Blood sausage in a sweet-tart braise
(1 of 5)
Sharing with the mates
(2 of 5)
The un-pubby bar scene
(3 of 5)
Sticky toffee pudding
(4 of 5)
A cocktail suited for a fox hunt
(5 of 5)
Five years ago, breaking from the genre—street-chic Vietnamese—for which he was best known, Charles Phan opened a Chinese restaurant in the Soma Grand, an upscale residential tower on a rough-around-the-edges stretch of Mission Street. He called it Heaven’s Dog.
Hell and High Water’s Dog might have been a better name. Whatever the reason— dormant neighborhood, inelastic demand for handmade dumplings—the concept never aroused much interest. Then came a flood that swept through the building in late 2012, washing away Heaven’s Dog for good. The space went dark for nearly 18 months, until this spring, when Phan once again filled it. If you thought that dim sum was a departure for him, try to wrap your mind around his latest: a British-inspired restaurant and bar.
The Coachman comes during a muddled phase for Phan. Once a can’t-miss kid (and still the owner of the Slanted Door, one of San Francisco’s most profitable restaurants), he has amassed a patchy record lately. For every hit, including bourbon-soaked Hard Water on the Embarcadero, there has been a flop, like Wo Hing General Store in the Mission.
Phan gets bonus points for branching out. But in recent years, as his reach has spread, his ventures have lost the feel of passion projects and acquired the corporate spirit of the plus-size restaurant group that he now runs.
The Coachman reflects that shift. Though it takes its name from a San Francisco pub where Phan worked as a busboy in his teens, little else about it strikes a personal note. Unlike the Cavalier, another high-end British tribute less than three blocks away, the Coachman takes no pains to look the part. You’d find more atmosphere in outer space. Phan’s go-to designer, Olle Lundberg (whose varied projects have ranged from Hard Water to Twitter’s new headquarters), tweaked the interior, tearing out a wall to link the lounge to the open kitchen. But he left behind a setting devoid of character and lacking in energy.
If there’s a hive of activity, it’s the bar, where you can get buzzed on ciders, stouts, and cask-conditioned ale, or put back balanced cocktails such as the Robert Burns’ Hunting Flask—which is named for the Scottish poet but made with Irish whiskey and served in the sort of flask that you’d pack while chasing foxes through the English countryside. Drink all you want, but you’re not apt to feel transported across the pond.
The menu has a better chance to move you. Executed by Ross Wunderlich (formerly of Hard Water), it’s heavy in its bearing and upbeat in its ambitions, and, on balance, it deserves a better stage. Think of it as British fare modified for California palates: a lively watercress soup here, a refreshing starter of parsley and capers overlaid with mandolined kohlrabi moons there. Unsung ingredients play unexpected roles, such as a whole fried smelt, a quirky accompaniment to beef tartare. Sautéed snails ride atop a lengthwise cut of roasted marrow bones like plump grand marshals on a holiday float.
Wunderlich draws freely on the British theme. His blood sausage, dark as midnight and scented with anise, is served in a sweet-tart braise with cabbage and apples. He blankets his chips with a gravy of black pudding, then piles on ranch dressing, cheddar cheese, bacon, and housemade sambal, a flash of chili fire amid the fatty flavors. The indulgent dish, a kind of modern riff on pub food or an exotic spin on poutine, is like a drunken one-night stand: You’ll enjoy it in the moment, but berate yourself tomorrow.
Every now and then, the menu traipses lightly—halibut crudo and marinated beets enjoy a gentle dusting of dill pollen—but it’s mostly unabashed about its weight. A meal at the Coachman is a reminder of the British love for butter. Browned butter glistens on the sautéed skate wing, its richness cut by caper berries. Clarified, it tops the potted crab in a shimmering pool that you plunge your fork through to pull up chunks of sweet meat.
So it goes from start to finish. You taste a lot of butter in the jus of the prime rib and in the roasted chicken breast with king trumpet mushrooms, finished stovetop in waves of you-know-what. And there’s plenty more of the same in the dessert menu, which clings to the English program: sticky toffee pudding, lemon posset, and banana-and-toffee pie.
It’s heartfelt cooking. It’s also very hearty, and by evening’s end it can be, as the English say, too much of a muchness. Even so, that’s not the main problem. Like a hotel lobby, the ground floor of a condo tower is a tough spot for a restaurant laying claim to a strong identity. Phan has slapped a concept into a humdrum setting and billed it as the Coachman, but despite his staff’s best efforts, the result is a downer: badly disjointed, bearing no relation to the lively locale that its name suggests.
What was Phan thinking?
On my final visit, I posed a version of this question to the hostess. “He always dreamed of opening something like this,” she said. If you buy that one, I’m accepting offers on the London Bridge.
The Coachman, 1148 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94103, (415) 813-1701
One and a half stars
A recommended dinner at the Coachman.
Chips and gravy...$14
Parsley, capers, and kohlrabi…$11
Sticky toffee pudding...$8
Robert Burns’ hunting Flask...$11
Freewheel Special Bitter ale...$7
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of San Francisco.