The plates at the 2-month-old Verbena look like they've been arranged by a crazy person, one with a penchant for intricate tweezer cuisine and creating edible habitats for woodland sprites. As for the menu, it's hard to decipher what some dishes will taste like ("chicories with pumpkin seed milk") or even what some ingredients are (sparing you the trip to your smartphone, "cardoons" are celery-like vegetables closely related to the artichoke). It's also one of those maddening menus that doesn't have any verbs, leaving the diner to imagine what form "carrots, verbena, aleppo pepper, nettles, and smoked cashew" will take when it arrives on the table.
And yet, despite all this, Russian Hill's Verbena, the second restaurant from the folks behind Berkeley's acclaimed Gather, turned out to be one of the most exciting restaurants I've visited in months. It's all thanks to executive chef Sean Baker's talent with plants and tubers. The Millennium alum works closely with suppliers, most notably Lindencroft Farms in Ben Lomond, to figure out what the restaurant needs, then coaxes the best, most vibrant flavors from the produce he receives. Baker is basically a vegetable whisperer, and his creations are so gorgeously realized that I didn't care if I couldn't predict what I'd ordered — I was happy to be surprised.
In one of my favorite dishes, plump carrots, poached in their own juices with a dash of verbena and sprinkled with fresh herbs, were carefully arranged in a line on the plate — some standing up, some leaning on their sides, like trees in a forest after a windstorm. I've never had a carrot that tasted like that. Thick and meaty, soft without being mealy, these were the filet mignon of root vegetables, and they sparked beautifully with the sauces on the plate (a melange of flavors which Baker later identified as smoked and grilled dates pureed with house-made mulberry vinegar, and smoked cashews pureed with nettles).
The menu description for another vegetable dish — "cardoons and parsnips, kale, yogurt, charmoula" — did not prepare me for the one that arrived. Stewed kale, roasted parsnips and cardoons, and long, Seussical parsnip chips were arranged around the perimeter of the plate. In the center of this Stonehenge-like circle, there was a dusting of green-black powder punctuated by blobs of white goo. It looked overwrought and a bit ridiculous, but like the carrot dish, this one was saved from pretentiousness by its harmony of flavors. Baker later explained that the dust, made of dehydrated black olives and hay, and the house-made yogurt, which was flavored with parsnip puree, were chosen because they traditionally went well with the vinegary, peppery charmoula sauce that lay beneath the kale. It was a brilliant example of the whole being better than the sum of its parts.
The dining room quietly supports the kitchen's vision, offering a pleasant atmosphere without being too overblown. It has the requisite reclaimed wooden paneling and a striking backlit shelf displaying the kitchen's fermentation experiments. Modern light fixtures draw the eye down from the high ceiling, and a handsome bar takes up half the restaurant; its cocktails are well-balanced and nearly as inventive as the food menu. The somber black paintings along the dining room wall are made from samples of the farm suppliers' soil.
In a neat inversion, my least favorite dishes turned out to be the meat and seafood ones. Loosely packed seafood sausage made from shrimp, scallops, and rock cod was a little too soft for my taste, and though the slices of the white sausage were bookended with perfectly cooked orange mussels, the portion was a bit small. A textbook-tender beef short rib in broth had a generous amount of meat, but didn't come close to achieving the layers of flavor in the vegetable dishes. I was most disappointed by the duck meatballs in mole — the sauce didn't have the deep richness of the best moles, and the dish's fiery flavor stood out against the subtleties of the rest of the menu.
But those were the few misses on a menu of mostly hits. Thin slices of warm sprouted seed bread came on a wooden cutting board with a dab of chevre and a vivid purple dusting of dehydrated beet and sauerkraut — a side dish that had the table's undivided attention for several minutes. For dessert, a warming molasses-ginger cake had a refreshing bite of carrot sorbet on the side, and a pretty deconstructed cheesecake had squares of sweet kaffir lime cheesecake on a slick of burned marshmallow, with slices of meringue sticking up like Nilla wafers in banana pudding.
Perhaps the most ambitious dish — and the most confounding at first glance — was the brassicas, a genus of the mustard family that concerns cruciferous vegetables. A deep bowl had a yin-yang of green and creamy white puree, with buds of alien-looking purple broccoli, seared Brussels sprouts, and roasted greens peeking out from beneath the surface. Under the purees were lentils and a hot pickle relish; atop them was a dust of dehydrated brassicas. The green puree turned out to be a broccoli/spinach/rapini mash-up, and the white one was a blend of salt-roasted rutabaga, house-made crème fraiche, aged Parmesan, cheddar, potatoes, cream, and a whisper of nutmeg, then made airy with a charge of nitrous oxide.
It all sounds wildly complicated, but it wasn't, not on the plate — it was the comforting childhood flavor of broccoli and cheddar taken to the extreme. Most importantly, it tasted good. Baker and his team have clearly put hours of thought and time into each dish, but like all great artists, they manage to make the difficult seem effortless.