As the axiom goes, you only consume shellfish in months with an R in them — in warmer climes, anyway. Although we’re not supposed to be ordering oysters for another five weeks, Petit Marlowe makes that feel as outmoded as the proscription against wearing white after Labor Day, which falls three days after oyster season begins.
The wine bar and “oysterette” on Townsend Street in SoMa, where you order your shellfish with the aid of a golf pencil, is a vivacious project from Big Night Restaurant Group. That would be husband-and-wife team Anna Weinberg and James Nicholas plus executive chef Jennifer Puccio, who opened the beloved New American bistro Marlowe a block away in 2010. (It later moved around the corner to 500 Brannan St.) In rapid succession, the trio went on to establish Park Tavern, The Cavalier, Leo’s Oyster Bar — all of which the taxidermy-loving power-clasher Ken Fulk designed — plus a temporary project or two.
With a unity of aesthetic and purpose, Petit Marlowe builds on these successes. Simply being there is a delight. Its menu might most closely resemble Leo’s, but Petit Marlowe has plenty of overlap with The Cavalier. (It’s the Paris to The Cavalier’s London, roughly speaking.) But unlike that ground-floor restaurant in SoMa’s Hotel Zetta, it doesn’t feel overstuffed with kitsch designed for nouveau-riche Tories hungry after a fox hunt — nor is there a faux-secret bar behind it accessible from the alley. It’s by no means inexpensive, but the atmosphere stays classic without ever feeling fussy or vulgar.
More to the point, virtually the entire menu is good. If you blanch at the thought of paying $5 for a single oyster, dinner here might not be your jam, but this might be the best first-date spot in San Francisco right now. Start with a dozen oysters, from the stiff, approachable Irish Points to the pleasantly saline Pemaquids to the humble Little Leo’s from Washington to the Standish Shores that work great with the onion-and-cannellini-bean-heavy mignonette. Standing head and shoulders above almost every other deviled egg I’ve come upon is Puccio’s Spanish anchovy, overstuffed with Caesar filling, two dorsal fins of shaved Parmesan, and breadcrumbs — or at least I thought so, until I tried the spicy porc ($3.50), which is like the hors d’oeuvres equivalent of smoked quartz, made with ’nduja and bruléed lardo.
And once you get past those single-bite opening salvos, Puccio cracks her proverbial knuckles and gets to work. A citrusy wild king salmon tartare ($19) with just enough sprouts on top feels like a sop to the cult of wellness. (It’s still delicious, though.) But many other dishes are a great balance between subtlety and sheer decadence — like a $16 plate of hamachi crudo triangles. Take the Le Petit Chop salad ($17), a mix of artichokes, cured meat and hearts of palm that sounds like it would be salty to a fault, but isn’t. (It comes with a single toasted goat-cheese crostini, which feels a tad skimpy.) Now that we’re entering heirloom tomato season, it’s good to see things that stand out from what’s almost certain to be an ocean of competition, like this $16 salad studded with serranos, pine nuts, and basil. (“Just spoon gobs of it on,” is the staff recommendation you’d do well to heed.)
Smoked duck with nectarine and mint ($16) is quite salty, but you wouldn’t want it any other way, and even a sliver of stone fruit keeps the duck from wallowing in its own duck-ness. Salt Fat Acid Heat is a new illustrated cookbook by Samin Nosrat and Wendy MacNaughton that’s based on the four fundamental principles of food, but salt-fat-acid-cold works pretty well, too. The very best dish is an $18 côte de boeuf tartare larded up with buttery porcini mushrooms and an exalted ratio of lemon and black pepper. In such Instagrammable surroundings, on a plate embossed with the restaurant’s name, it has the potential to elbow another type of toast out of the picture. You know, the one with a fatty green fruit with a dark leathery skin.
Missteps are minor, as in a $12 escabeche made with calamari, clams, and mussels that’s a little homogenized by all the oil in the dish, or the $23 plate of burrata that needed a dose of black pepper to save it from its own flabbiness. (The vinegary peas weren’t quite cutting it, and it’s almost too rich to finish.) The only other downside is how pastry chef Emily Lucchetti feels criminally underused here. The dessert menu is scant: shortbread cookies, Dandelion chocolate, and a rosé ice cream that’s a collaborative effort between Smitten and Scribe Winery. What’s Paris without confections? Even the nectarine-and-raspberry cobbler on Marlowe’s menu would feel seasonally appropriate, not incongruously rustic.
It’s also worth mentioning that Petit Marlowe’s scale is right. Leo’s is a wonderful place to celebrate life’s bigger frivolities over oysters and martinis, but it can feel almost as claustrophobic as a BART car. I swung by there a couple weeks ago, and it was impossible not to eavesdrop on the people to either side of our seats; two tables over, a woman worming out from the booth bumped the adjacent table, sending a whole platter of oysters clattering to the floor.
Petit Marlowe has room to breathe (and a parklet outside, for extra breathing). Two globed lights in the center of the dining room read “Ce Soir” and “Ou Jamais,” which, taken together, mean “now or never” — but, to capture the hedonistic spirit, they might be better translated as “no time like the present.” There’s also no present quite like time. Give yourself the gift of a leisurely late-afternoon meal here. You will be happy.
Petit Marlowe, 234 Townsend St., 415-923-8577 or petitmarlowesf.com