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Carted away

Josh Sens | May 14, 2012 | Food & Drink Story Restaurants Eat and Drink

IN A CITY THAT EMBRACES MAGIC CURRY FROM A cart and prosciutto ice cream from a neighborhood parlor, where izakayas have caught fire but so have a combination cupcake-pancake house and a restaurant whose decor shifts with the seasons, you’d think that every culinary concept has already been tested.

Then you come across State Bird Provisions, where Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski offer an experience that’s so refreshing and yet so familiar, you wonder why no one around these parts tried it before.

When we last met Brioza, he and his wife, pastry chef Krasinski, were winning hearts and minds with their cerebral cooking at now-shuttered Rubicon. After a four-year reprieve, during which they earned their keep catering private events, the couple is back, serving sharply composed food in a relaxed setting.

The novelty of State Bird Provisions isn’t instantly apparent when you arrive at the place, set on a scratched-up stretch of Fillmore Street. Inside, a blond wood counter flanks an open kitchen that leads to your tablecloth-less table in a faintly lit dining room.

A small number of items—which include the chef’s signature quail, marinated in buttermilk spiked with cayenne, fried in a pumpkin seed–breadcrumb batter, and nested in sweet-and-sour onion jam—are listed on the menu as “commandables,” things that you summon with a word to your waiter. Nothing new there. What sets the concept apart is that this isn’t the norm. Most dishes arrive not by request. They are prepared spur-of-the-moment, portioned onto small plates, then wheeled past you on carts or carried out on trays, dim sum style.

No sooner have you selected the evening’s wine than out comes a waiter, pushing a cart like a night-shift orderly, except that his offerings are more inviting. The first to catch your eye is a rolling raw bar, stocked with oysters on the half shell and bowls piled high with still-warm potato chips, cooled with house-cured steelhead roe and horseradish crème fraîche. You tuck into the chips—a Super Bowl snack for serious palates—only to be diverted by Dungeness crab, the sweet meat suspended in satsuma gelée. Topped with shaved fennel and avocado purée, the dish is a crab salad deconstructed, then rebuilt better than it was before.

As with dim sum, the format allows for early feeding frenzies that can leave you full by the time other good stuff comes around. Restraint is required if you want
a meal with reasonable pacing, just as patience is encouraged in your dealings with the waitstaff, who have so much to handle that dirty plates tend to stack up on your table, rising as fast as the food goes down.

If this were a traditional fine dining restaurant, a patron would have every right to complain. But Brioza and Krasinski aren’t out to do the same-old. They’re riffing on convention, and the loosely controlled anarchy of the evening, coupled with an element of surprise (“Oh, look, duck neck dumplings”), is central to the restaurant’s charm.

State Bird’s quirky approach is matched by its surroundings, a bootstrapped interior with a concrete wall on one side and a pegboard featuring string art on the other. It’s very DIY yet undistracting, leaving the focus squarely on the polished cuisine.

Brioza is a chef with omnivorous interests and the chops to work without a net. Between his command-ables and cart-service options, his kitchen turns out a myriad of dishes of such varied inspiration that the usual pat labels fall short. Smoked whitefish in a cloud of crème fraîche mousse, with toasted bread salad as a textural topping, is the Lower East Side by way of California. Green-garlic bread baked in a coil and crowned with burrata is a savory West Coast morning bun.

Every now and then, there are familiar Cal-Med moments, as with rosemary cavatelli, the pasta shells tossed with buttery wild mushrooms, but Brioza pushes limits more often than he coasts in a comfort zone. His “Korean pasta” pairs chewy rice-cake coins with braised rabbit in a robust parmesan sauce; it sounds odd but makes sense when you eat it. Another stunner is a pork, shellfish, and kimchee stew, a lighter upgrade of a hearty work from the Korean canon. It brings together melting hunks of pork belly and Manila clams in a spicy tangle of pickled cabbage. The broth that pools around it, infused with chili heat and vinegary tang, is glorious. You’ll want to drink it straight from the cast-iron pot.

On my first trip to State Bird, I made the misstep of premature binge eating, but by my final visit, I’d found the proper tack. Best to tide yourself over with a few commandables and take on the cart service as you would a buffet, with early scouting missions followed by more vigorous surgical strikes.

Approach a meal this way, and you’ll find room for Krasinski’s desserts, which are artful gifts in tiny packages, begging you to order more than one. The milk-chocolate sesame wafers, laid across a pinch pot of clementine-cocoa jam, are something you can share (but might not want to), whereas a dessert called World Peace is meant for only one. For this, peanuts are soaked in sweetened milk and cream until they give up their nutty essence. You can sip it, or down it like an adult tossing back a shot of childhood. Consider it an act of rebellion, one, like the restaurant, that everyone can get behind. State Bird Provisions 1529 Fillmore St. (bet. Geary Blvd. and O’Farrell St.), S.F., 415-795-1272, $$, Dinner Only, Reservations Recommended, Wheelchair Accessible, ***


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