From the moment it opened in summer 2016, Black Cat drew applause for its louche vibe and cocktails and criticism for its middling food. You have to be churlish, a true Tenderloin-phobe, not to cheer it on at least a little bit, what with the time and energy lavished on its restoration. But when The Saratoga opened on Larkin and Post streets later that fall, the easy magnificence of its kitchen all but subsumed the poor Black Cat, and if the Saratoga isn’t a jazz club in any way, its bi-level space is just as sexy.
Opening chef Ryan Cantwell handed things over to Alicia Jenish-McCarron a few months after Black Cat’s debut, and now the keys have been entrusted to executive creative chef and culinary consultant Tu David Phu. A Vietnamese-American and Top Chef contestant who had previously thrown a pop-up, AN, and worked at Berkeley head-to-tail institution Gather, Phu has kept the menu manageably trim. (It’s still a venue where the primary focus is on the music.) The small-and-large plate roster now emphasizes the classics, but with a personal touch. It’s a tough assignment, no doubt. But on the whole, it works — although you absolutely must be a jazz fan to enjoy yourself. Prices are too high, and portions too small. But strictly on the merits, Black Cat’s menu encourages you not to waste one of your nine lives, and whether this is the restaurant’s second or third, it’s following its own advice.
The oysters are still there, as are the deviled eggs. Everyone must decide for themselves whether $20 for a sirloin banh mi two blocks from Saigon Sandwich sounds appealing, but at least overambitious version-1.0 failures like the chicken mattone in pan brodo are gone. The adventure pays off in the Mayan ceviche tostada ($18), a fastidiously sourced amberjack with a melt-in-your-mouth texture juxtaposed with pounded tomatoes that you can easily mistake for tuna in the dark. Using their acid in lieu of extra lime is a smooth move.
What doesn’t succeed is the overly bitter burrata ($16) with blistered haricot verts, a good idea that sacrifices the pure creamy joy of that marvelous cheese in search of some indeterminate higher ideal. But the scallops Rockefeller in beurre monté ($28), a Colicchio-esque smothering of three barely seared mollusks, is expertly handled — albeit a tad pricey for what you end up with. Much more mysterious is the California curry ($19), with its low-intensity yet hard-to-extinguish heat and, owing to all the carrots, its comforting pea-soup quality. Graced with black rice and just enough coconut to douse the fire, it’s by far the most inventive thing on the menu — and if the butterflied chicken skewers sound like a decadent add-on for $9, they tie the entire thing together.
Having eaten upstairs and downstairs, I prefer up. Late on a weeknight, a hostess lured us downstairs saying there was only a $10 cover person. It turned out to be $15, and of course, by the time we saw the bill, she was long gone. I don’t begrudge musicians need to make that coin, but y’know, thanks for lying to my face. With tax and tip, a meal for two that consisted of a beer, a glass of wine, one full-size appetizer, and one entree came to a jaw-dropping $142. Like I said, you better like jazz.
Overall, Black Cat funnels everything toward the creation and maintenance of a mood, and that means every night might be very different from the last. The sticky wicket is that even if you sit upstairs at the bar, you’re still going to hear the performance below — only without seeing it. That performance may be folk music from the Caucasus, and the performer’s banter might be inane ramblings about how amazing it is that they didn’t have Spotify centuries ago. That can very easily overwhelm an empty dining room and any conversation you may be trying to have. But like they say, you don’t choose cats; cats choose you.
Black Cat, 400 Eddy St., 415-358-1999 or blackcatsf.com