Rich Table: Refined Comfort with California Bistro Food

Rich Table could easily be another of those tiresome, expensive restaurants serving up small plates with a side of snobbery. Judging from the menu alone, you could be forgiven for dismissing it as such — its daily-changing menu only lists ingredients without any hints about the preparation, forcing you to rely on the waitstaff for enlightenment. In lesser places, questions are often met with condescension and a hint of disdain, implying that if you have to ask, you couldn't appreciate chef's vision, anyway.

It's testament to owners and chefs Evan and Sarah Rich that the atmosphere at their new Hayes Valley restaurant is anything but pretentious. You're greeted with the hostess's genuinely warm smile. The rustic wood walls and tables, the dishcloth-style napkins, and the open kitchen all lend a casual air. But what really sets Rich Table apart is the waitstaff, whose members are friendly and informational without rhapsodizing or preaching, and the food, which is so much fun that you want to hug the Riches at the end of the meal, if only to thank them for putting the diners' needs above their egos.

The cuisine might well be classified as a Northern Californian spin on bistro food, though like State Bird Provisions, Bar Tartine, and others of their ilk, the influences reach to far-flung corners of the globe. Evan and Sarah Rich have technique and experience in spades — they met at Bouley in New York, and have put in time at Coi, Michael Mina, and Quince — but they also clearly understand and respect what a neighborhood restaurant should be: a place to gather over a good meal. They just offer a more serious spin on comfort food than most.

Even the simplest things on the menu surprise and delight. Start with the bread, which costs extra, but is so far removed from the standard-issue bread basket that it's like comparing authentic bolognese sauce to Hamburger Helper. Sarah Rich makes the bread and desserts; her thick-sliced fennel levain bread is chewy and interesting with every bite; spread with some house-made butter, it's the best bread and butter you've ever had. I would have happily eaten it for dinner, except that I knew more exciting things were in store.

The much-touted sardine chips in the Bites section lived up to the hype. They're in danger of becoming a dish the Riches can't take off the menu, and it's easy to understand why — they're thin, house-made potato chips with a crispy fried sardine slipped inside. They're warm, salty, and savory, and when dipped in the horseradish-tinged sauce, take the concept of chips and dip to a thrilling new height.

The adventure didn't stop with the small bites. Salmon tartare came with a plate-sized, paper-thin cracker over the salmon, dotted with crème fraiche. It cracked like the crust on crème brûlée to reveal ruby jewels of raw salmon on a bed of pale green cucumbers. The cracker's taste was familiar, but out of reach: Turns out the kitchen grinds saltines into powder, adds beet sugar, and reconstitutes them into wafers to create an experience both comforting and cutting-edge.

Buttermilk-poached chicken showed the same playful harmony. The menu promised a garnish of “beans, seeds, and sprouts,” but it didn't prepare me for the beauty of the dish. A perfectly poached ivory breast and crispier thigh sat atop cherry tomatoes interspersed with the promised beans, lentils, and seeds of all varieties. The chilled tomatoes had a wonderful contrast with the warm beans; their citrus flavors mingled with the beans' earthier ones. Unfortunately, the dish also had some of the biggest flaws I encountered: A bit of gristle from the chicken made its way onto the plate, and some of the beans were so undercooked they were nearly raw.

Visit after visit, the best things on the menu were the house-made pastas. Tajarin is a traditional Piedmontese pasta, a little thinner than tagliatelle, and here it's tossed with a sauce made with huitlacoche (a truffle-like corn fungus) powder that was so luscious it felt like buttered noodles for grownup palates. Chicken lasagne was similarly comforting and revolutionary at once; the chicken was so juicy and flavorful you'd swear they sneaked some pork in, and it was bathed in enough cheese and cream sauce to feel indulgent, but it was elevated with a topping of roasted pumpkin seeds and sauteed pumpkin greens.

The biggest problem with an ever-changing menu is that the kitchen doesn't have enough time to tweak the dishes to perfection, and a few didn't come together. Thin flatbread layered with rabbit liver, onion paste, and sauteed broccoli raab was interesting, but never achieved liftoff. Same with a burrata and heirloom tomato salad, which had a dark, mysterious hint of seaweed sauce that I wished had been more prominent.

These were minor missteps, and even when the dishes didn't work perfectly they were still intriguing enough to make the table happy. The upshot to a daily menu is that every time you come in it's almost like the first time. By the time this review goes to print the tomatoes may be gone until next summer, but don't fret: If anyone can make root vegetables exciting, it's this kitchen.

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