Not so very long ago, even longtime San Franciscans who heard the name "Dogpatch" would probably first think of the mythical hillbilly town in Al Capp's long-running comic strip instead of the waterfront-adjacent neighborhood on the city's eastern side, erstwhile home to industry, warehouses, and some houses that date to the 1860s. In 2002, the city designated it an official historic district, and yet just last year Dogpatch was modernized with the opening of the T light-rail line along its main Third Street artery.
There's still little in the way of shopping or sightseeing to draw daytrippers to the area, unless you're a connoisseur of humble Victorians or a lover of hulking utilitarian construction. But there are now several diverse and delightful establishments, clustered around the corner of Third and 22nd streets, that reward the urban explorer. The pioneers include the wonderful old-fashioned Dogpatch Saloon, home to live jazz on Sunday afternoons with free chili included in the nominal door charge; and Just for You, a casual breakfast-and-lunch spot famed for its beignets. They have been joined in recent years by the tasty Southern soul-food Hard Knox Cafe, the strictly-organic Yield Wine Bar, and the excellent, tiny Piccino Cafe and Pizzeria.
All of these have created an alluring gastronomic colony on the east side of Third. The newest and most urbane arrival, Serpentine, has bravely opened on the other side of the tracks (well, the light-rail corridor). It's located in a former warehouse identified only by a large but discreet sign painted directly on the building. Inside, the space astounds with its verticality: The ceilings soar 20 feet or more, where pipes are clearly visible. High-set metal-framed windows are the apex of industrial chic. The exposed brick, old concrete columns, and wood floors have been warmed up a trifle by a large flower arrangement, a few black-and-white photographs on white-painted walls, and lush dark velvet curtains in front of the bathrooms. A metal-topped bar runs along one side of the room, backed by a tempting array of gleaming bottles from which issue forth seductive and original cocktails. The other side houses a couple of comfy booths and banquettes lining the walls with simple tables and wood chairs. In early evening, with light still streaming in, you may see happy families; later, the room darkens, the music gets louder, and children disappear.
Serpentine's owner, Erin Rooney, and chef, Chris Kronner, have experience in running a rather ambitious place in an unexpected location. Their previous endeavor, Slow Club, opened in 1991 up the hill and across the freeway in an area then even more underserved by restaurants. Over the years its open kitchen, back bar, and casual no-reservations cafe vibe (hip, though not at all the nightclub evoked by its name) have evolved to the point where it's open all day long, serving coffee and pastries from 8 a.m. until lunch takes over during the week.
At Serpentine, reservations are cheerfully taken for weekday lunch and dinner, and you can even expect a confirmation phone call, just like at the fancy places. But happily, Kronner's seasonal comfort-food menu is much like what he's been serving at Slow Club. It's delicious modern American cooking, carefully prepared meats, fish, and fowl, paired with well-thought-out combinations of starch and vegetables. The wonderful long-braised short ribs (attributed to Prather Ranch, one of the purveyors that practices the "ecologically sound agriculture" Serpentine prefers), comes on a bed of parsley-root purée, one step beyond the celery-root or white-bean purée that mimics mashed potatoes in texture if not in taste, with smoky grilled asparagus, a bright surprise of orange zest, and a crunch of herbed breadcrumbs. A massive portion of baked pasta, taller than any lasagna you've ever seen, seduces with its rich freight of braised Berkshire pork shoulder, mustard greens, roasted butternut squash, and a contrasted heap of tartly dressed lettuces.
The menu's evolution is seasonal and constant. The springy purée of sorrel and potato soup we missed ordering one night has been replaced by roasted onion and potato soup on another, its somewhat bland flavor amped up by a drizzling of black truffle oil and a knot of crispy fried shallots. More vivid starters include the roasted buffalo bone marrow, three chunks yielding the ever-so-slightly gamy, succulent buttery fat, bedded on crystals of gray sea salt and sided with grilled country bread and a parsley-leaf salad jeweled with unexpected kumquats. One night we enjoyed expertly fried broccoli di cicco and asparagus in a light, crunchy cornmeal crust, served with chunks of Meyer lemon and a smoky, pale-orange pimenton aioli. On another, the asparagus was joined by a heap of carefully fried Hama Hama oysters. The prosaically named fish stew, freighted with cod, clams in the shell, and diced potato in a dark fennel-scented tomato broth, served with two anchoïade-smeared toasts, tastes more like bouillabaisse than the two dishes I've eaten within recent memory of that name. Its unfamiliar, chivelike greens are so unexpectedly salty that we think they must be a kind of seaweed, but the server tells us it's agretti, a vegetable famed for its sharp tang.
Our favorite starter is the savory bread pudding, a not-particularly-attractive-at-first-glance hillock that conceals nettles, roasted onions, and melty Swiss cheese under its brown exterior, enlivened by a thin green herb sauce. (For an extra $5, roasted carrots and mixed greens can be added to make a perfect vegetarian, if not vegan, entrée.) Juicy grilled lamb riblets atop fava-bean purée and under crumbs of French feta could serve as a starter or light main course.
Other very good dishes included a nice chunk of seared black Alaskan cod set on a thoughtful assemblage of flageolet beans, roasted sunchokes, black trumpet mushrooms, fennel, and baby mustard greens with Meyer lemon aioli; and pan-roasted lamb chops, surrounded by tasty crusted fat, with French green lentils, bacon chunks, and roasted spring shallots. The only disappointment was a rather dull roast half-chicken, the breast nicely cooked but the disjointed thigh still slightly bloody at the bone. It was paired with some white grits, a frill of uncooked and undressed baby spinach bearing no trace of the advertised roasted shallot vinaigrette, and some tasty butternut squash.
There's an interesting wine list, and a seductive list of after-dinner drinks, ready to complement some splendid desserts. The individual chocolate cake is ringed with crème anglaise, sided with a ball of Bi-Rite vanilla ice cream, and boasts syrupy candied kumquats. A fragrant Earl Grey–scented pot de crème comes with a perfumey bergamot granita. We've never had a better lemon meringue pie than the fragile, flaky-pastried Meyer lemon tart served here, criss-crossed with toasted marshmallow meringue and served with blood orange segments.
When our server noticed we had cleaned two of our dessert plates but were not nearly as enthusiastic about the massive but undistinguished portion of apple compote topped with walnut streusel and whipped cream, it didn't appear on our check. That was a singularly thoughtful gesture. Serpentine comprises an accumulation of such thoughtful gestures, from its setting to its very satisfying food and drink. Welcome to the neighborhood!