Mid-Market has become dizzying. Once home mostly to Brutalist superblocks and weedy holes in the ground, formerly desolate stretches of San Francisco's main drag now brim with a previously unthinkable density of upscale restaurants — much of it due to a corporate tax break. If Twitter tanks, we'll still have the neoliberal legacy of the Ed Lee administration in the form of Bon Marché, Alta CA, Dirty Water, and several others.
Now add Cadence to that list. It's attached to and shares a kitchen with jazz bar Mr. Tipple's Recording Studio (which opened earlier this year) and with its wooden whalebone and retro-futuristic "teacup" booths, it looks Kubrick-esque by way of Tokyo's Expo '70 world's fair. And in spite of stiff competition for our attention, the food is just as visually compelling as the unique interior.
There are two ways to eat here, a la carte or doing things the chef's way. At $55 per person, with optional $35 beverage pairing, Chef Joey Elenterio's four-course chef's menu falls somewhere toward the lower-middle end of such things, in terms of value. (It's not quite Trestle's freakishly inexpensive three-course prix fixe, but if you and a date each order Cadence's two variations, "In the Ground or From a Stem" and "Above Ground or From the Water" you can almost convince yourself you chowed down on eight courses.) Nothing is especially large, but the presentation is flawless up and down. In other words: Get the chef's menu.
You won't need to start with a cocktail, but if you do — and you're a sucker for obscure liqueurs — the New Point is worth your time. A mix of Scotch, Punt e Mes, and a bit of absinthe, it also contains génépy, an aperitif from Savoy that's midway between the Green Fairy and Chartreuse. It'll help you out if you ate a big lunch.
Not counting a cauliflower cappuccino amuse bouche with candied kumquats as the first nibble, the first Above Ground bite was the best bite. With the texture of a less-chewy octopus, this Passmore Ranch sturgeon came served with its caviar and topped with a piece of sourdough as thin as a microscope slide that was dusted, in turn, with grains of its own starter. Balancing out the yeasty funk was a little ball bearing of sweet compressed pear, and together with the pear eau de vie and Dolin Blanco cocktail — garnished with another chunk of compressed pear — the center of gravity unexpectedly shifted away from the fish. It's brilliant.
Its vegetarian counterpart was a plate of glazed baby carrots with candied walnuts, which sounds as sweet as a dessert, but the wild rice aioli kept things savory. (The paired cocktail brought back the kumquat, this time as a thin ring around the ice cube.)
While I liked round one best, the fairest way to refer to most of what came after would be "only marginally less fantastic." I was totally gaga for a fettucine with turnip beurre fondue with cocoa nibs and rye bread. Nibs are San Francisco's overused ingredient du jour, but they were hard to detect underneath the turnip and rye, and you have to award bonus points for taking that risk. (Pairing it with an unctuous, Chardonnay-like white was pretty spiffy, too.) Its counterpart, a hearty crypto-cioppino made with smoked sable and angel hair, had an unbeatable texture. However pretty it looked on the plate, I was on the fence about the garnish of parsley juice, which has that unshakable health-nut dimension — although the literal sour note was the wine, an overly acidic Verdicchio that even a pasta dish this dense couldn't calm down. (As a rule, Cadence's wine pairings felt even more avant-garde than the food.)
Sunchokes, too, are overused, but roasted alongside a few slices of perfectly cooked rib-eye on the third course, they're better than almost any conceivable potato preparation. What tied this plate together was the liberal use of heavily salted sunflower seeds; as with the pear on the sturgeon dish, it's pretty impressive that something so prosaic could be the shining star.
Vegetarian dish No. 3 consisted of braised beets with roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and tangy pickled greens. A bit wilted-looking in comparison to the architectural adventures of the prior courses, it would never wean me off of meat, but ultimately, Entelerio's formula of playing with different aspects of the same basic ingredient (or messing with its constituent parts) succeeded at what I sense he's out to do. There's a hint of molecular gastronomy's obsession with deconstruction here, but never so much as to turn things into discomfort food, or a showoff-y exercise in formalism.
For dessert, the texture of granita — chicory or otherwise — is never going to be my favorite thing. (Grainy frozen water, yum-yum!) But combined with banana pudding and a banana gelée, it looked as crystalline as a geode — and hey, when the flavor's there, it's there. The milk chocolate crémeux and passion fruit sherbet had none of the visual boldness, but the flavor was spectacular (if predictably so).
"Predictably spectacular" sounds like the very definition of unfair criticism, an imposition of impossible standards, casually met. But Cadence is at its best when aiming higher than gratification. The mildly authoritarian nature of a chef's menu suits it well — and you can't help but cheer on dishes that are so consistently inventive when the worst that can happen is that they end up being "merely" delicious. Elenterio draws the arrows; it's our job to follow them.