If you arrive after 5 p.m. at Brenda's French Soul Food, one of San Francisco's most popular breakfast and lunch places, it's almost alarming to find no two-hour waits. Just like during the day, the restaurant refuses to take reservations for dinner, but the list of customer names on the chalkboard door fills only half a column. Most names, in fact, are struck through: Seated and served.
That isn't the only disorienting thing about visiting Brenda's at night, especially if you haven't been to Brenda Buenviaje's Creole-inspired restaurant since the new year. For one, it's not quite where you remember it — in January, it moved into the old Laundromat next door, a room as monochromatic and still as the old space was color-soused and cluttered. Buenviaje will be seating customers in the old restaurant, too, as soon as the second round of renovations is finished.
Every guidebook author and almost every Yelper knows of Buenviaje, a New Orleans native who parlayed a long career in San Francisco bistros into a daytime restaurant that practically defines a generation of brunchers. I have out-of-town friends who punctuate every visit to San Francisco with a Saturday morning standing meditation on Polk, and there seems to be a higher-than-average correlation between crawfish beignets and celebrity sightings.
With her newly redesigned room and newly XXL kitchen, Buenviaje introduced dinner service in late February, and with it a whole new line of nighttime dishes like broiled oysters, smoked pork rillettes, and crawfish monica. Like her daytime staples, the new dishes blend Creole, French, and Californian flavors. The bulk of the menu, in fact, is carried over from brunch and lunch, though she knocks the prices up 50 cents or maybe a buck. What with the giant portions and the fact that the beer and wine license is still pending, dinner at Brenda's remains an inexpensive meal, and it's a surprise that the lines aren't yet forming at night. Raw glee over finally scoring a walk-in seat, combined with a late realization that the specials board was where the most interesting stuff was appearing, brought me back for three dinners over the course of the past few weeks. Oddly enough, most of the new dishes I tried were great, while more than a few of Brenda's classics seemed to have lost their focus.
Great new dishes: For one, her broiled oysters, served one of four ways ($2.75 apiece) or as a set of four ($11 for the sampler). These are no dainty kumamotos or virginicas. They're Gulf Coast oysters, with shells the size of cocktail glasses and two-bite molluscs covered in crumbled andouille sausage and cornbread (the Saint Charles) or bacon and melted Gruyère (the Casino). The best of the four, the Tchoupitoulas, is as dramatic as a Tennessee Williams heroine; under an acid-bright, fervidly spiced glaze of cayenne butter and garlic, the broiled oyster has the disarming softness of a panna cotta. Brenda's shrimp gratin ($9.75) is smothered in a bold pesto of roasted peppers, goat cheese, and nuts, and her smoked pork rillettes ($7.50) are the epitome of her "French soul food" style, the easy-to-spread pork closer in flavor to Carolina pulled pork than the toasted-lard overtones of classic French rillettes. Most of the plates come with their own palate cleanser: Buenviaje's allspice-spiked watermelon rind pickles, their watery crunch electric with vinegar.
The new Brenda's isn't fancy, but fancied up, with raw-concrete walls, banquettes that merge into the striated wood wainscotting, and large sprays of twisty, blossomless twigs. The empty coffee cans, with bouquets of silverware sets rolled into napkins, still garnish every table, as do the ketchup and Crystal hot sauce bottles. The looks are a little stark — and may change after the second half of the space reopens — but the narrow room pushes the two rows of tables together, keeping diners immersed in the energy of a good crowd. The waiters warm up the space, too, with solid service and unstudied charm.
By comparison with the new dishes, the classics, right now, taste sloppy. It's as if they're sulking at the birth of an adorable baby sister. Red beans and rice ($11) tasted dull and sticky, and both salads I ordered ($7.75 for the basic green salad) came out limp and overdressed. The cook working the fryer seemed to be particularly off: I can't imagine that the advertised "secret recipe" for BFC (Brenda's fried chicken, $13) usually results in chicken with a coating so crumbly and soft that I could push it off with a thumb. Three times out of three, the fries were floppy, and the oysters and catfish in the fry basket ($16) came out tough and stiff. (The prawns in the basket, all juice under the crackle of their cornmeal crust, proved that it was just a matter of paying attention.) And beignets — plain or stuffed with crawfish, apples, or chocolate — may be the restaurant's signature dish, but I tried them on three successive visits, and they came out uniformly dense, with a hard-crack shell.
The lesson I learned the hard way: As the host ushers you to a table, memorize the specials board near the door and don't forget to order from it. The shrimp monica and braised pork shoulder I spotted on the way out of the restaurant one night had been erased when I returned to try them, but in their place was a lovely trout fillet, crusted in spices and draped over a pile of rice studded with pancetta and pecans and served with a heavily porkified bowl of greens, and a creamy chicken étouffée, flush with tomatoes, onions, and sautéed peppers. Buenviaje's muffaletta was no replica of the Central Grocery's; she'd stripped the recipe to its core — the pairing of smoked ham and a garlicky olive-pepper spread — and built a looser, meatier, fresher-tasting sandwich.
If there's one constant in the evolution of Brenda's, it's the biscuits, which are so light they appear to have been leavened with a bicycle pump instead of baking powder. On the opposite end of the spectrum: the chocolate chip banana bread pudding, rising out of a pool of caramel ooze, which counts among the richest versions I've ever tasted. Every bite ended with a declaration that it would be the last, yet four eaters with the best intentions whittled a Rubik's cube–sized block down to one that could fit in the bed of a Hot Wheels pickup. Walking out of dinner at Brenda's proved harder than walking in.