Sacramento Street isn’t like other streets in San Francisco. It’s not undergoing transformation or gentrification or condo-ification. Which means, unlike most everywhere else in this ever-changing city, it’s more or less static. A tony time warp, where the same women still take their finest threads to Peninou for French cleaning; where the same mind-boggling mansions still seemingly occupy entire blocks; and where the same decades-old restaurants — like Osteria, Magic Flute, Garibaldi’s — still draw a steady, hyper-local crowd. Sprawling, luxurious Spruce, with its white tablecloths and throne-like saddle-leather chairs, holds claim as the go-to, see-and-be-seen night out in this neighborhood, and has ever since it opened back in 2007.
So the arrival of Sorrel, a buzzy but comparatively low-key Cal-Italian restaurant, is big news around here. If you can call a place run by a Quince alum with $46 wagyu and golden-wrapped toilet paper in the restroom low key. In a neighborhood where home prices soar into the multimillions, I guess you can. Pricey restaurants are a San Francisco epidemic these days — and in Presidio Heights, a $78 duck-for-two is just another Tuesday night out. Which is to say: Sorrel is a neighborhood restaurant befitting its neighborhood.
On a recent weeknight, all 50 seats were filled with mostly beautiful middle-aged couples, grandfatherly men in blazers, and a communal table of meticulously-coiffed blondes. Everyone looked as instantly at home here as Sorrel itself. The restaurant slid right into the rectangular space formerly occupied by Nico, which was a Michelin-starred, five-course, prix-fixe affair. (After just three years, it recently relocated to Jackson Square.)
Now almost-29-year-old chef Alex Hong —in a white t-shirt, his longish, wavy hair curled around his ears — is arguably the youngest person in the place. He commands the partially open kitchen with the confidence and studiousness of a Culinary Institute of America graduate trained under Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Still, he lacks pretension in the way that only a Boulder-born guy who spent the last four years running a weekly pop-up restaurant can.
He has set the right tone. It’s a rare combination: unaffected service paired with serious, painstakingly correct food. The staff is professional, even passionate, yet also refreshingly real.
“I’d fight someone over the scorza di fagioli,” said our peppy, fast-talking server when we asked her which of Hong’s half-dozen pastas was her favorite. The dish comes in a pole bean pesto with favas, ramps, and English peas. Chewy and bright, with a touch of Meyer lemon, it’s my favorite, too. The orecchiette with broccoli di ciccio in a Calabrian chili-spiked pork sausage sugo is a close second — albeit a more predictable dish.
Predictability is a bit of a thorn in the flowery, super-seasonal menu. “This is my second arugula-and-stone fruit salad of the day,” said my sister, visiting from back east. It was, however, the fresher arugula and sweeter stone fruit salad of the day. There were the usual elegantly springy suspects, too: chilled pea soup, porcini risotto, lamb tartare, and a salmon crudo.
Indeed, as is the blooming trend these days, nasturtium adorned them all, as if a colorful bouquet had been tossed into the air in the kitchen. The petals are as pretty as the presentation, but otherwise do little to the enhance the muted, at times uneven, flavors of Hong’s menu.
The California king crudo was not “mind-blowing” as the server overpromised. Dragging my salmon slab through a thin puddle of buttermilk didn’t add much. Although I appreciate the salty, succulent-like crunch of agretti — an Italian herb whose green fronds were tucked into the thinly sliced raw salmon — the dish was still just another salmon crudo in what’s become a sea of salmon crudos in San Francisco.
The spring lamb tartare, though, is uniquely itself. A diced, hand-molded mound of mild, citrus-kissed meat, hiding a boquerones-whisked mayonnaise and bordered by what looks like a multihued pillbox of pine nuts, black sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and salty-sweet sunny-yellow gratings of cured egg yolk. We were told to crumble the accompanying “everything” lace cracker over the top and mix it all together. A lively mash of textures and tastes‚ it was like the tea leaf salad of tartare — and I scraped every last bit from its hefty, ceramic black plate.
