California Quail at State Bird Provisions
State Bird Provisions wasn't named the 2013 James Beard Best New Restaurant Award for nothing.
In Manhattan the hardest reservation to score is Sushi Nakazawa. In San Francisco the hardest reservation to get is State Bird Provisions, a smallish dim sum shop on a hodgepodge block of Fillmore Street, west of Geary. I'd tried to go the last three times I was in town. But this time I talked my friend Bill into standing in line with me. We arrived at 5:15 p.m. The line was already about thirty deep. We waited patiently in the chilly San Francisco night. "It's fine," I told Bill when he looked warily at the crowd. I was a hearty New Yorker and standing in line was like breathing. The host took our name, and guessed that our table would be ready around 7:30 p.m. I smiled, offering up my easiest-to-deal-with customer. "We'd love to sit at the bar if it works out," I noted.
Doughnuts with duck liver mousse at State Bird Provisions.
Two glasses of wine later, at nearby Dosa, the host called and suggested we come back. It was 6:45 p.m. Gosh I thought, that was easy. We sat at two seats at the right edge of the bar. Opposite our seats was a giant L-shaped open kitchen. The cooks were joking and laughing, prepping and cooking, it looked like they were having a blast. Seeing their enjoyment made me want to dive in a join them, but I knew it was infinitely harder than they were making it look.
Spicy dungeness crab and kimchi yuba strips with smoked egg yolk grated on top at State Bird Provisions.
Here's the quick overview of State Bird Provisions: the food is beyond creative (spicy crab, yuba and smoked egg yolk), it's rich and unhealthy (doughnuts with whipped liver mouse), it's sometimes a bit inelegant (pork belly with red grapes or the rough slurried seaweed with raw fish) and dessert is worth saving room for, which is basically impossible (cornbread custard with chocolate crumble, mapled apricot, and walnuts). I ate way too much, but when each dish walking by sounds like nothing you've ever had, it becomes hard to say no.
Rabbit curry with hedgehog mushrooms and roti at State Bird Provisions
The concept of State Bird Provisions, cooks walking around and pitching their wares, is genius. They love talking about food, I love eating their food. Sitting at the bar I was able to talk to each of the cooks, and their passion was indelible. The kitchen felt like a diplomatic piece of team work, like an Olympic team of lugers barreling down an ice track, very hard and requiring endless amounts of skill and patience. The diplomacy even fell to questioning who the head chef was, I had an idea, but I wasn't sure. Stuart Brioza, the head chef and owner, wasn't actually there that night, which makes it all the more impressive. His team was hitting it out of the park and he wasn't even watching.
Now if only I could wait in line to eat at Sushi Nakazawa.
The state bird that State Bird is named for: fried quail with preserved onions and pepitas. The California quail (Lophortyx californica), also known as the valley quail, became the official state bird in 1931. A widely distributed and prized game bird, it is known for its hardiness and adaptability.
Warm cornbread custard with chocolate crumble, mapled apricots, and walnuts at State Bird Provisions.