What are we to make of The Rolling Stones some 50 years after they fired Brian Jones, and whose (current) members’ collective age is now 301? They played Levi’s Stadium in August to no small acclaim, and while Elton John and Paul Simon swung through the Bay Area this summer on a farewell tour and for a post-retirement Outside Lands gig, respectively, it’s probably the Stones who aren’t ever coming back. Stadium officials micromanaged their set, nixing pyrotechnics and setting a 10 p.m. cut-off time that they didn’t abide.
There was a Simpsons episode from the ’90s that was set in the then-future, when Lisa was in college, and her dorm room had a “Rolling Stones Steel Wheelchair Tour 2010” but at least the band is still rock ’n’ roll enough to blow through an early curfew.
Still, even though Mick Jagger’s youngest child is basically the same age as one of his great-grandchildren and Keith Richards all but aspires to “croak magnificently, on stage,” they’re now the definition of edgy-safe. Even their adoring fans despise them. Musician Jan Blomqvist (“Synth for the Devil”) idolizes Jagger’s on-stage persona but has dismissed the band’s work as “boring guitar music.”
All of this is what went through my mind every time I ate at The Brixton on Second Street and stared up at the blown-up print of Dominique Tarlé’s Exile on Main Street-era image of Mick and Keef that dominates the main room. Jagger is smoking, Richards is strumming, they may or may not be paying attention to one another, and the rumpled table before them is littered with bottles and cigarettes and sugar cubes and all the effluvia of what it meant to be a rock star in 1971. The image is the unambiguous inspiration for Patsy and Eddie in AbFab, but it feels like it belongs in an Applebee’s.
And it has to be the Stones, because they’re rougher than the Beatles, and also the other band whose two main members everybody recognizes. The restaurant is called The Brixton, so Brixton native David Bowie would make sense, but he’s too weird. And The Clash (“The Guns of Brixton”) were too ugly and aggressive to invite to a proper restaurant, even if it isn’t hosting a Beggars Banquet. SoMa already has another Rolling Stones-inspired spot, the quasi-private Marianne’s at the back of The Cavalier in the Hotel Zenni, but oh well.
I harp on all this because I can’t figure out what The Brixton wants to be, a statement gastropub or a nonthreatening spot sandwiched between Techworld and the ballpark, albeit one with a thistle-heavy floral arrangement that’s much prettier than Zuni’s and which matches the wallpaper. The original, Union Street location has been doing solid business for years, but it’s no Voodoo Lounge and there’s no Goats Head Soup. Over in South Beach, I can understand proceeding with caution after a string of establishments near Oracle Park recently closed after a middling Giants season and the Chase Center hogging all the oxygen, anyway. But I wish The Brixton would cultivate a stronger personality. It feels like it’s in a hotel, which it isn’t, although its sister restaurant is Rambler in Union Square’s Hotel Zeppelin. You can sniff out the input of a committee.
As is, the verdict is simple: Plenty of Chef Banks White’s dishes are good, while others aren’t, and the consistency is off-kilter. The pappardelle pasta was flavorful on one visit, with acidic eggplant and forest-floor mushrooms accented with plenty of garlicky gremolata, and horrendously overcooked and bland (and sans gremolata) on another. The other two entrees — yep, only three — are steak frites with gorgonzola butter and grilled asparagus, and a roasted Mary’s Organic chicken with fingerling potatoes and haricots verts. Indifference to the seasons isn’t a capital offense, but this is a steely resistance against creativity.
But that’s the mains; the starters are a little showier and a little more fun. A bowl of Prince Edward Island mussels in a pilsner-based broth with chorizo, paprika butter, and grilled batard bread is just about as satisfying a late-summer lunch as you’re gonna get, especially with a glass of rosé on the seven-table patio. Closet vegans and the real kind will gravitate toward a pyramid of radish and roasted cauliflower — a salad that appears to have slid the menu — but there are still brassicas with freekeh and a house-made cashew cheese that has some serious umami flavor. Or you could stick to upscale pub food done especially well, like a bowl of ribs in an adobo sauce — White has always been an aficionado of Filipino cuisine, as well as Southern dishes — arranged around a few spears of pickled okra. Chorizo-flecked chili con queso comes heavy on the queso, in a skillet, with an all-but-mandatory guacamole option to cool you off.
If you’re tired of stone fruit salads — even with an arugula-and-goat-cheese base — I don’t know what to tell you, but the seared ahi tuna salad indisputably showcases haricots verts in the right way, with four pieces of fish riding shotgun, zesty tomato confit on top, and a bounty of textures from the egg to the crispy shallots — plus plenty of fresh pepper. Among the sandwiches, two burgers compete for your attention. The classic is about as dad-friendly as they come, while the Brixton Deluxe is a curveball, blending pimento cheese with chili and chow chow relish. Still, it’s the combination of chimichurri (possibly my favorite condiment of all) and tapenade that endows what would otherwise be an ordinary lamb sandwich with some real heft. Sheep are hardly a beast of burden, but should provide you with plenty of satisfaction.
If The Brixton can break out of its ossified confines, it has true potential. Time is on its side.
The Brixton 701 Second St., 415-947-7955 or brixtonsf.com