaine Milan Grenache blend had only a little body to it, it possessed enough versatility to manage the wide range of pasta fillings and accompaniments. The standout dessert might sound almost as contrived as sourdough focaccia, and it’s a $12 dish that combines strawberries three ways: fresh, as a granita, and as a glaze, all topped with cracked black pepper and shaved white chocolate. It’s refreshing and original without trying to topple categories, something that can be said for the entire restaurant, really.
Presidio Heights — which Sorrel is technically half a block or so outside — has a reputation for being quiet and a little staid. Granted, Spruce and its labyrinthine wine cellar are there, and so is the hypoallergenic cafe As Quoted, but the affluent residential neighborhood isn’t the city’s most dynamic quadrant. But Sorrel hasn’t gotten starchy. Nico’s map of Paris’ arrondissements is gone, but the dining room is beautiful, its skylights opened up — and the chiaroscuro in the restroom is really something, too. But in another twist, the nicest seats may actually be up in front by the window. After eating at that black, white, and green marble bar, I want to eat at it again and again.
Sorrel, 3228 Sacramento St., 415-525-3765 or sorrelsf.com