The space started its life as an apothecary, and many built-in shelves of pale-yellow cabinets remain. There's a striking wall of little drawers in the back, and it's hard to resist the urge to pull them all open to see what's inside (only the top drawers are filled with things like napkins, Altoids, and pens). The drawers blend nicely with the overall simplicity of the restaurant: polished wood floors, mirrors, ceiling fans, plants, and wood chairs.
There's nothing simple about the food, however. This place values bold flavor and intensity, and applies it to updated versions of homey foods like meatloaf and mashed potatoes. You can tell that a tremendous amount of thought went into each dish. In addition to the food's balanced flavors and textures, its presentation is gorgeous, featuring clever stacks, mounds, drizzles, and angles. Even the bread is different -- hot buttery biscuits in a round Shaker wood box. (If you crave more, buy them frozen to bake at home -- $5 for a dozen.)
The seasonal menu is small, detailing about a dozen appetizers and entrees, the latter all meat-based, though if you're a vegetarian, the kitchen will prepare a veggie plate for around $14. To start, a warm goat cheese and leek tart with arugula, Yukon Gold potatoes, and a citrus vinaigrette ($8) was rich with a slightly tough crust. A mound of Niman Ranch steak tartare ($11) was outstandingly tender, and spiced with tiny bits of red onion, peppers, and capers. We piled it on little brioche toast points.
On to more intense flavors in the entrees: All include sophisticated vegetable accompaniments; this is not a place where you'll find a lonely branch of underdone broccoli on your plate. A saute of squash, sweet onions, kale, and toasted walnuts complemented generous slices of lean, rosy duck breast sauced with a lively fig reduction ($22). A Fred Flintstone-sized pork loin chop was tender and lean ($19), paired with bourbon and cinnamon-infused applesauce and deep-fried potato fritters. Salmon was accompanied by an inventive portobello mushroom hash, and both were sauced with balsamic vinaigrette ($20).
A mostly Californian wine list also offers a few Washington and Oregon vintages. Bottle prices are in the $30 to $40 range, with a handful of half-bottles available as well. Our glass of Mazzocco chardon-nay ($6), the only chardonnay sold by the glass, grew fruitier as it warmed, and the Foppiano Petit Syrah ($6) was deeply delicious.
There are more choices on the dessert menu than there are entree selections, and the former include house-made sorbets and ice creams. Our massive slice of devil's food cake with coffee ice cream ($7) caused a stir, and even the server remarked on its size, warning that we wouldn't be able to have more than a few bites. She was right, but great bites they were: fudgy, gooey, and more like a truffle frosting with flourless chocolate cake between. The praline napoleon, with a light caramel cream and warm roasted bananas ($7), was pretty and sweet. Co-owner Joanna Karlinsky makes all the desserts and appetizers. She and partner John Bryant Snell, the chef, are formerly of Tra Vigne, Lark Creek Inn, and other successful restaurants.
You know something's up when even the valet volunteers a favorite dish. Her enthusiasm was shared throughout our evening: The two servers who attended our table were proud of the food, and recommended dishes with passion. Karlinsky flew around the room, laughing, seating guests, and checking on enjoyment levels -- it's clearly a tribute to this tiny restaurant's staying power that she often recognizes half the patrons as regulars.
1701 Octavia (at Bush), 922-6733. Open for dinner only, Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Reservations: recommended. Parking: Street is tough but possible. If not, there's valet for $6. Muni: 2, 3, 4 on Sutter. Sound level: quiet.