When chef Anthony Strong opened Prairie, his first solo restaurant after a decade with the Delfina group, everyone wanted and expected pasta. And he delivered: At opening, Eater SF described Prairie as “new school” Italian, focusing on grilled proteins and plenty of pasta, and borrowing a few ingredients and techniques from the Japanese, with plenty of chef-y toys in the mix — there’s always been a flamethrower set like a samurai sword on a shelf above the kitchen.
If that sounds like a young chef who’s playing around a little bit, today, more than a year later, Prairie is finally coming into full focus: Last week, Strong closed the restaurant for four days, completely renovated the interior, and reopened with a new menu. He’s doubling down on live-fire cooking, coming off of three different types of grills. And he’s debuting the Campfire Room, a family-style prix-fixe, where diners gather around a big redwood table, and dig into seven smoky dishes, from charred chicories and uni taglierini to coal-roasted squab and whole trout. “It’s not fancy or fussy at all,” Strong insists. “It’s just all grilled everything, with lots of dishes hitting the table, and plenty of wine flowing, like a big party.”
The Campfire Room only does one seating at 7 p.m. every night, and the menu includes an opening cocktail and seven dishes, priced at $78 on weeknights, $88 on weekends, with an additional $38 for drinks. As soon as guests step into the room, they’ll be handed a freshly juiced cocktail, which right now is the Italian greyhound, one of the longtime favorites from the bar. The first few dishes consist of greens, soup, and yes, one pasta. The second round lands a large protein as the main event: whole squab, big trout, or leg of lamb. For dessert, pastry chef Alison Sullivan is putting up icebox pies, filled with citrus curds, topped with airy meringues, and served in thick wedges. Not a mignardise in sight. “I don’t give a shit about little, cute food,” says Strong. “We’re going big.” He plans to swap out the menu once a week, but here’s what’s on to start.
The Campfire Room Opening Menu
- Italian Greyhounds & Snacks
- Puntarelle with Buttermilk-Caper Dressing & Breadcrumbs
- Charcoal-Kissed Seppia in Calabrian XO
- Hand-Cut Taglierini with Santa Barbara Sea Urchin & Steelhead Roe
- Coal-Roasted Squab with Umeboshi Brown Butter
- “Campfire Stuffing” with Cardoons & Sage
- Spigariello Greens with Green Garlic & Ginger
- Fresh Bergamot Icebox Pie with Pine Nut Crust & Coastal Huckleberries
Strong grew up in Iowa and Minnesota, paddling canoes across lakes and up to the Canandian border. Today, he likes to fill the back of his car with delis full of ingredients, toss in a few flamethrowers, and stop by Koi Palace on the way south, so by the time he’s pitching his tent in the dark, he’s got dumplings for a midnight snack. The opening menu for the Campfire Room is in fact a menu he cooked for his friends over the holidays. On Christmas day, he built up a big fire, roasted a ton of squab, and dribbled the juices down into a custardy stuffing.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Eater SF asked Strong, “but did you build a lot of forts as a child?” “Yes!” Strong said, seemingly unoffended. “Forts, Legos, and camping in the backyard, like every weekend.” He schemed for four months, he says, before closing the restaurant for four days to bang out a major renovation, building a dining room within the dining room. The Campfire Room boxes in a third of the space, creating a more intimate experience, but it’s still washed in indigo dye, with narrow windows that peek through to the rest of the dining room, so it feels like a cohesive design. The room just fits a long redwood table that seats 14 people.
It’s immediately in front of the kitchen, which is now totally opened up, with all three grills on full display. A Spanish Josper is like a hot box, burning up to a thousand degrees, to surround roasts and cook them to medium-rare “in a heartbeat.” The Texan J&R Woodshow Broiler cranks gaucho-style to lower the grate down to the mesquite, creating perfect grill marks. And a Japanese binchotan slides skinny between the two, brightly burning charcoal, to get that good char. Up until now, many eaters may not have realized one of the most unique things about Prairie — that Strong ripped out the gas line. These days, he’s running on fire and smoke.
The Campfire Room at Prairie is now open for reservations with seatings every night of the week at 7 p.m. But to be clear, you don’t have to do the big, smoky menu. The main dining room is still open for regular reservations with an a la carte menu, and the bar is still bumping delicious drinks and snacks (powered in part by a Toki highball machine, which makes outrageously sparkly drinks).