The transition from outdated to newly retro always carries a shock. Think of the first time you saw your grandfather's skinny tie and tight, two-button suit jacket on some 20-year-old walking down Valencia Street, and realized you were looking at a new generation of style. There's a delight in seeing the past brought into the present — and maybe some resentment, too, that the shift in fashion throws your own sense of taste out of whack.
At Thermidor, their new restaurant on Mint Plaza, Neil Jorgensen and Bruce Binn are rocking that retro shock, and hard. The owners of Spork — where they've been tweaking seasonal Americana of a more familiar stripe — are trying to bring the 1950s and '60s into contemporary cuisine.
In designing Thermidor's cocktail list, for example, consulting bartender Brooke Arthur (Range, Prospect) reworked Ice Storm–era drinks like Moscow Mules and Old Pals. Binn's menu reads like no other in town: The chef consulted old editions of the Larousse Gastronomique and 1960s Gourmet cookbooks, trying to recapture fine dining before the great modernizers of the early 1980s, such as An American Place's Larry Forgione and Jeremiah Tower of Chez Panisse and Stars. There is baked Alaska and pommes dauphines, lobster and butter everywhere. Binn is earnest about making the retro food work, and I'll be damned, most of it does. Whether San Francisco takes to Thermidor, though, may have more to do with timing than the chef's talent.
The decor seems of a piece with the menu. As you walk in, leaving the sterile Mint Plaza behind, the room looks like a photo spread from a back issue of Gentlemen's Quarterly. You notice the smoke-gray tulip chairs, the chromed crown-shaped lights, the black-leather banquettes, and the wall of drapery. How quaint, you think, and picture Thermidor populated with cigar-smokers and bouffants. Then you shake your head and note the exposed, brutal concrete pillars and the raw wood paneling along the back wall. Had your grandfather walked into Thermidor in 1953, he would have told the host he'd wait to come in for dinner until construction was finished.
It's hard for me to know how the dishes on Thermidor's menu resonate with the generations that bookend mine (and the chef's, for that matter). Diners in their sixties may have eaten chicken Kiev at their wedding receptions, but by the late 1970s it was a cheap, greasy frozen dinner staple. Meanwhile, diners in their early twenties may have never heard of scallops Newburg or Moscow Mules, which read to me as culinary kitsch.
And yet, despite my wariness, my first encounter with Binn and Jorgensen's mid-20th-century cuisine brought back a pleasurable jolt of time regained. As we waited for our drinks, the buser delivered a high-domed dinner roll, unabashedly soft and crustless, its warm, yeasty smell the same as every batch my mother baked for bridge parties and family gatherings. There were other reminiscence-laden dishes. Three potato chips ($6) were topped with a ziggurat of shallot-flecked sour cream, smoked trout, and a few clear fish eggs; the chips shattered in the mouth, tasting at once of foam-flecked waves and school-picnic chip dip. And Binn's classic sole almandine ($23) — slim, pan-fried filets napped in a straightforward brown butter–prosecco sauce with flaked almonds — was a dish I ordered well into the late 1980s, and was content to eat again.
In fact, many of the dishes call out fine-dining traditions that never went away. Oysters with champagne mignonette ($14 for six, $24 for 12), for instance, nestled in chopped ice, still symbolizes a night out on the town as much as it did 50 years ago. Few contemporary menus omit a dinner salad ($8), though most chefs don't take the time to arrange a whole head of butter lettuce, each leaf coated in a Dijon vinaigrette, back into a great green flower. Binn's little burger ($6) comes straight from a steakhouse children's menu; placed on a pool-ball-sized brioche and bedecked with sharp cheddar and caramelized onions, it's no slider, and thank god for that. And the chef manages the rare feat of making the Caesar salad ($10) look new — by slicing a cross-section of romaine hearts to create a pale-green lettuce platform, which he glazes in anchovy-spiked mayonnaise and dusts with finely crumbled breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan.
Binn lards the menu with contemporary dishes — fried cauliflower tossed with lemon, mint, and garlic ($6), or a salad of farro and heirloom beans ($6). And Candybar alumnus Kyle Caporicci's relentlessly clever desserts (all $8.50) barely nod at the 1950s. Sure, he's just introduced a baked Alaska, but its kinks aren't all worked out — the flavor of the yuzu meringue is washed out by the vivid raspberry sorbet underneath, and the cake core seizes up in the freezer. (Perhaps it did in the 1950s, too.) More successfully, Caporicci has reprised Candybar's white-chocolate cigarette filled with a tobacco-infused cream that prickles the lips; here he's paired it with carrot-cake doughnuts, coffee ice cream, and crumbled chocolate cookie "grounds." And when you break through a chocolate bar to scoop up the oozy smoked-paprika caramel it contains, along with the toasted corn nuts scattered on the side, the flavors come from no point in culinary history you've ever lived through. Yet it's so good you find yourself doing things to the caramel-covered plate that would have made your grandmother ground you for a week.
The richness of Binn's food gathers momentum as the night goes on. You eat a few pieces of his celery Victor ($6) — a white anchovy laid atop each section of braised celery and then deep-fried — and enjoy its salty kick, the delicacy of its batter coating. Then you have a few spoonfuls of corn bisque ($8) and the sugar in the corn is paramount, followed by the suspicion that the No. 2 ingredient is cream.
It's not until the entrées arrive that you realize what you've gotten yourself into. The worst offender is the lobster Thermidor ($32), a dish that dates back to Belle Époque Paris. Binn presents it straight up: A lobster, sliced lengthwise so its legs and arms surround the body in a macabre filigree, is filled with chunks of overcooked lobster meat and pools of cheesy cream sauce. No matter how much you enjoy the first bite, it soon makes you take back every hateful thing you've said about Alice Waters (this month). Even Binn's dry, rather dull reworking of chicken Kiev ($22), a panko-coated chicken breast that the cooks stuff with chiles instead of ham and too much cheese, comes with butter-poached Thumbelina carrots and mashed potatoes saturated with cream. My first meal, I skipped dessert and rushed home to down a shot of Fernet in order to calm the grumbling, too-taut orb of flesh my stomach had become. On the second visit, I resorted to sharing entrées.
The bloated grandeur of the entrées, in fact, is so at odds with today's tastes that it points out just what a challenge Thermidor's owners have set for themselves. Looks-wise, the restaurant works — between the popularity of Mad Men and the return of the fedora, we've come back around to midcentury fashions — and when Binn lets creativity trump culinary history, his retro food tastes great. Is the time right for the comeback of lobster Thermidor? Not unless it's tweaked beyond recognition. In five years, who knows — maybe cream will be back in style.