RT Rotisserie Takes Fast-Casual Up a Notch

Rich Table's chicken-centric spin-off is value-driven yet chef-driven.

For all the romance attached to open kitchens, most facets of food preparation are rather rote. If you really want to observe someone blanch a large Lexan full of beans, by all means go for it, but it’s about as thrilling as the proverbial watched pot. And shocking them with cold water afterward is definitely not that shocking. (An open plan has other pluses, however. They’re great at holding intra-staff screaming matching to a minimum.)

But there’s one type of passive food prep that’s as mesmerizing as fire itself: a rotisserie. Watching skewered meat slowly rotate as it roasts is nothing short of hypnotic, especially when little drops of fat make hissing noises after they fall. With all due respect to people who feel differently, being a carnivore is fucking awesome.

This is how I felt on my first, second, third, and fourth visit to RT Rotisserie in Hayes Valley. I tried to keep my eyes on the menu board but kept rubbernecking the glass oven at stage-left. A project from Rich Table’s Sarah and Evan Rich, RT is a spinoff devoted to chicken (and also, in no small degree, to shredded cabbage). I’ve resisted fast-casual here and there, but I understand how San Francisco’s underlying restaurant economics mean it’s increasingly one of few viable paths to profitability. And the longer it’s with us, the more nuances come to light, making it important to subdivide the category into different strata. RT Rotisserie is at the upper limit.

Its main strength is that it manages to be both value-driven and chef-driven at the same time. This is rarer than it sounds, actually. Doing one thing and doing it well — with a few auxiliary dishes to keep things interesting — is the main driver, and you can sense a tinker-with-everything-until-it-works ethos here. (Indeed, on my fourth visit, the chicken sandwich had different ingredients.) Rich Table, five years on, is one of those globalized-New American places that almost sounds like a mish-mash of every other seasonal NorCal restaurant, but it’s always maintained a strong personality and never fallen prey to homogenization. Entrusted to chef de cuisine Brandon Rice in the meantime, Rich Table’s menu is also looking conspicuously low on chicken right now.

A block over from the mothership, you can get a slow-cooked half-chicken for $10 or a whole one for $19. Weighing the quality and quantity, that’s a terrific deal. The bird, every time, was juicy and flavorful, to where I didn’t instinctively reach for hot sauce even once. RT offers four other sauces, of which you get two per order, and I would strongly recommend the chipotle yogurt and “Nanny’s BBQ” for being diametrical opposites in what they bring out in the meat. (Watery and mild, the chimichurri was desperately low on garlic.)

Non-meat-eaters have the option of a rotisserie cauliflower, which shows up again under the sandwich heading. And that’s where RT starts to differentiate itself from other excellent rotisserie purveyors, like RoliRoti. This chicken sandwich ($12) comes on house-made Dutch crunch, which constitutes one of those areas in which subjectivity and objectivity start to blur for me. (It’s the best bread, end of discussion.) While it started out life with a pickled onion, Douglas fir, and cotija, those last two ingredients have since been swapped out for greens and garlic aioli. RT also added a “Sally’s Hurricane” sandwich made with leg meat that’s been pounded and fried, and a potato roll. With the caveat that it’s brand-new, it’s quite delicious — albeit hot sauce required — and it needs a bit of rejiggering, as it imploded into its own glop at around the two-thirds mark. I’m optimistic.

The secondary items build on this foundation. A bowl of chicken soup ($7) made with barley, greens, and lime was top-notch, the furikake commingling with the oil that rose to the surface. Pebbled with dense little bits of seasoning, the umami fries, too, were quite outstanding — and only six bucks. A bowl of corn topped with cotija ($6) was decent, but what really rocked my world was the $10 RT salad. I’m just not a big salad eater, but this one — with radishes, pickled onions, plenty of mint and parsley, and more cotija and furikake — was almost invigorating in its elegance. (Throw some porchetta on that for an extra $3.) In a similar vein, the cabbage with sugary toasted almonds — also with plenty of mint and dill, $5 — was exciting in a way that cabbage almost never is. A deft hand with the vinegar let everything stand on its own, market-fresh and satisfying.

And again, although it’s fast-casual, RT Rotisserie has nice touches, like Fort Point beer on tap and soft-serve ice cream. You get your own water, but the staff busses your waste, for instance. Sauces, though, come in plastic cups even for eat-in orders, whereas 1.5-ounce metal condiment bowls would be nicer.

But looking toward the long-term, another positive trait is the location — which sucks, but in a fixable way. There’s nothing at RT Rotisserie that’s ripe for parody like the various toasts (avocado and $4) that have generated so many punch lines, and I don’t see $5 salads becoming much of a flashpoint in the culture wars. So I’ll go ahead and say it: If there’s one corner of San Francisco that could use a little gentrifying, it’s the un-loveable intersection of Franklin and Oak streets.

It’s not that I yearn for Hayes Valley-level embourgeoisement to creep eastward overnight — although that’s almost certainly inevitable — it’s that the no-human’s-land between Hayes Valley and Civic Center is hideous and devoid of daytime street life. What I really want is a series of tree-lined bicycle boulevards and affordable housing where surface parking lots and one-way, pedestrian-hostile arterials are now. But the figures in the architectural renderings of my dreams are eating RT Rotisserie.

RT Rotisserie, 101 Oak St., 415-829-7086 or rtrotisserie.com

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