The first time I walked into The Morris, it felt familiar. Which is exactly how a neighborhood restaurant is supposed to feel, even if it’s not your neighborhood restaurant.
My friends had yet to arrive, and so I took the opportunity to do what one does after slogging across town at rush hour, to a quiet corner between Potrero Hill and the Mission, home to the Muni depot, KQED, and not much else.
“Mind if I use the restroom?” I asked the host, perhaps miswording my question when what I really meant was: Where’s the bathroom?
“Uh, go ahead,” he said, in what I, as a native East Coaster, considered a welcoming tone. “I’d rather you do it now, rather than at the table.” For a second, it was as if I’d left smiley San Francisco for blunt Boston. I felt at ease.
I actually remembered where the bathroom was. I’d been there before it was The Morris, back when it was the Slow Club, as it was for almost a quarter century.
That’s the other reason the place felt familiar: It looked pretty much exactly the same. Same black-and-white “ESPRESSO” sign on the cement exterior, which reminded me of the faded roadside motels that still tout “Free Color TV.” Same garage-like glass windows; same narrow bar area tucked in the back, except now tall electric-green fronds separate it. Same chairs, same square tables (with new tops) arranged in the same format around the same boxy but convivial 40-seat room.
The only thing that has really changed is the food. (And perhaps the people eating it.)
I’d heard early raves about The Morris — about its whole-animal focus; about the fancy Coi and Frances pedigrees of its owner-winemaker Paul Einbund and his chef Gavin Schmidt; about the 1,800-bottle, glass-walled, walk-in wine case that I couldn't help notice dwarfs its curator. So I wondered why, a year later, the restaurant always seemed to have ample availability. At 6:30, 7:15, 7:30, 7:45…
When we showed up one night at 6:30, the crowd was sparse but eventually filled out. On another night, at 9 p.m., the place was packed, including a long table of two dozen tech workers toasting something. But on a Wednesday at lunch, it was so utterly empty when we walked in that we felt awkward admitting we actually had a reservation.
I loved the Slow Club’s low-key-cool vibe and Prather Ranch burger as much as everyone else, but I didn’t mourn its departure for long. There are plenty of places to get a delicious cheeseburger these days. Though, unfortunately, The Morris isn’t one of them. (Served only on the brief lunch menu, it was too dense, with barely melted comte. Its thick, crisped, “fries” — which were, in fact, entire fingerling potatoes— on the other hand, trumped most.)
But The Morris isn’t about something as banal as a $17 burger anyway. It’s about a $104 duck. (Only $52 for a half!) It’s about duck mousse and duck rillettes and duck offal confit, all of which were divine. It’s also about pork trotters: fried, smoky, stupendous.
Otherwise, as a table, we unfortunately picked a wrong dish or two. Even kimchi and pepitas couldn’t save a lackluster heirloom melon salad. The mixed melon balls reminded me of the fruit platters my mom used to assemble with her trusty plastic melon baller, a 1980s suburban staple. The lingcod was a letdown, too — the tomato-shrimp broth too mild, the fish too mushy.
The irrefutably right dish, however, was the dumpling. An indulgent, $3.50, two-bite translucent orb stuffed with braised chicken, Sonoma foie gras, and roasted maitake mushrooms, and topped with a wisp of bonito that bended in the non-breeze, like one of those prescient red cellophane fish that old noodle chain off Fillmore used to present with the bill.
And, of course, we ordered The Morris’s signature dish — duck from Petaluma’s Liberty Farms that’s been brined, aged, smoked, then roasted.
Its wings and legs and breasts and thighs came carved, splayed proudly on a platter as if it were, say, Christmas in Denmark. Except it was just a Tuesday night in San Francisco. Its skin was thick and glistening, as bronzed as a retired Floridian; its meat rosy pink and plentiful, the presentation worthy of a Martha Stewart magazine cover and most certainly every table’s Instagram.
The only problem was that it was too much work to eat. Our razor-sharp Opinel knives helped (and would scare the heck out of me if taken into the wrong hands). When I got a good hunk, I got an intensely smoky, rich, tender bite enhanced by a luscious, caramelized duck-honey-espresso jus. But I also had trouble getting to it at all. Neither my teeth nor my weapon could cut entire sections, as the skin proved too thick. For a hundred bucks, I thought it should be flawless, the duck of dreams.
Like my $16 soup: a heaping bowl of thick handmade noodles with shreds of tender duck legs and thighs in an umami-rich habanero-spiked broth that I sucked up, while sweating, on an 86-degree afternoon.
The problem with a restaurant having a hyped-up “must-order dish” is you feel like you’re missing out if you don’t order it. But The Morris’s duck is not Zuni’s chicken. You’d actually be missing out if you didn’t get, say, the grilled squid — chewy, cavatelli-esque rolls that came doused in a spicy chile-lime sauce with stalks of charred broccolini. Or the brisket: a slab that resembled a New York strip — until I dove in with my fork, slicing effortlessly through the charred, crackling crust to the sweet, smoky meat, sitting in a puddle of poblano chile creme that gave this brisket a kick my grandma’s sadly never had.
A year after opening, the hype for The Morris has clearly moved on. And that’s a good thing. Hype is not what sustains a neighborhood restaurant. It’s the food and the wine and the people — and the personal touches, like the wooden handles of those daggers, etched with Einbund’s late father’s actual signature. Or the old world bottles he’s been collecting for years. Or the carafes of pay-only-what-you-drink house wine — exceptional, custom-blended house wine. Or the projector looping a winding Point Reyes drive in the bathroom, set to classical music, an interlude so calming and mesmerizing it made me linger by the sink a little longer. And, even the straight-talking host who unintentionally makes you feel at home — even when you’re miles from it.