Chef Joseph Humphrey has spent the past couple of decades cooking up a résumé to be proud of. The Tallahassee native arrived here from New Orleans in 1994 and worked under the tutelage of local culinary superstars like George Morrone, Bradley Ogden, and Michael Mina before becoming the Fifth Floor's first chef de cuisine. He earned a couple of Michelin stars at St. Helena's Meadowood Resort in 2006, snagged another at Murray Circle, a top-flight eatery at Fort Baker in the Marin Headlands, and now he's opened his very own place, this one on the city side of the Golden Gate.
At Dixie, in the old Pres a Vi space next to the Lucasfilm complex in the Presidio, Humphrey conjures up the flavors and textures of his Deep South boyhood, aided by his years as a top chef in the cradle of Left Coast cuisine. Oysters are drizzled with tarragon butter; collard greens are stuffed into tortellini; sassafras finds itself on a platter with halibut and sea urchin remoulade. But despite the conceptual preciousness of the menu and a tendency to sacrifice down-home spice and gusto for Bay Area innovation and showmanship, Humphrey and his staff serve up terrific food that satisfies both belly and palate.
The interior design is a mashup of Pres a Vi's lingering Mediterranean ambience and the retro-Southern look of a Garden District manor house. Out front is a porch perfect for julep-sipping and banjo-plucking. Just inside is a richly upholstered lounge with floor-to-ceiling windows. The dining room is all hardwood planks and chocolate-gold earth tones, with a barrel-vaulted ceiling adding a cozy boat-like ambience. A glassed-in wine chamber is just adjacent, and up front is a long, curved, zinc-topped bar, the ideal spot for sipping a few of what you might call the house California-Southern (as opposed to Southern California) cocktails.
A perfect example is the Derby Cooler, a tangy concoction of bourbon, rum, a few squirts of citrus, and a dash of grenadine — as bright and bracing in foggy S.F. as at Churchill Downs. The strawberry mint julep was distractingly sweet, but its presentation was impeccable, shaved ice, frosty pewter mug and all. Both the smoky-smooth Preakness (Ballentine's scotch and Benedictine) and the hammock-friendly Shade Tree (Ketel One Citroen and lemon) employed black tea as a brisk and inventive thirst-quencher. The house old-fashioned was one of the best in our experience, with a simple syrup made from smoked Sopchoppy sugar cane creating a rich, smooth cushion for the muddled orange, bitters, brandied cherries, and the good ol' Jim Beam rye whiskey.
The meal proper begins with a basket of assorted flatbreads and saucers of creamy black-eyed pea relish that was overly mild in flavor yet ideal for pairing with sweet, potent cocktails. We especially enjoyed the beets, which were pickled and smoked, then served with their own tender greens, sliced ricotta, and just enough lemony sumac to kick off the meal on a light and lovely note. Even more elaborate was the fried quail, served on a garlic-infused waffle with a tangle of spicy cabbage; the pepper, spice, and crunch complemented the tender fowl perfectly.
Other starters fared less well: The corn soup was surprisingly bland, and the cheddar-scallion hushpuppies were dry and burdened with an un-copacetic drizzle of Tupelo honey. But the calas (New Orleans-style deep-fried rice balls) were a treat — crunchy on the outside, creamy within, with just a touch of peppery heat and an intricate balance of flavors.
The main dishes are equally hit or (near) miss. The black cod was fantastic, a tender, delicate filet touched with bourbon and miso and served on a bed of buttery farro ribboned with leeks and morels. The chicken and dumplings were just that: chicken with a drizzle of brown gravy here, and a few dry-ish ricotta dumplings over on the other side of the plate. A traditional, smashed-together preparation would have been more luscious. The roast rabbit with bacon and onions was tasty, but had an off-putting mealy texture. The grass-fed Marin Sun Farms beefsteak, on the other hand, was rich and chewy and juicy, and tasted like a real honest-to-God steak, and the string beans and grits that came with it weren't the least bit distracting. Our favorite dish, though, was the roast duck with turnips: lots of tender breast meat plus some rich fatty bits for extra flavor and a dirty-rice risotto strewn with chopped-up duck liver pulling it all together.
The extensive wine list (nearly 200 selections) ranges from Oregon and the wine country to the great vineyards of France to (among others) Spain, Italy, Argentina, Australia, and the Skywalker Ranch in Lucas Valley. There are also two dozen beers to choose from (10 on tap) including Dixie Black Voodoo Lager from New Orleans, Sierra Nevada's summery open-fermented Kellerweiss, and Brekle's Brown Ale, a luscious malty concoction from Anchor Steam.
Dessert is the best part of the meal, of course. Custardy chess pie, a practically extinct old-time favorite, was topped with a dollop of brisk strawberry sorbet and a hint of Szechuan pepper that accentuated the dish's luscious simplicity. Moist coconut layer cake was another winner, with a juicy slice of roasted pineapple and crunchy candied macadamia nuts. The warm gingerbread was on the soggy side, and its two accompaniments (a scoop of under-ripe peach sorbet and a spoonful of aggressive basil granita) didn't play well together, but the chocolate-bourbon mousse was marvelously dark and potent alongside a slab of lush chocolate olive oil cake and a scoop of tart, terrific crème fraiche sherbet. Best of all: the roasted nectarine cobbler, a real taste of summer, with lots of chopped, perfectly ripe stone fruit under a barely sweetened biscuit and (the crowning touch) a terrific buttered-corn sorbet that actually tasted like an ear of butter-slathered sweet corn just off the grill. It's a tasty example of the chef's, and the restaurant's, easy marriage of the earthy and the elegant.