Even as late-night menus proliferate, San Francisco’s reputation as an early-to-bed — or, at least, early-digestion — kind of town endures. But here’s another ding. Considering the noirish quality of the fog-bound Richmond by night, early-summer arrival Violet’s has an almost Nighthawks-esque quality by evening, although without the strong visual motifs of loneliness and alienation. (Leave that to retro diner Bill’s Place two doors down Clement Street, boasting as it does of being the “Home of the Hamburger.”)
It’s a spinoff of Fiorella, which debuted at 2339 Clement St. in early 2016 with a tight menu of pizzas and pastas, and a heated patio that opened a few months afterward. Partners Brandon Gillis and Boris Nemchenok shrewdly kept things focused, betting that Fiorella’s simplicity and technical skills would fill a hole. They were right.
With its subtle 1940s feel, the cocktail-and-oyster-centric Violet’s might make you question whether you’re underdressed. (You’re not.) It opened right around the same time as nearby Pizzetta 211 spinoff Pearl, and already the Richmond has gotten another hot corner. And while 21st Avenue is the Central Richmond, the only commercial district west of here is a small pocket around Balboa Street and 35th Avenue. Further, and on the opening menu at least, prices for individual items are a couple bucks below what they might be in other parts of town — plus it’s open until 11 a.m. or midnight, nightly. In other words, let’s not gloss over the risk-taking, financial or otherwise, involved.
The similarities between Pearl and Violet’s are several: good cocktails, inventive dishes, a vivacious crowd. But whereas Pearl has welcoming daytime offerings like eggs in purgatory or a farro bowl, Violet’s is strictly a five p.m.-and-later place. But to call it a cocktail bar feels limiting, even when hastily appending “… with good food.” It blurs an already blurry line, even before introducing the late-night happy hour menu with its $20 burger-and-a-cocktail.
The drinks typically include five or more discrete ingredients, although few make use of creme de violette. The opaque, cleverly named Trans Siberian Tea Service might be the most exciting, a Suntory whiskey hot toddy boosted by St. George citrus vodka, choya plum wine, oolong, and honey ($12). If that reads like a war between cloying and excessively boozy, it’s anything but. In actuality, it’s mellow and crisp at the same time, and warming, too.
Some other multi-spirit concoctions are harder on the esophageal lining. Bursting with rum, tequila, Ancho Verde, and apricot liqueur, the Papi Suave ($11) needs ice-melt and a few minutes to calm down. In spite of the sage and lime, it’s getting close to Long Island Iced Tea territory. But the quieter Stolen Tart, a tall pink drink made with gin, calvados, a house-made raspberry cordial, and rosemary ($12), feels like an adult picnic in a secret garden.
Could you go to Violet’s and just drink? Sure. You could stick close to the raw bar offerings, too. (Seen from one angle, Violet’s looks less like Fiorella and more like Leo’s Oyster Bar — and not just because some of the lighting fixtures are the same.) But you’d be missing out on Chef Dante Cecchini’s more-elevated-than-elevated-bar-food menu of grilled tavern wings, lamb kebab, and polenta (plus his Chex Mix, imported from Fiorella even as that kitchen has been given to Eli Franco, formerly of Locanda).
Those wings ($13) are neither uptight nor shamelessly messy, and the vaguely Asian braised cucumbers that partner with them are a refreshing counterpoint. Aioli overwhelmed a fat slice of clam toast ($11) but the use of oregano pizza-fied things a little. Even salmon crudo ($12), which grows like a weed in this city, has a garnish of lightly pickled okra for extra tingles and a nice olive-on-orange color contrast. These are not the sort of things you aimlessly nosh.
Among the more substantial dishes, a plate of pan-roasted sea scallops ($24) commingled with all the fennel the platter could physically support and a turmeric-colored sauce made from sungold tomatoes. It’s one to repeat, but the not at the expense of the much humbler-sounding polenta ($18), which was the unanimous favorite. Like a sort of inverted yolk, a soft egg sits upside-down in the center of a plate of polenta mixed with sweet summer corn kernels and beneath a snowstorm of parmesan. (Or maybe you thought it was burrata at first?) On the strength of the ingredients’ flavors alone, it’s a winner, but it has an ephemeral quality, like catching the corn at peak ripeness.
Elsewhere, a lamb kebab skewer over fingerling potatoes and spinach ($20) was flavorful enough but also the rare dish that sat squarely within the crosshairs of predictability. Although a little over-salted and with crisped mustard greens that all but disappeared, a half chicken in the Judy Rodgers idiom right down to the croutons was a steal at $21. And if you really want to pay respects to a venerable institution, the side of broccoli gratin ($8) is the gold standard of Tadich Grill excellence, coated in a very smoky cheese. Just don’t wrap things up with the “birthday cake,” which felt like a day-old cupcake for the least-popular person at the office.
Above all, the price is right. And while these strong points sound like they might crowd anything else out, the wine list contains a few gems — or, at least glasses worth playfully arguing about. (Nemchenok is a co-owner of Uva Enoteca in the Lower Haight, so no surprise.) In particular, a Pinot Noir from Labor Wines in the Willamette Valley generated the most impassioned oenological dispute this reviewer and his put-upon boyfriend ever engaged in. He loved it; I thought it was merely reactionary, the sum of all the opposites of the laziest California fruit-bomb. He’s probably right.
Violet’s, 2301 Clement St., 415-682-4861 or violets-sf.com
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