The point at which New American begins to tip into fine dining is hazy and probably best determined on a case-by-case basis. A casual vibe is crucial to the former’s identity, but sometimes symbols of upscale establishments start to accumulate. When Erin Rooney sold Serpentine to chef-owner Tommy Halvorson last fall, she was entrusting it to someone who’s put in time in kitchens like Bix, Gary Danko, and Chez Panisse, a career arc that spans both categories.
Halvorson hasn’t changed too much on Serpentine’s menu, but as the restaurant approaches its 10th year in business, he’s exercised discernment in what to add and what to keep. I wouldn’t argue that Serpentine is anything but food-centric, but there are enough flourishes to differentiate it from the hundred other places that feel increasingly like copycats.
Although the tenor of the lunch menu is a bit more conservative than dinner — hello, steak frites and tuna nicoise — Halvorson has added a cheddary macaroni and cheese tarted up with panko, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, and fontina. It’s made with canneroni or a similar type of tiny, tubed pasta, which lets the cheese take over even if it feels like a kid’s lunch.
(Remember when you could only order mac ’n’ cheese off the kid’s menu? Being alive used to suck.)
And those steak frites ($21) were thoroughly good, eight ounces of sirloin with a sauce that doubled as a dressing for the thicket of arugula (or a dip for the fries). Winter salads can be a lot of fun, and this $13 number contained satsumas, beets, pomegranate seeds, walnut, honey yuzu vinaigrette, and shavings of ricotta salata. It’s immensely refreshing.
For dinner, the butternut squash soup thickened with coconut cream ($8) was whipped almost to a heavy froth, and if the mound of chili-and-pepita in the center looked a little bit like a tub of Sabra hummus, it was even better when the oil dripped and drifted. Bursting with herbs and heat, the lusty pork albóndigas ($8) were even better ($8). With little I-see-you bits of watermelon radish poking out, these meatballs embodied a word everyone hates that starts with m and rhymes with “foist.” I half-suppressed a (small) garlicky burp of pure contentment.
There was one huge failure: the brassica Caesar. For a $14 salad containing kale, radicchio, broccolini, Brussels sprouts, preserved Meyer lemon, a levain crouton, and grana, it had absolutely no flavor at all. I got into the kale’s kelpy texture, but that was it. Factor in the low lighting and the fact that it’s plated on a dark-gray ceramic vessel, and it was like eating something invisible, which meant waiting for a payoff that never came.
A highly acidic side dish of Brussels sprouts ($7) was sprinkled with pine nuts and cooked to perfection: salty but not too salty, crisped by not scorched, and just oily enough to feel wonderfully bad for you. That was redemptive, but made me even crankier about the Caesar. Where were these little flavor nuggets then?
Arranged upright, like fins, the waffles on the chicken-and-waffles ($26) were crusty enough to hold up against the marvelous yuzu maple syrup. The pieces of fried chicken were fine on their own, but Halvorson brings extra class to a proletarian-decadent staple in the form of chicken roulade, which plays especially well off the chard and parsnips.
But the pork chop ($28) remains Serpentine’s strength. A thick, juicy, bone-in cut, it’s ringed with yet more Brussels sprouts — this time with a maple glaze — and rests atop a bed of creamy polenta that was comparatively quiet, but grounded the entire plate and kept it from going over the top. It’s not always easy to get excited about a pork chop, but this is a strong exception. (If I had to ding it for anything, I would nix the halved carrots, which belong in a chafer at a catered awards banquet, but they were zippy with vinegar all the same.)
The all-$12 cocktails are pretty great, erring on the side of beautiful. A Whiskey Espresso was daringly bitter and acrid in spite of containing walnut liqueur, and although it came off a little watery once I got past that top note, the coffee-rich nose was everything (owing to the three beans floating atop the foam). A Beso de Bruja made with tequila blanco, chili tincture, agave lime, and a smoked salt rim read like a fancy margarita and went down like a fancy margarita that may actually be made with boozy orange drink — witch kiss or no witch kiss. Apart from being a truly excellent play on words, the Ode de Vie (Anchor Distilling’s Hophead Vodka, douglas fir, sage liquor, lemon, thyme, and soda) was cooling and sharp — although my dinner date and I both picked up a hand-soap aftertaste. The Ambassador (rum, apple juice, angostura bitters, and apple bitters) was its opposite, a warming, apres-ski experience with a piece of Granny Smith peel that curled on one end like a toboggan.
Serpentine, 2495 Third St., 415-252-2000 or serpentinesf.com