We are pretty possessive of our restaurants in this town, especially the good ones. We’d prefer to keep our Tartines to ourselves rather than watch them rise around the country.
When a talented chef deigns to expand beyond the Bay Area, let alone the neighborhood, he (and it is, typically, a “he”) goes from being perceived as scrappy to a sell-out.
No one cares if La Boulangeries and The Groves proliferate. People expect them to. But back when duplication veered into Delfina Pizzeria territory, debate ensued. The California Street location was one thing. Once that broccoli rabe pie started cropping up in Palo Alto and Burlingame, with big plans for further expansion, though, I admit I was bummed. Not for Craig Stoll. Hardworking chefs wholly deserve to make money. I was upset by the notion that a beloved local spot could become — god forbid — a chain.
This is all a long-winded way of talking about the new Alta, also known as the second Alta, or Alta MSP — as in: Minnesota Street Project, the adjacent airy, white warehouse that opened in 2016 as an economically sustainable space for art galleries and independent artists. Soon, there will be four Altas, including one in Los Angeles. If Daniel Patterson’s newly formed “Alta Group” has its way, there will someday be Altas around the country.
I think that’d be a good thing.
Not because of the food, per se. It alone is not worth a mad dash down to an otherwise often-desolate stretch of Dogpatch. Rather, I’d welcome an army of Altas because of Patterson, the man leading the charge: a brainy chef morphing into an ambitious businessman who is meticulous and socially conscious and (with the help of ROC United) committed to hiring a diverse group of good people, serving good food made with good ingredients in a sophisticated yet easy-going atmosphere. Patterson hopes it attracts diners who understand that the aged beef strip loin costs $33 (the priciest item on the dinner menu) because he wants to pay the person washing your dishes as well as he pays the one uncorking your wine.
Locals loved the first Alta, the mid-Market pioneer that opened a block from Twitter in 2013. (And the sole survivor after a recent rash of nearby closings.) Which is probably why Patterson picked it to multiply. I only ate dinner there twice, a while ago, and both times I left still feeling hungry and like I’d spent too much money for still feeling hungry.
The other day, though, after brunch at Alta MSP, I left so stuffed and satisfied that I almost skipped dinner. My fault for over-ordering (job hazard), but I also blame the fried-chicken sandwich, a comically sized slab of succulent thigh meat encased in a crisp, inch-thick cayenne-tinged crust and set on a soft Della Fattoria bun swathed with a fermented chili-based aioli, with housemade pickles and a daikon-jalapeno slaw. It was spicy. It was messy. It was monstrous. And it turned a fine meal into a memorable one.
As did a stroll afterward through the galleries next door. Too bad the current Nobuyuki Takahashi show at the Rena Bransten gallery was better than Alta’s desserts. House-made soft-serve was creamy, but served in mounds so massive it got monotonous. One bowl came topped with a skimpy amount of toffee, salted caramel, and dark chocolate; another was served with strawberries on a lemon-poppyseed cake that was dry and dense.
Most of chef Matt Brimer’s midday menu, though, offers more elevated takes on standard San Francisco fare. Here, the requisite little gem salad, in a light and zingy green goddess dressing, was scattered with shaved kohlrabi, coils of boquerones, and dried puffs of farro that gave every other forkful a nice subtle crunch.
Instead of $8 avocado toast, it’s $11 grilled levain dressed in dandelion-strewn fromage blanc, hunks of peach, and halved almonds — which seemed superfluous and fell off on the way to my mouth anyway. Another slice came topped in an unwieldy tangle of endive that obscured the flavor of the cubes of smoked black cod and horseradish yogurt below. (Come in for weekday breakfast and toast toppings range from butter [$4] to jam [$5] to Gruyere [$8] to Andante fresh cheese with honey [$9].)
I went on a weekend, which meant I was able to try the “Bottomless Mimosa Lab,” an inventive, fresh-squeezed spin on the typical headache-inducing gimmick favored by post-college drinkers looking to get lit by noon. Alta has transformed the bottomless mimosa into a more refined, interactive event that kept us entertained at the table like kids with crayons.
Presented with two flutes and a bunch of beakers of various shapes and sizes — including 500 milliliters of refillable Wycliff sparkling wine — we were told to mix our own, mad scientist-style. Fresh lime juice with rhubarb simple syrup was a winner, as was the pucker-worthy OJ with peach vermouth and bitters. We never did request more bubbles. Was it worth $40 dollars for two? No. But it was fun.
At dinner, drinks — “coolers” and low-ABV cocktails— were the undeniable stars. The sparkling wine-centric concoctions were so appealing and original and invigorating, I didn’t miss the hard stuff (and felt pretty good the next day to boot). After trying a sip of my friend’s bracing house-made ginger beer, I considered skipping booze altogether, but too late: My Cindy Sherman, an on-tap option named after the contemporary photographer shown next door, was already on its way. The slim glass of berry-red rosé mixed with contratto aperitif, tarragon, and garnished with a strawberry and a sprig of mint had a refreshing tartness to it and wasn’t as sweet as it sounds. Still, it didn’t go down quite as well once the deviled eggs — delicious and doused in kimchi and furikake — arrived. (So much furikake it was like the lid fell off the shaker.)
There were a few highlights from the evening meal, like the Brentwood corn, a wildly flavorful stew of summer kernels, sweet Sun Gold tomatoes, and spicy mini padrons mixed with pops of smoked trout roe and salty green wisps of agretti.
The unruly pile of brown-rice puffs (also served during the day) is a well-deserved signature item: cooked, then blended rice, dehydrated and fried into imperfectly shaped cracker-thin vehicles for the accompanying avocado, Espelette-flecked puree. It was silky and smooth, but came in a ramekin too small to match the number of puffs. And they were too brittle to be true dippers, snapping in the dish and forcing us to use our fingers too. Which, even among friends, is a worse offense than double dipping.
Alta’s connection to the Minnesota Street Project is both a blessing and a curse. The weekend I went it was packed with young art lovers, with lunching old ladies, with kid-toting couples.
But both times I went for dinner, the place — a spare, sleek (if unoriginal) 45-seat space with an inviting, 25-foot-long walnut bar and two matching communal tables — was all but deserted. The restaurant, with its handful of other diners, felt so hushed our rowdy party of four felt something we never do: self-conscious. Plus, peering through the glass wall into the fluorescent-lit gallery, a lone security guard sat at the front desk while outside, a worker power-washed the sidewalk, giving us the feeling that our night was over before it even began.
Everything Alta — at least this Alta — does best, it does during the day.