The name is the first annoying thing about TBD. It's meant as a reflection of the restaurant's "to be determined" philosophy, claims the menu — which, like most in town, is based on seasonal, local ingredients and changes regularly. But the problem with a name like "TBD" is that dinner planning can quickly turn into a foodie version of "Who's on First?"
The décor is the second annoying thing, a camping-chic pastiche that seems to draw from the set design in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom and the ultrastylized, stripped-down look of the Ace Hotel chain. Vintage coolers peek out from odd places, like the bottom of the coat rack. Diners waiting for tables perch on attractive, rough-hewn tree stumps at the front entrance, underneath a dramatic chandelier made from red Coleman camping lanterns. The camping conceit is a nod to the restaurant's sole heat source, an open fire upon which ingredients are grilled, smoked, and cooked in embers, but it's a little too twee for its own good.
Then there's the menu itself, which is divided into esoteric sections that make composing a meal difficult — instead of starters, entrees, and sides, the categories are Raw, Smoked, Hearth + Embers, Grill, and Plancha. The only way to really tell how big a dish may be is the price, signified by a cluster of triangles with a key at the bottom (each one represents $6). So, the "heirloom carrots, lentils & white sesame" in the Plancha section costs two triangles, or $12. Extrapolate from that what you will.
All of this would be bearable, even excusable, if the food were great. But that is by far the most annoying thing about TBD: The food is lackluster, bewildering, and sometimes genuinely bad, with disparate flavor combinations and a surprising lack of cohesion. This is the second restaurant from the folks behind AQ, and they have taken that restaurant's philosophy of deconstructed, painstakingly plated dishes to the extreme.
To be fair to TBD, it's at least over-ambitious rather than under, and its risks occasionally pay off. The persimmon, sunchoke, and bay scallop ceviche was wonderful, with smooth, softly smoky scallops and an intensely citrusy, fish sauce-heavy dressing. I loved the desserts: a moist, spiced parsnip cake with toffee, bright lemon curd with housemade yogurt, and a deconstructed s'more made with smooth dark chocolate and chicory sauce.
Many of the dishes were conceptually sound but needed more balance, which could be accomplished with a few kitchen tweaks. The roasted heirloom carrots were nicely al dente, though the best part of that dish was its accompanying sprouted lentils, which managed to be simultaneously crunchy and yielding at the same time (the absurdly deep serving bowl, the sweet fruity sauce, and the odd smear of cheese on the side of the bowl seemed like yet another odd series of decisions, though).
I'd heard good early buzz about the uni, dry-farmed potato, jalapeno, and scallion dish, but the pepper and onion flavors completely overpowered the sea urchin's subtle brininess, though its velvety texture was intact. TBD's take on beef tartare was served with mustard greens on ice meant to be used like a lettuce wrap, but the leaves were tough and bitter, and I couldn't taste the underseasoned raw beef. And the pork smoked in tea leaves was juicy enough, but could have used a sauce to tie together the dish's weird other elements, including sweet caramelized olives and celeriac.
Then there were nice dishes ruined by poor execution. A twist on chicken-and-waffles was a cured rainbow trout with a rye waffle, garnished with dill, salmon roe, and a mild dipping sauce. The trout was pink and perfect, its fishy taste melding with the smoke, but the rye waffle was dry and flabby, as if it had been made hours earlier. Same with the "bread, butter & coastal seaweeds," which inexplicably was served in a cast-iron skillet even though it was cold — so cold that the butter on the bread hadn't even melted. It was a shame because the thick slices of country bread had a nice crunch, and the seaweeds popped in the mouth like caviar. Alas, it was another almost-there.
Your feelings about the restaurant may have something to do with where you're seated. On one visit, I was at a well-situated table downstairs with a great view of the open kitchen (though it had a few obnoxious touches: the silverware, napkins, and menus are kept in little drawers in the tables, and our solicitous waiter had a habit of saying "thank you" every time I ordered something). On a second visit we were seated at the mezzanine bar, with a view of a wall of firewood that concealed a storeroom. It felt a little like Siberia, but was possibly better than a bar seat downstairs in front of the fire, which I've heard can become uncomfortably hot.
When I encounter a restaurant like this, all I want to do is drink. Though there is no hard liquor license, the restaurant makes do with low-alcohol "loopholes" made with vermouth and sherry. I loved the Nogroni, made with Peychaud's bitters, sweet vermouth, and Juniper Fino sherry, but found the Cut Stalk, made with dry vermouth, amontillado, and celery bitters to be too astringent.
I left both visits to TBD puzzled over the food I'd just eaten, the odd combinations and lackluster items, and wondered if anyone would be impressed — or just have the uncomfortable feeling that they should be. When people roll their eyes about the preciousness of the San Francisco restaurant scene, this is the kind of overwrought experience that they have in mind.