There are grocery stores, and there are specialty grocery stores. Merchant Roots, on Fillmore Street just down from the devastatingly good (and now closed) Caribbean restaurant Isla Vida, is even more boutique than that. Chef and co-owner Ryan Shelton describes it as a “craft grocer,” or “specialty pasta retailer,” one that also happens to make its own mortadella.
There are grab-and-go salads and sandwiches to be had besides the items on the retail shelf, but the real reason to go to Merchant Roots is for The Table, a communal dining experience with a nine-course menu grouped around a theme. Although it’s already wrapped up in preparation for the next one, the last series was “Vanity Fair.”
It’s more of a loose metaphor than a hard-and-fast reference to Thackeray. It’s basically a take on the mid-19th-century British aristocratic adoration of Paris, with some accents from the burgeoning empire, namely vindaloo and biryani rice from India. A Victorian-goth candelabra adds a touch of late-night decadence, while the “faux gras” torchon and snail “caviar” on the Snail Wellington ground things in contemporary San Francisco, with a bit of a wink. But if Napoleon, to say nothing of the Jacobins, is on the horizon, that army is still a ways off.
The Table admits guests on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and your enjoyment of this theatrical meal will be predicated on several things. The price, of course, is one. If two people go and share one wine pairing between them, it’s going to be $500. Shelton et al. prepare strictly special-occasion fare, which works out nicely, as everyone seems to go as a couple and the communal table seats eight people. I’d like to think most people have gotten over any aversions to sitting at a large table with strangers, but that mostly occurs in fast-casual settings and at beer gardens and such. This is altogether different. You’re experiencing everything, from the ballet service to the chef’s explanations, as one.
It’s almost — almost — like a high-end party bus. So you’d better make fast friends and enjoy your company. On my last visit, we eight were thankfully a chatty bunch, with camaraderie facilitated in the lounge up front over a glass of champagne and some “gougeéres cygnes,” or pâte à choux hors d’oeuvres in the shape of a swan, filled with Stilton mousse and a port-cassis gel to elevate them over the usual walnuts. On another visit, my boyfriend and I shared the evening with three quieter couples whose expressions were generally impassive throughout, and it wasn’t as much fun.
But the flourishes are what compose The Table at Merchant Roots, from the coquettish peacock-feather fans, to the quail revealed beneath an origami bird folded from what could be bordello wallpaper, to the “carrot tops” poking out of a sorbet and served in a teacup that could have been pilfered from the scullery at Windsor Castle. It can send a reviewer into a minor sensory mania even though the pace is even. There were at least two moments, mid-meal, where I was frantically photographing things, trying to take good notes, laughing at a joke someone had made, eyeballing the wine to make sure my friend and I weren’t lagging, and closing my eyes to savor this or that.
The division of labor is quite clear: Shelton plates dishes and explains them, while a sous does most of the cooking and two other team members pour wine and focus on the accouterments at the table. Overall, it’s a serious adventure, with quite a bit of offal in the form of blood pudding and sweetbread. Among the highlights of Vanity Fair are that whole-roasted quail, with a fig-balsamic glaze, to a prawn consommé that’s described as a “treat that nature provided” and which simmers for a full minute. You know this because you’ll have been given a small hourglass to count it out before picking out the meat and throwing back that marvelously intense broth. If there’s one course where the laborious fervor doesn’t really hit the palate, it’s the sunflower croquettes, which deploy and deconstruct sunchokes (which chefs love more than the rest of us do) to a sort of sterile minimalism. It’s hard to care in more than an abstract way that every part of the sunflower has been used, although in fairness this is Shelton’s replacement for a salad, which “just ain’t opulent.” My favorite was the savory oyster sabayon with sweetbreads and green strawberry, a beguiling dish that grew out of Shelton’s research into historical foods.
“Oysters were in everything,” he told me later. “As seasoning, as filler — especially in England where they’re almost an invasive species. ‘You’re doing a beef stew? Drop some oysters in!’ ”
Curiously, there’s no egg in the sabayon (a custard), as all the protein comes from the oyster, pureed with fennel, lemon, and shallots. The sweetbreads themselves are blanched, trimmed of their sinews, then cut and breaded. Because veal thymus lacks a meat-fiber texture, they reminded Shelton almost of po’ boys, so he “pumped up the New Orleans side of the spices” in the breading, with garlic, allspice, and paprika.
“It’s a subtle thing,” he says, “but it’s supposed to be a very obscure dish that tugs at the back of your brain and reminds you of something you’ve had before.”
So: England by way of France by way of France’s most enduring outpost in the American South. Fittingly, a Napoleon with no fewer than 26 layers — chai buttercream alternating with flourless cake — over ganache and under chocolate macarons brings it all home. You get to take a menu, in a hard-to-read font like a society wedding invitation or the grocery list of one of the Founding Fathers.
The next theme is Color Theory. Even more than Trick Dog, which famously dumps its menu for a new one every six months, Shelton is seized with an urgency to make it new. The colors won’t be as simple as, say, serving apples, tomatoes, and Fresno chilies for red. Rather, it’s more of an evocative sense derived from mood. Take violet, which Shelton calls a “very enigmatic” color.
“It kind of operates on a lot of different frequencies. It’s warm and cold at the same time,” he says. “So where it falls in the menu is a cheese course/first dessert, a little bit of an enigma. It’s something that shouldn’t work, but does: bleu cheese cheesecake semifreddo, with a dolcetto gorgonzola — so it has that slight bit of savory funk, plus brown-butter graham cracker.”
To add to the mystery, he’ll throw in freeze-dried kalamata olives, just to keep people guessing about where it all falls on the sweet-salty axis. Sounds almost like the freeze-dryer of the vanities.
The Table at Merchant Roots, 1365 Fillmore St. 530-574-7365 or merchantroots.com/chefs-table