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Bernal Heights' Tinderbox Inflames the Palate 

Wednesday, Nov 7 2007
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A tinderbox, the dictionary tells us, is a box for holding tinder (gee, thanks), but also "a person or thing that is highly excitable, explosive, inflammable." Tinderbox, a snug and chic new boîte in Bernal Heights, incited a little conflagration when it posted an opening announcement on a local blog that briefly inflamed the neighborhood — at least, the inhabitants with young children. The restaurant merely wanted to let people know that the place wasn't really set up for children — which a glance through its big plate-glass windows or at its ambitious, tricky menu would reveal — but the unintended effect was to appear kid-unfriendly. One young mom fantasized about organizing a group sit-in, families filling the tables when Tinderbox opened for the evening, ordering the cheapest thing on the menu, and refusing to leave.

As it turned out, once the blog flames died down, the self-same activist had quite a good meal at Tinderbox — without child. So much so that she and her husband were entirely amenable to another meal at the place — with me. Our arrival for our reservation briefly flummoxed the front-of-the-house guy, who thought he'd seen our names listed under another date. The room was full, so he offered us glasses of wine at seats at the tiny bar in the back, an L-shaped blond-wood shelf boasting four or five high black-and-chrome swivel stools. We chose a Riesling, a Sangiovese, and a Muscat from the very interesting, idiosyncratic wine list, curated by Omar White, who previously created a stellar list for Pizzaiolo in Oakland.

From our perch, we could catch a glimpse of the busy kitchen, as well as admire and catch a whiff of the pretty plates issuing forth from it. After ten or twelve minutes, we were escorted to a gleaming, copper-topped table set at the long banquette — there's one along each wall, and that's the restaurant, save a tiny one-party room up a few stairs with an even better view into the kitchen than the "bar" has.

The menu starts with a page devoted to the philosophy of both cooking and design, with a lengthy and impressive list of the suppliers and sources of Tinderbox's food chain of ingredients ("Everything from the pasta to the soda syrups are made in-house"). I peruse the decor ("The dining room is constructed from green and salvaged materials"), which includes Proustian cork-lined walls, arty glass-box lighting fixtures, and tangerine-colored upholstery wittily echoed at the feet of the tall-backed chairs.

The long page listing the dishes takes even more study. It's topped with intriguing "house-made libations" such as bitter orange blossom, melon-mint, plum-jasmine, or grape-basil, available with sparkling wine or soda. Five seductive starters follow; then two T-box tastings, which each include two dishes from the starters, with a wild card thrown in; and a stand-alone pasta dish, a house-made saffron chervil lasagnette, with a choice of two fillings. Those are followed by six mains, two sides, and five desserts. There's a lot to read: A typical entry is "fried game hen with plantain crust ... milk-poached garlic mash/kaffir lime leaves/banana chili sambal." That sounds good to me, but it all sounds good to me, even if I can't quite taste the dish in my mind's palate. Meanwhile, we're munching on free hot popcorn and fried crunchy peas flavored with curry powder and fresh chervil.

Chefs Ryan Russell and Blair Warsham (late of Campton Place) are working hard in that kitchen, but they're also having fun. You may think you know what you're getting when you order a fig-and-beet salad. But at Tinderbox, a deconstruction of the several stacks of fruit and veg will reveal thin slices of dried fruit as well as fresh, adding textural interest to a dish that's plenty interesting already, with a walnut-and-blue-cheese "popper" that's like a miniature version of the '50s cocktail-party treat; orange-onion compote; and a raw-beet vinaigrette. My T-box tasting was assembled with vegetarians in mind: a smaller serving of the beet salad; a pretty layered vegetable terrine in kombu (seaweed) aspic; and the vegetarian version of what Tinderbox calls Yankee onion soup, which is hot cipollini- and pearl-onion broth poured at table atop a crouton layered with cauliflower cream and cheddar. Alas, it was a little pale-tasting (the version made with beef broth is probably more robust). I also missed the point of the rabbit hot pocket. Its buttery, flaky pastry was superb, but the elusive flavor of the shredded rabbit within was lost to the salt and tang of its accompanying aromatics and its bed of salsa verde.

We shared a second course of the lasagnette, choosing calamari over zucchini as the "stuffing." Here, too, the dish's conception eluded us. One supple sheet of pasta enfolded fried calamari nicely, with fresh paprika pepper pesto beneath, pecorino foam above. None of the ingredients seemed to enhance each other, except to increase the dish's saltiness; we would have preferred the calamari on its own.

With the main courses, Tinderbox was back to exciting and inflaming us. I loved the tender collops of olive-oil-steeped black cod, which my friend had enjoyed so much she was ordering it for a second time, and its thoughtful accompaniments of a zucchini blossom stuffed with more cod (pureed here), elaborately plated with creamy yellow corn jus dotted with caviar, swirls of black olive oil, and the verdant surprise of the uncommon herb saw leaf. Everything on the plate of the candied, grilled rare sirloin — rubbed with a mix of sugar, chiles, and salt — was delicious: three fat truffled sweet "potater" tots, a shredded carrot slaw full of tiny chunks of good smoky bacon, and dots of horseradish-marrow butter. My other friend surprised me by going for the vegetarian option, grilled avocado cutlet, which further surprised me by being almost genius. The very gently warmed avocado boats, filled with carefully turned pea-sized balls of cucumber and set on yellow bell pepper syrup, were delightful, but I found the big round risotto cake it came with rather dull and stodgy despite its advertised filling of Cotija cheese and avocado cream.

Of the three sweets we tried, the clear favorite was the two-toned lime panna cotta, set in basil seed syrup and topped with a bit of honeycomb. It tasted bracingly soapy, in a good way. The other two desserts seemed to be trying too hard, without great effect. The dark chocolate cake with a molten blue-cheese center dares you to order it. The shock of the salty cheese worked well with the chocolate, but the pistachio gelato it came with didn't work with the cake or on its own. And I found the description of the pear cannolo (hazelnut crunch, sage, black pepper syrup, and mascarpone cream) more exciting on the page than in my mouth.

Exciting both on the page and for the pocketbook is Tinderbox's "Keeping It Bernal" prix-fixe: an appetizer and a main course with dessert or glass of house wine for $35, offered Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday. We were able to avail ourselves of that option, making the meal even more of a treat. I hope Tinderbox stays around a long time, long enough for the neighborhood tots to grow up and claim seats for themselves at one of its gleaming tables, tucking into its original and interesting fare.

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Meredith Brody

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