The “foie gras parfait,” cured in cognac and maderida and blended with gelatin, was creamy, almost airy, and served with a toasted triangle of brioche. Without that rich, fatty punch, it failed to satisfy like foie — or any $24 starter— should, and did little other than leave me wondering: Why, with its sugar-torched, fork-shattering top, wasn’t it dubbed a “crème brulee” instead?
The risotto, too, isn’t luxurious the way risotto traditionalists want it to be. It is woodsy, oddly almost al dente, toasted to the point where you can discern each and every kernel. Buried beneath is a ball of barely-there burrata and raw porcini shavings are showered on top along with one meaty, roasted mushroom slab. It’s a a beautiful but under-seasoned bowl of beige scattered with about as many petals as a bride’s aisle.
Meanwhile, certain dishes were almost chokingly overly-seasoned, like the carbonara, which was loaded with ramps and morels and — unfortunately — too much salt.
The oyster, however, was perfect. A clean, briny Washington Chelsea gem, accompanied by a namesake sorrel ice, and capped in a coin of Asian pear, which gives it a faint crunch. It’s a remarkably well-groomed oyster — its edges supersmooth, its muscle expertly cut. I wanted a dozen more.
Unfortunately, on one night, the stellar service slipped. The oyster arrived after the fried soft-shell crab starter — even though I’d ordered it with my “Sorrel,” which is their spin on a negroni, made with rhubarb.
“Oysters are to start!,” my companion and I griped. And then acknowledged the ridiculousness of San Francisco, where complaining about a belated $4.50 oyster is something we do.
But we raved our way through that crab. A playful starter with a delicate, fiery crunch, it arrives with legs splayed like a little swimmer holding an imperfect handstand in a pool of gribiche. The sauce is like an extra-chunky tartare, enlivened by capers and sweet gherkins and not shy with its shallots.
Meanwhile, the dry-aged duck-for-two is a bronzed, beautiful bundle, swaddled in its own honey-lacquered skin and adorned with a bushy purple artichoke flower. The server presents it in its pan, like a proud parent, then whisks it away to prepare it for dinner. When the duck returns, it’s carved into fat, rosy-pink slices, bejeweled with Sicilian pistachios, and sealed by a thin, crisp layer of fat that melts like magic.
On our visit, Hong himself emerged to spoon a jus of sticky, burgundy-red Balaton cherries from a small saucepan and then disappeared back into the open kitchen in the rear. He makes a point to stop by every table — not for long, and not to chit-chat, just perhaps to show he cares.
It’s clear he does. And much of the experience works well. As Hong continues to settle into his first permanent space, he’s certainly a chef to watch.
But as I settled in, I felt like I could be at any upscale-seasonal restaurant in San Francisco: from the wooden communal table, to the dangling glass globe lights, to the leafy ficus trees, to the perfectly pleasant chilled pea soup.
One Friday night, though, when we walked in and scored two just-vacated stools at the small, white marble bar, I felt a distinct sense of place. These are by far the best seats in the house. From the bar topped with a gorgeous green swirl of Amazonia quartzite, I watched a steady stream of Range Rovers and Teslas roll in. And I remembered exactly where I was: in one of San Francisco’s wealthiest enclaves, eating at a restaurant as safe and subdued as its street.
It’s not all Hong’s fault — he’s like a straight-A student — but to stand out in this talent-saturated town requires taking risks, which is something too few rising chefs are willing to do in San Francisco these days. If Sorrel were, say, in an equally affluent suburb, or somewhere less competitive, it would likely be a big deal. But given the costs of running a restaurant around here — and on Sacramento Street especially — it’s seemingly safer to cater to customers rather than challenge them. Ultimately, Hong’s food is like its neighborhood: serene and lovely and a little too quiet to draw a cross-town crowd.