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Scaling Up Without Dumbing Down

Josh Sens | February 14, 2014 | Story Restaurants

Daniel Patterson has two Michelin stars, a cerebral mien, and a penchant for writing long, contemplative essays, renditions of which he has contributed to the New York Times, Lucky Peach, and this magazine. In the kitchen, he's inclined toward a kind of brainy cooking—food with "intellectual qualities" as he puts it—most famously at Coi, his brilliant, if less than ebullient, flagship restaurant.

Patterson’s food is so forward-looking that it comes as a surprise when the chef himself cops to being a bit of a Luddite. On a recent trip to Milan, he composed a poem, titled “Sadness,” mourning the demise of the mortar and pestle, which has been killed off by the blender as a pesto-making tool. Never mind that he dispatched his lament on Twitter—clearly, he is a chef of the old school.

As for the new economy, however, Patterson has embraced that head-on. His fifth and newest restaurant, the excellent, energetic, of-the-moment Alta CA, sits in the heart of San Francisco’s mid-Market district, land of Twitter, Yammer, Square, and more. Open for lunch and dinner, Alta styles itself as an American brasserie, which, like “disruptive technology,” means almost anything you want it to these days. What it involves here is well-considered cuisine in a casual climate and a menu with a broad dramatic range, delivered in a space that, in the ultimate concession to its place and time, also offers free Wi-Fi.

Despite its techno-amenities and court-side-to-the-tech-stars location, Alta, Patterson says, “is not a restaurant for techies. It’s a restaurant for San Franciscans.” Even so, in addition to the Wi-Fi (network name: Alta_Guest), there are plug sockets near the tables for charging electronics. I’d bet my life—or at least my lunch money—that the vast bulk of Alta’s patrons do most of their typing with their thumbs. On one of my visits, the party of 12 seated just ahead of me seemed typical of the demographic: Twitter employees, I learned, out for a team-building exercise.

Aside from trust falls, what awaited them was an evening of crisp, eclectic cooking. An ideal meal kicks off with dill-pickled deviled eggs wearing a crown of crispy sunchokes, washed down by a gin, yuzu, and celery drink. There are chicharrones to snack on (OK, beef tendon puffs, but the salty, crunchy, fatty satisfaction is the same); rye toast topped with ricotta, blood orange, and caraway; and oysters for slurping, brightened with chopped mandarins, seasoned with bay leaf, and showered with a coarse churn of the pepper mill. Seared Monterey squid tangles with mustard greens, almonds, and avocado as grapefruit counters with its citrus punch. Acorn squash soup, spiked with smoked chili, is a lush winter warmer, while duck confit straddles the seasons. Resting on a nest of bulgur, it’s splashed with smoky jus for a fireside touch, but beneath the skin, the bird is lacquered with a summery apricot glaze.

Patterson does not run Alta’s kitchen on a day-to-day basis (ascendant star Yoni Levy, a Flora veteran, wears the toque), but you can tell that he drops by often, and not just because you’ve hacked his GPS. A warm root vegetable salad of, among other things, carrots, parsnips, fennel, and kohlrabi, served raw, cubed, chopped, fried, shaved, puréed, or roasted, then tossed with olive oil, fish sauce, and mint, speaks to Patterson’s taste—apparent at Plum, Haven, and other restaurants in his stable—for repeating elements in varied presentations. The smoky flavors that permeate the menu (add a smoked pork trotter and a smoked trout with beets and yogurt to the mounting evidence) reflect his palate too.

For dessert, there’s soft ice cream with assorted highbrow riffs on familiar toppings: sticky toffee, chocolate molé, rocky road. They’re not overly ambitious, but they’re interesting enough, and fitting for a restaurant that’s serious about its food without being too serious about itself.

All of this does seem to suit the tastes and pretensions of a techie clientele, but I can understand Patterson’s urge to downplay the association. He’s worked hard to ensure that Alta is immune to charges of aggressive immaturity, an irritant at many youthful San Francisco restaurants of the moment. The acoustics are such that you can hold a conversation about your startup’s IPO plans without leaking the news to the competition one table over. The service is superb, delivered by a waitstaff who know their stuff but don’t come off as condescending toffs. And the space itself is confidently cool, with Danish school chairs, sleek cylindrical light fixtures, and, behind the bar, striking floor-to-ceiling shelves that keep the kitchen separate while letting in some of its energy.

Still, it’s not all perfect. As lunch gives way to dinner, an odd holdover or two remain on the menu. An onion and poppy seed bialy was slightly stale by the time it reached me—and it made a strange evening companion, even with the slivers of house-cured pastrami that my waiter suggested I order on the side.

Quibbles, just quibbles, when so much else is right. Like the man behind it, Alta has both soul and status. It’s enough to inspire poetry— or at least some poetic tweets.

Alta CA
1420 Market St.
Near 10tH St.), 415-590-2585
Three Stars

The Ticket
A recommended dinner at Alta CA.
Deviled eggs........................ $5
Beef tendon puffs...................$6
Rye toast with ricotta.............$9
Warm root vegetable salad......$13
Seared Monterey squid...........$14
Pacific black cod................... $25
Slow-cooked pork shoulder......$23
Soft-serve ice cream .............$6.50
Jumping frog cocktail.............$12
Curious George cocktail..........$12
Total .................................. $125.50

Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco

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