Alta CA is probably going to take some punches from the anti-gentrification hordes, those blockers of Google buses and decriers of rising rents. After all, the latest venture from lauded chef Daniel Patterson is right in the thick of it in mid-Market, kitty-corner from the Twitter building and directly across from the luxurious, super-high-tech NEMA apartments, which start at $2,300 per month for a studio. But the restaurant, named after a 19th-century newspaper as well as a former moniker of California, shouldn't be written off as a symbol of where the city's going wrong. It's a beautiful example of a dressed-up bistro, but more importantly, it's turning out some really good food.
Unlike the high-concept (and, to some, overly fussy) dishes at some of Patterson's other ventures like Haven and Coi, Alta's menu focuses on comfort food with a lot of technique behind it — it's closer to Nopa and Zuni in its DNA. And with hours that run from lunch to late-night (the kitchen is open until 1 a.m. every night), the restaurant is destined to become a Civic Center institution for power lunches, romantic dinners, and late-night burgers at the bar.
Its flexibility is partially due to the thrift-store-chic room, which straddles the line between classy and casual. There are high ceilings, big windows looking onto Market, salvaged paintings on the walls, a big angular bar in the middle, and a semi-open kitchen separated from the dining room by handsome floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with barrel-aged cocktails, pickles, and books (cookbooks intermingling with items like Pushkin and A History of Seafaring). One night a soundtrack of alt-rock standards from the likes of Wilco and Beck played in the background, not at head-splitting volume but just enough to make their presence known.
The food is an extension of the restaurant's design — comfortable and laid-back, but highly structured and sophisticated if you look closely. Mushroom porridge sounds like a dreary lunch from a hippie cafe, but the team at Alta makes it into one of the sexiest dishes on the menu: It's more like a risotto than gruel, all creamy and woodsy, like a great bowl of mushroom and barley soup. The shaved radish spheres sitting on top look like flying saucers, and the squiggly hen-of-the-wood mushrooms add a visual as well as textural counterpoint. It's a simple, lovely dish that I found myself dreaming about long after lunch was over.
And I fell in love with the burger, an instant classic that will no doubt find its place onto the city's best-of lists. Executive chef Yoni Levy told me that his goal was to make "a straightforward, delicious burger," and on that count he passed with honors. Its house-made seeded bun isn't too thick, the meat has a pink center, and the cheddar cheese mingles with sauce and beef juices to create that delightful, finger-soaking slurry that all great burgers have. On the side are crisp bread-and-butter pickles and addictive house-made potato chips. It will no doubt be compared to the burgers at Zuni and Nopa, but of the three, this is the most elementally burger-y of them.
Similarly impressive were the bar bites. Deviled eggs are the snack du jour in San Francisco right now, but the version at Alta was one of the best I've had in years. Like the burger, there was nothing fancy about them — they were gussied up, not with caviar or toasted quinoa, but with dill pickles and potato chips — but the smooth filling was spot-on, and the accents cut through the creaminess just enough. And then there were the beef tendon puffs, chicharrones taken to a savory extreme, which came to the table fresh from the deep-fryer, emitting a refined snap-crackle-pop. Each bite was light but intensely beefy, and left behind a soft, clean vinegar aftertaste.
Even dishes that weren't transcendent were flawless takes on the familiar. A dish of pork trotter, slow-cooked egg, roasted Brussels sprouts, and whole-grain mustard turned out to be a fun spin on a warm lardon salad from France — in the place of bacon was the crisp, meaty roasted pork, and instead of croutons, the sprouts provided the crunch. Oxtail and chickpea fritters showed the same playfulness. Alternating blocks of fried beef and seasoned chickpeas were plated atop an aioli and scattered with pickled red onions — a fine-dining riff on a falafel or shawarma sandwich.
Did I have quibbles? Not many. The much-lauded soft-serve ice cream, aka the majority of the dessert menu, was fine, as far as soft-serve goes, but even toppings like house-made malt balls and marshmallows for "rocky road" failed to make it more than just a dish of ice cream (though this is not a major complaint). And though I had great service on an evening visit, lunch was a tad slow; a friend had to duck out early after an hour-and-a-half to make a meeting.
With most of the dishes in the mid-teens, and some climbing into the twenties, Alta's a bit out of my regular price range, but I could see myself stopping in late for a cocktail and a bar snack, burger, or house-cured pastrami sandwich. The drinks are on par with some of the better mixology programs in the city — a carrot-ginger drink tasted like a Moscow mule on a juice cleanse, and the barrel-aged Boulevardier was as smooth and mellow as one could hope. But the paradoxically named Reviver, made with gin, orange vermouth, and a challenging Midwestern spirit called Malort, was a little too complex, more of a thinker than an easy-drinker. The rest of the place is just as thought out, but thankfully much easier to digest.