Even before we sit, I'm reminded of Jonathan Waxman's place in the firmament of California cuisine.
"We sparkle our own water," says an eager server, offering a choice between that and still (though who can say no to house-sparkled H2O?).
This is a homecoming of sorts. After stints at Chez Panisse under Jeremiah Tower and later at Michael's in Santa Monica, the Berkeley native has lavished most of his attention on the Eastern time zone, especially at Barbuto, his Manhattan flagship.
There were whispers that Barbuto might lose its lease, and then — hey, it won Waxman a James Beard Foundation Award last week for Best Chef: New York City (Five Boroughs). Not for nothing was his Top Chef nickname "Obi Wan Kenobi."
So the 65-year-old Waxman is at the peak of his proverbial game, making this a propitious moment for the sagacious chef to take on a massive 6,500-square-foot venue. However, as a rule of thumb, large restaurants can't afford to take as many risks. With huge capital outlays and so many covers required each night to stay afloat, bigger typically means conservative. (And Waxman's is big, all right: It's actually two businesses in one, a restaurant and a café.) And it is enjoyable, if risk-averse. An emphasis on seasonality gives chefs a choice: Get adventurous, or hew close to expectations. I think this restaurant has chosen the latter.
But even that critique is muted by the many excellent plates. Starting off, the chargrilled asparagus with dandelion, mustard blossom, and a hub of poached egg ($16) was a beautifully composed and executed dish, with the asparagus spears sliced lengthwise and cooked so that some were blackened and others remained bright. If Thanksgiving were held in the spring, it could be a national side dish on par with mashed potatoes. Flecked with red and green, the halibut carpaccio ($16) was very pretty if not quite as spectacular; although the variety of textures and the salty-sweet flavor were harmonious, overall it veered more toward a guacamole ceviche and could have been sparer had there been less avocado. A highly satisfying pork meatball with goat cheese, marinara, pesto, and fonduta ($13) reminded me of the filling in an imperial roll — a favorable, if possibly low-brow comparison — while the only weak link was an icky, undersalted duck liver mousse en cocotte ($12) that had enough stringy globs in it to make the act of eating it feel more like field dressing it.
Among mains, the standouts were a Dungeness crab tagliatelle with jalapeño and Meyer lemon — technically categorized under "Pasta, Etc.," $26 — that zeroed in on the perfection that is butter, garlic, and crab (with a very subtle kiss of mint). I have to admit that the pasta felt a little brittle, but the flavor was so enveloping it hardly mattered. Another solid choice was a separating-from-the-bone short rib over spring garlic panisse that felt underpriced — relative to Waxman's peers, anyway — at $31 and that maintained its powers for days until I eventually finished it at home.
The drinks, though, were uneven. That margarita ($12) might have been the least sweet and most morose margarita I've ever had, something that feels sadder considering that it's triumphantly called the "Waxman's Margarita." (A cloudy orange Corpse Reviver #2, made with Combier and Avion D'Or, was not only better all around, but sweeter.) And I feel the need to state that my boyfriend and I are not the type of people who taste one wine after another and wrinkle our noses, but David Lynch's wine list lacked anything bold or hearty (by the glass, at least). The server — who intuited what we were after — shrugged sympathetically, and we made do with a Georges Descombes Brouilly Beaujolais and an off-menu Grenache Blanc.
Tables are graciously spaced apart, of which I am very appreciative, and with its 20-foot ceilings, factory lighting, huge expanses of exposed brick, and cross-sections of redwood trees, Waxman's is an imposing structure. But for such a marquee space there is a paucity of experience-enhancing detail. Checks, for instance, come in a wooden clothespin, which might be the least-original gesture possible. And the restroom has a less-than-standard amount of privacy.
I hate to use the T-word — rhymes with "florist" — but it doesn't feel like cultivating a deep bench of regulars is the explicit point here.
One clear purpose of Waxman's is to elevate the profile of 99,000-square-foot Ghirardelli Square, something for which you only need to connect a few dots. (It's partly owned by the high-profile real estate development and design firm Jamestown, which also owns Atlanta's Ponce City Market, home to another Waxman restaurant, Brezza Cucina. S.F.'s Planning Department has also given Jamestown the go-ahead to refurbish Pier 29 and turn it into a coffee-and-craft-brewery mecca.) Along with Bluxome Street Winery and the forthcoming second location of Le Marais Bistro and Bakery, Ghirardelli Square is set to become a destination food hall known for more than waxy chocolate.
And because it's an obvious choice for wedding receptions and similar events, it's competing with Fort Mason as much as the Ferry Building.
In the end, all of this adds to the conservative edge. Waxman's is a statement piece, an investment vehicle, and possibly a capstone to an illustrious chef's long and rewarding career. But I don't know how much of a local foodie destination it's going to be. Jonathan Waxman's motto is "Keep it simple," but Waxman's is crying out for a bit of audacity and verve.