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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Straw Can Make You Feel Grifted

Posted By on Tue, Feb 15, 2011 at 3:34 PM

click to enlarge For all the buzz, the carny-themed restaurant in Hayes Valley looks pretty much like every other budget bistro in town. - MONA C./YELP
  • Mona C./Yelp
  • For all the buzz, the carny-themed restaurant in Hayes Valley looks pretty much like every other budget bistro in town.

Like a carnival barker's patter, Straw has been hard to resist. Long before it opened late last month, the blogosphere was atwitter with anticipation about this heavily stylized carny bistro. It seemed like carefully chosen hints were dropped every few days (Jenga-stacked French toast! Sangria slushies! Midway-style games!) In the roar of such buzz, even the most jaded scenester had to be at least a bit curious.

It was a crafty pitch, the already popular comfort-food-with-a-twist genre done up in clown paint and the promise of fun. Straw's twentysomething target demographic craves its childhood carnival fantasies, even as it wants to dunk its fries in cheddar béchamel, not Velveeta (except for the junk-food purists who eat here).

SFoodie recently dropped in on Straw with some friends visiting from New England. We thought they'd be impressed by the razzle-dazzle. Clearly, we forgot about their natural Puritan skepticism.

click to enlarge Sadly, all the appetizers fell short. - JESSE HIRSCH
  • Jesse Hirsch
  • Sadly, all the appetizers fell short.

It's hard to say what we were expecting, décor-wise, but whatever it was, Straw missed the mark. Sure, the old-timey photos of Coney Island and other vintage bric-a-brac are tasteful, and the vaunted Tilt-a-Whirl booth is an interesting touch. But for a carnival restaurant to look pretty much like every other homey, low-lit bistro was kind of a letdown. We felt like rubes who'd paid two bits for the Haunted Funhouse, only to find a high school gym tricked out with streamers and a smoke machine.

Since everything on the menu reads like an addiction in the making, we ordered a wide variety of appetizers. Sadly, everything fell short. Truffle popcorn ($4.50) was underwarm and undertruffled. House-fried potato chip nachos with cheddar béchamel ($6.75) were too similar to their bland, goopy cousins at the county fair. The Parmesan-cayenne corn fritters ($6.50) tasted like deep-fried anything. And crab beignets ($12), technically an entrée but shared as an app, had only the faintest hint of crab squirreled away between heavy layers of fried dough.

For entrees we ordered a sandwich smorgasbord that included the Bearded Lady (pulled pork, blackberry coulis, chipotle bbq, $9.50) and Boxcar Children (peanut butter satay, jalapeno jam, pork belly, $9.75). They suffered the same flaw as the beignets, an excessive bread-to-filling ratio yielding forgettable results. In the case of the fried chicken-'n'-waffle Monte Cristo ($9.75), huge gobs of raspberry jam masked wee, desiccated pieces of chicken. The only standout was the ground chuck burger between two Krispy Kreme donuts (known in some circles as a Luther burger). The Niman Ranch patty was well cooked and the sweet-and-savory combo worked, but it was one decent item among a dozen fails.

Maybe our expectations were too high. Just like a real carnival, Straw's promises far exceeded what it could deliver. We wanted an over-the-top showstopper, upscale midway fare that transcended its genre (is carny food a genre?). Instead, we walked away feeling bloated and underwhelmed. One of the New Englanders had a different issue: "Where were the corn dogs?"

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Jesse Hirsch

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