San Francisco has become a city known for its fine dining, and increasingly high concentration of Michelin stars in recent years. It’s somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as great chefs rise through the ranks of high-profile kitchens and eventually leave to open their own restaurants. One of the newest of these is Birdsong, the restaurant from chef Chris Bleidorn, former chef de cuisine at Atelier Crenn and veteran of Saison, that opens today on Mission.
The premise is “heritage cuisine,” a genre that Bleidorn describes as “restorative to the core with the intention to provide an experience that is exciting but also real.” The chef says the restaurant’s philosophy can be summed up by the following quote from preservationist Michael Frome: “Each succeeding generation accepts less and less of the real thing because it has no way of understanding what has been lost.”
How does that translate to what’s on the plate?
For Bleidorn, who previously told Eater Birdsong’s menu was inspired by the cuisine of the Pacific Northwest, that means using techniques rooted in tradition, like cooking over live fire, fermentation, and dry-aging meat, including wild game. The menu is filled with West Coast ingredients that fit into that particular scenario, like elderberries, pine needles, and oysters.
According to the chef, who was raised in New England, he’s reverse-engineered the heritage cuisine of that region to work with West coast ingredients in place of East coast ingredients. “We’re making things up as we go,” says Bleidorn. Really though, the chef says Birdsong is about preserving the culture of food.
“What can we do to improve food beyond ‘seasonal’ and ‘farm-to-table?’” says Bleidorn. “Those things are a given. Why mention it if it’s expected?”
For example, the chef is sourcing pink scallops from Puget Sound that had become borderline extinct until a fisherman carefully brought them back from the brink; now they’re available commercially in a limited capacity, and on the menu at Birdsong, served with its salted liver, grilled skirt, and apricot vinegar. “It was something that was very close to being gone,” said Bleidorn. “It’s been saved, and we want to share it.”
And you’ll never see prime meats or beef with marbled fat on the menu at Birdsong, either. “That’s food that I was told and told was good and I had to be convinced that it wasn’t good. We’re serving beef at the realest level: When it’s available and makes sense,” said Bleidorn. There will, however, be buffalo, deer, and antelope, and seafood sourced from the coast of San Francisco to Alaska.
For example, the opening menu includes creek-raised trout, that has been cured, smoked, and “warmed in cedar,” a sandwich made with the skin and roe, horseradish mayonnaise, and a custard made with dried bones and scraped belly meat. There’s also wild boar with grilled brassicas, grains, dried fruit, cultured broth, madrone bark, elderberries, ramps, and pine needles, or a more familiar dish of morel mushrooms, sonoma lamb, and allium charcoal sauce.
A dish more directly linked to Bleidorn’s New England roots: A take on clam chowder, with geoduck clams, with lardo, celery, smoked potatoes, and a broth of clam and milk whey. Quick breads like blue maize cornbread with cultured butter, or Parker House rolls brushed with boar fat and pine salt have the same effect, with fine dining flourishes.
Further amplifying the extensive fine dining experience of Bleidorn is chef de cuisine Brian Limoges, who joined the team from Quince, where he was executive sous chef. Two Gary Danko alums are also on board: Bianca Ishikawa in the role of service manager, and sommelier Freddy Foot. Foot has created a wine list focused on classic European wines, plus some smaller Pacific Northwest producers, and craft beers from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
What does a heritage restaurant in San Francisco look like?
Within the walls of what was formerly fine dining restaurant AQ, Birdsong’s aesthetic is cozy and polished, with a 12-seat chef’s counter, and velvet banquettes. SAINT, a Washington, DC-based firm, helped Shetty and Bleidorn to redesign the interior, which refreshingly succeeds in creating the “dining in someone’s home” vibe. It’s all open to the kitchen, too, for a look at the enormous custom ovens from Hestan. Downstairs are two private dining rooms (10 and 30 seats), with a glass, walk-in meat locker for dry-aging.
The implements used by both diners and chefs were also carefully curated by Bleidorn and Shetty, who used the two years it took to build the restaurant to source custom ceramic plateware inspired by fresh farm eggs and created by Korean company KwangJuYo; knives with redwood handles from Wildfire Cutlery in Oregon, and cast-iron pans from Blu Iron Skillet in Seattle are used in the kitchen and dining room.
As the first iteration of Birdsong prepares to debut, and possibly just as diners can wrap their heads around the cuisine itself, the chef says the concept could change down the the line.
“As we evolve maybe we will get bored of the Pacific Northwest and pick different cuisines,” said Bleidorn. “Authenticity evolves.”
Starting May 1, Birdsong will offer an eight-course preview menu ($135) through May 26, 2018. Beginning on May 29th a longer 12-13 course tasting menu and a la carte options will be available at dinner, Tuesday through Saturday.
- Birdsong [Official]