Restaurants run on something like dog-time: Twelve months are equivalent to seven people-years. A year ago, the neonatal Peregrine received a less-than-stellar review here. A pleasant, airy, but ill-managed room on Irving Street's burgeoning restaurant row, it offered fancied-up plates to rival Masa's, burned toast unworthy of Sparky's, cooks squabbling, tables wobbling, and food of antic inconsistency.
Some weeks later, I could see through the plate-glass front window that the tables had stabilized; six months ago, the original chef vanished from his station at the open, counter-front grill; and starting several weeks ago, the window sported a banner announcing a new chef. Checking Peregrine's Web site (www.citysearch.com/sfo/peregrine) for details, I found: "Rodelio I. Aglibot has recently taken over the reign of our Inner Sunset 'neighborhood' kitchen. Often called 'Rod' or an array of nicknames he's garnished over the years such as 'Kahuna', 'Pork Chop', 'Porky' (from his love of pork) or 'Tiny' (that's another story), he comes to us via the E & O Trading Company." There, it continued, Aglibot worked under Gary Woo and Joyce Goldstein. Well, any chef called "Tiny" must at least love food, I decided.
Although hungry hordes pour in on weekends, Irving Street restaurants are quiet on Thursdays but for the squeals of the Bredas on the N Judah line outside. Lapsed pastry chef Mary Ann joined our reconnaissance mission. We found quietly improved decor: Handsome hanging lamps have replaced the previous halogen spots, while solid new tables and padded chairs have supplanted the erstwhile jigglers. And instead of the airhead servers of old, our competent waiter kept an eye on our table and stayed out of our faces. She (and we) didn't have to memorize a half-dozen specials, either -- the list is now printed daily.
But we saw no one who could be called both "Tiny" and "Kahuna." As we later discovered, Aglibot was enjoying a Giants game, but trusted his staff to carry on. Indeed, the tall guy at the grill and the tiny ponytailed chef in the kitchen seemed to be working in fine rapport -- a distinct atmospheric improvement over the tense vibes of yesteryear.
We began with four near-flawless appetizers. Nova Scotia scallops (a special at $9) were crisp outside, sweet and juicy inside, and smartly garnished with sweet-tart grilled Granny Smith slices. "The new griller is a great griller," Mary Ann observed. Under the scallops was a bed of spring mix dressed with a well-balanced toasted hazelnut vinaigrette. "I didn't know I liked hazelnuts," said TJ. "Well, they're cloying raw," I said, "but toasting them has the same effect as a good stain does on unfinished wood -- they develop depth."
In the grilled portobello salad ($7) the mushroom pieces were dark, firm, and juicy, and the salad (dressed in ordinary vinaigrette) was bedecked with puffs of mild goat cheese. Mary Ann ordered hearts of romaine ($5), a Caesar by any other name. This version consisted simply of whole inner romaine leaves that proved gorgeously sweet despite El Nino's ravages, with a lightly garlicky dressing and freshly shaved Parmesan. With our fingers, we devoured its fuss-free perfection leaf by leaf. We also loved our crab cake in Thai curry coconut "chowder" ($8). After all the leaden crab cakes I've downed this year, I was overjoyed to meet a second airy version two weeks in a row (the previous one was at Rocco's). With no crumbs or mayo in the filling, the puff was sparked with a little minced red bell pepper and sat in a sweetly soothing bath of intense coconuttiness, unblemished by packaged curry powder. "Of course!" I realized. "Aglibot is Filipino -- and he sous-chefed at a Pan-Asian restaurant. So of course he knows how to make curry."
More than half the wines on an excellent list (given the restaurant's modest size) are available by the glass. Markups are fair, but perhaps the best deal is a "flyte" of three half-glasses for $10, which you can choose from six nightly offerings. Not only are the pours generous (flutes fully filled), but you can change your choices en route, as I did to reprise a pour of Seven Hills chardonnay, its tropical-fruit roundness comparable to an Edna Valley.
Few restaurants are equally adept at appetizers and entrees, and our main courses suffered from ill-tuned accompaniments. Our favorite was potato-crusted halibut ($14). A crisp cage of shoestring potatoes served, like parchment paper, to protect the delicate fish from overcooking, while its porosity kept the fish from steaming instead of baking. "And it gives you an automatic side dish, too," TJ commented. "It's a lot like the salmon we had at Rocco's -- I wonder if the chef copied this dish from them?" "More likely that both chefs got the idea from Le Bernardin, the famous New York haute fish restaurant," I answered. But under the halibut was a coral-colored "seafood beurre blanc" that carried a faint hint of -- could it be cream of tomato soup? Alongside were mushy, stringy slabs of celery heart, a weird choice given the current low price of asparagus.
Meanwhile, a special of Australian leg of lamb "two ways" ($17) included a moist, toothsome lamb crepinette (a loose sausage) laced with cumin and a regular slab of mildly muttonish meat, slightly less rare than we specified, with an overaggressive red wine sauce. Its listed companion of mushroom risotto was replaced by a "creamed polenta" that none of us liked. It was both too grainy and too wet, with a custardlike bounciness, sporting a vast amount of black pepper and some unidentifiable minced greenery. "It's overkill! They killed the polenta!" Mary Ann emoted. A lump of it also besmirched her plate of roast pork tenderloin ($14), but the pork was chewy-tender, and she adored the accompanying mixture of red cabbage, caramelized onion, and pancetta. "The pancetta brings it all together," she exulted.
For dessert (all $4.50), the Valencia orange creme brulee featured a tantalizing bittersweet custard touched with bits of orange peel, under a supercrackly glaze that the griller had hardened with a propane torch. "I'm a creme brulee purist," said Mary Ann. "Orange is not traditional." Then she took another bite. "But I'm starting to get used to it," she added. Her lemon poundcake, resting in a pool of oversweet red syrup, was a mound of sufficiently classical weighty poundcake, topped with some unclassical soft, sugary lemon substance of unclear provenance.
A year ago, Sunday brunch saw Peregrine's most brutal massacres of foodstuffs. It's usually the restaurant's busiest meal, and at our return, four line chefs were working their stations, while Aglibot (sweet-faced, tallish, and plumpish, but undersized for the sobriquet "Tiny") choreographed traffic, supervised timing, occasionally even served. TJ and I both went for poached eggs Benedict with "chived hollandaise" -- one classic with ham ($7), the other newfangled with crab cake ($9). (A year ago my Benedict sported one near-raw egg and one hard-boiled.) The crab cake was even better (i.e., spicier) than at dinner, the chive sauce was delicious, and all four poached eggs were acceptably done. Alongside came sliced fruits and pie-shaped wedges of hash-brown potatoes, firmly crisped all around. The espresso was weak, but who's perfect? When Aglibot finished serving a table, we nabbed him for a short chat that he returned to between tasks. "I really like to cook," he said warmly. "It's great to be in a small place, not a big madhouse, and I like serving food that's appropriate for this neighborhood." His ponytailed sous-chef ("a jewel") was a dishwasher at E & O when Aglibot trained him as line-chef, then sous-chef. "And how'd you get that incredible romaine?" I asked. "Just lucky," he said. Then he excused himself: "I'm going off for my own brunch now -- dim sum."
TJ and I headed parkward. Amid the Arboretum's Native California wildflowers, an avian commotion startled us: A live peregrine was ascending not 10 feet from our noses, pursued by a scolding flock of starlings. Its expression seemed faintly sheepish, but however the falcon felt, for us the sight was a perfect capper to a Peregrine brunch.