It's been a rough couple of months for Northern California's native cooking vernacular, ever since David Chang called bullshit on local chefs. The chef of Manhattan's Momofuku mini-empire stirred up a shitstorm here in October after he deployed his infamous F-bomb. “Fuckin' every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate,” Chang uttered onstage at a food conference in New York. “Do something with your food.”
It was a Five Finger Death Punch to the nuts of practitioners of Northern Cali's rustic, ingredient-centric, Mediterranean-tinged cuisine, a challenge to the notion that all a chef has to do is source amazing produce and get the hell out of the way. If you'd ever had doubts about the dominant local style, Chang provided confirmation that San Francisco's cuisine sucked — bad.
Perched on one of the patio chairs at Il Cane Rosso one night, cutting into Daniel Patterson and Lauren Kiino's beef bollito, it seemed possible, weeks after the heat of the Chang furor turned tepid, to sense the anti-Chang.
Indeed, a meal here can feel like an act of restating your faith in San Francisco's culinary ethos. Patterson and Kiino opened Il Cane Rosso in the Ferry Building in mid-July, paying overt homage to the little cookshops of Southern Italy, where you snag a bite and a glass of wine. It's an expanded kiosk, really, dominated by a rotisserie and cooking line that face the Slanted Door across a broad hallway leading out to the promenade along the Ferry Terminal. You order, pay, and take a seat, either in the hallway or at a narrow counter that flanks the windows.
In early November, Patterson and Kiino expanded to seven nights what had started as simple, three-course suppers on Sundays, different every night. What's amazing about Il Cane Rosso is the way the food expresses the ingredient-focused style of Cal-Med's 30-year-old traditions while making them feel absolutely contemporary. It's something to do with the assertive seasoning in the dishes, and the meticulous, deceptively simple way they're prepared.
Take that beef bollito: three slices of brisket from an animal pastured in West Marin, laid over a pale-yellow mass of polenta, a clear jus nearly as dark as soy sauce lapping at the edges. Actually, the menu brackets “bollito” between quotation marks. Il Cane Rosso's version, traditionally boiled beef, is brisket braised 10 or 12 hours to yield slices of a pronounced tenderness, unapologetically fat-laced, uncluttered by garnishes. There's an almost pine-resin taste in the fat — no doubt a result of the long, slow cooking with branches of thyme. In place of the sticky, long-reduced sauce that marks most pot roasts, the one here is just the boiled-down cooking liquid, fortified with a bit of red wine reduced separately. It's ridiculously cheap. The three-course dinners (first course, main, dessert) — the only food offered after 5 p.m. — cost just $25, though you can buy each course separately.
The really striking thing about Il Cane Rosso, apart from its scrupulousness about citing ingredient sources, is the depth of its talent. Though Patterson is the marquee attraction, it's clear the Coi chef is more mentor than working presence. That falls to Kiino, Delfina's former chef de cuisine, who is frequently onsite to support executive chef Doug Borkowski. (By the way, Kiino's dog inspired the name Il Cane Rosso, which means “the red dog.”)
Lunch is the defining meal here. The porchetta ($9) — thick slices of pinkish pork splotched with creamy fat and the mingled aura of fennel seed and garlic — is irresistible. So is the sandwich of warm Soul Food Farm egg salad ($9), hashed until creamy, with a breath of caper and anchovy, topped with a semimolten square of aged provolone.
One day, a small bowl of autumn panzanella ($7.50) brought craggy, hand-torn croutons mixed up with soft roasted turnip edges, pancetta, and braised radicchio, all tossed with a powerfully tangy vinaigrette. Yogurt vinaigrette laid down a similarly powerful wallop in a salad of Star Route Farms' Little Gems with shaved fennel, pears, and blue cheese ($8).
Indeed, the prevailing palate here is big and assertive, one of the ways Il Cane Rosso feels contemporary. A lunch special one day of beef sugo ($12.50) brought a wide bowl of soupy stewed beef galvanized with acidic tomatoes, ladled over a wonderfully sticky mass of polenta. And a rotisserie-cooked Soul Food Farm herb-rubbed quarter chicken ($12.50) was deeply salty, steeped in an incenselike mixture of thyme and other herbs.
The three courses offer a coherent thesis built around flavor. That meal of beef bollito started with a salad of bitter chicories, walnuts, and feta heaped on warm slices of ruby grapefruit, their edges blackened in a cast-iron skillet. And it ended with slabs of pound cake smeared with house-made marmalade, its acidy citrus perfume ending the supper as it began. Brilliant.
On another night, a carpet of crisp breadcrumbs and moist sieved egg concealed pencil-thin grilled leeks. Next came messy slabs of porchetta scattered with jagged bits of skin nearly as hard as peanut brittle, over a rather different version of the turnip panzanella served at lunch. A pie of papery lemon slices, rind and all, brought it to a close.
But as lovely as the food is, the setting for supper is astonishingly stark: a hallway in the Ferry Building, remember, where, once the sun goes down, the gray light of ceiling fluorescents casts a pall over even the prettiest dish. It's drafty, so you leave your coat on. Tourists shamble by. Cooks from nearby restaurants hit the men's room just opposite.
It is, in short, an extreme place, especially for food that's such a lush exemplar of local style. Figs on a plate? Please. The dinners at Il Cane Rosso are all about serving up quietly complex dishes that express the flavor of here, in a place than can make you wish you were anywhere but there.