Speaking from his home in Venice Beach, restaurateur and chef Matthew Kenney spoke longingly of San Francisco. “I began my career as a fine dining chef in New York,” he said, “and a couple of times I had to eat my way around the city — this is during the height of Jeremiah Tower and Elka Gilmore — and I just loved everything about it.” 25 or so years later, Kenney has a globe-spanning empire of vegan restaurants, numerous books, and a “plant-based education business” under his belt. And now, he’s opening his first San Francisco restaurant, a vegan Italian spot called Baia, in one of the city’s most memorable dining locations: the Hayes Valley building that from 1997-2019 was home to Traci des Jardins’ groundbreaking restaurant, Jardiniere.
“It’s an iconic spot,” Kenney said with a chuckle, and there’s an irony that diners won’t be able to see how it’s been revamped when Baia opens on Saturday, August 1. With the pandemic, Baia’s menu (which you can see in full below) of faux-meatballs, pastas, and pizzas is takeout and delivery only until indoor dining resumes.
“We expected to open months ago,” Kenney says, a familiar refrain from restaurateurs derailed during the pandemic . The “we” in that sentence brings Tracy and Kyle Vogt into the picture. The couple (Tracy is a philanthropist and animal sanctuary founder, Kyle is the CEO and co-founder of GM’s self-driving car company Cruise). Speaking to the SF Chronicle last year, Tracy said that San Francisco did not have enough plant-based restaurant options, and when Jardiniere moved out, she moved in just weeks later “because of its history.”
She tapped Kenney to run the kitchen, Vogt said at the time, because she “needed to find a strong chef with a proven track record who can create really amazing Italian food,” and who could “show people that you can eat plant-based without resorting to a plate of soggy tofu and steamed veggies.”
There’s an argument to be made that there are plenty of vegan spots in SF that already accomplish this admirably — Shizen’s izakaya offerings come to mind, as do Wildseed’s hearty paellas and Nick’s on Mission’s Filipino hofbrau. But more dining choices make for more merriment, especially during the Groundhog Day that is this pandemic, so even with a multitude of other excellent, high-end plant-based restaurants across SF, if Baia’s food is a home run, the number of restaurants serving vegan food in SF becomes immaterial.
Kenney says that the Vogts collaborated with him on the menu, which has “San Francisco influences” in its roster of North Beach-leaning dishes like eggplant parm and cacio e pepe. But, wait, there’s more: Kenney says that he’s also turned the challenges these odd times present into an opportunity, and at launch Baia will also host a separate pop-up called Woodblock Sushi.
The sushi menu, too, is a three-way collab with the Vogts (as its website prominently notes), with “your favorite rolls reinvented with unique ingredients and sophisticated preparations.” Kenney says that he’s “talked about” for a long time, but hasn’t fully pulled the trigger on in any of his other restaurants. Woodblock, with a menu of wacky rolls like “truffle explosion” (that’s cucumber, shiitake, and truffle aioli) and “Nashville hot karaage” (celery, carrot, and blue non-dairy cheese) will be a chance to “test the market.”
Alas, Kenney won’t be in the kitchen when Baia opens on Saturday — he says he’s only traveled once during the pandemic, and he’s understandably reluctant to take risks as California’s coronavirus case count skyrockets. As he’s a chef who pivoted from traditional, omnivorous cooking to a plant-based lifestyle 19 years ago in pursuit of wellness, his mindfulness about health seems philosophically consistent.
But three members of Kenney’s expansive team are on the job, he says, all “Michelin-based,” he says, and all eager to “push the boundaries” of vegan food. He says hopes to get to San Francisco later this summer, perhaps after the infection curve flattens again, he says. “I know the new kitchen is really, really beautiful,” he says wistfully. “And the dining room is huge, there’s room for 150, 200 people. I hope I can get up there and see everyone soon.”
Baia opens on Saturday, August 1, and will be open from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. Delivery will be available via all the usual delivery apps, and takeout orders can be placed for Baia here and Woodblock Sushi here.