Walking along Union Street on a warm spring evening, you wouldn't think there was a hungry leopard anywhere in the world. Tiny, tony Victorian boutiques hum with commerce. Swells from Pacific Heights and the Marina stroll between Gough and Steiner in search of the perfect frock or pedicure or single barrel bourbon. A tanned and prosperous demographic populates the antique shops and singles bars and outdoor cafes, and if a hungry leopard happened to show up, she could get herself a snack at Betelnut or PlumpJack or Merenda, if she had a reservation. Night Monkey, a jewel of a neighborhood restaurant named for the aforementioned primate, is itself the product of that great hungry leopard, responsible for so many shuttered businesses and lowering rental rates.
Co-owners Patricia Miller and Gregory Gajus opened the place two months ago upon the collapse of their online therapy enterprise, www.here2listen.com; ironically, they were only able to do so because of a reasonable post-bust lease agreement. Earlier in his career, Gajus had opened 17 restaurant franchises for Paramount Pictures, and this time he wanted to open a more singular place with organic produce and free-range meats. He and Miller chose the restaurant's name not only for its evocative quality, but also because the eatery would be one of only a handful in San Francisco to serve food until 2:30 in the morning.
The setting reflects Miller's longtime sojourn in London as writer/editor for the Sunday Times and Evening Standard. The outside is reminiscent of a side-street pub with its paneled windows and British racing green highlights, and the inside is as charming as a country inn. Blue-gray walls, slate floors, gleaming black molding, and deep red pressed tin wainscoting are complemented by two antique mirrors, an abstract alabaster sculpture, a tiny pail of posies on each table, and a few subtle examples of monkey décor (urns, prints, and the occasional terra-cotta candleholder). The dozen tables are dressed with starched linens and earthenware plates of the same shade as the wainscoting, and there's a lovely, overgrown garden out back where brunch and dinner will be served, beginning later this month.
Despite the tropical moniker and British ambience, the food is purest Californian -- with a little bit of New Orleans thrown in. Chef Stephanie Doane, a Greens veteran, has assembled a brief menu of seasonal dishes that celebrate organic produce and clean, hearty flavors. Weekend brunch, for instance, features a buttery, substantial French toast buoyed by an unexpected infusion of fresh mint and orange peel. Sometimes the vibrant flavors detract from or impede one another: The poached eggs Marina, for example, come draped with a tarragon-rich béarnaise sauce that overwhelms the dish's already spicy crab cakes. But another brunch specialty, the lobster tail BLT, is one of the best sandwiches in the city. Slabs of fresh-baked sourdough encompass spring greens, ripe tomatoes, thick slices of smoky, chewy bacon, and moist shards of lobster meat, the whole lovely mess bound and stimulated with a peppery Cajun mayonnaise. Small potatoes quickly sautéed in herbs and olive oil make a fine accompaniment. The brunchtime chicory cafe au lait is no match for the powerfully bitter brew you get in New Orleans, but the fruit platter of grapes and thinly sliced pears and apples, with a bowl of caramel-flavored whipped cream for dipping, is a pleasant mix.
Among the dinner appetizers, the crab cakes are outstanding -- big chunks of warm crabmeat barely coalesced with a minimum of filler. Grease and breading are practically nonexistent, and the overpowering tarragon of the brunch béarnaise is replaced here with a side dish of excellent, spicy rémoulade sauce. The grilled lobster tail, while tasty, isn't as transcendent as in the BLT, partly because this simple version is so difficult to extract from its shell and partly because its flaky texture, unnoticeable in the sandwich, is in its solo role too obviously inferior to the really fresh stuff obtainable 3,000 miles to the east. The warm duck breast salad is anything but simple, but its myriad flavors and textures shine through even as they complement one another: tender duck fillets, sweet black Mission figs, pungent goat cheese, and a hint of balsamic vinegar in the spinach and arugula.
Doane's skill with vegetables is evident in the fried rosemary polenta, a vegetarian extravaganza in which smoky grilled leeks, artichokes, radicchio, and asparagus rest across a bed of cushiony cannelloni beans and the hot, crisp polenta. The individual tastes of each ingredient sparkle with every mouthful, and a garnish of olive tapenade adds its own lusty accents. The roasted North Pacific halibut is equally multifaceted, but in this case the flavors conflict. The fish itself is beautifully cooked -- it's as light as a cloud -- but once again there's too much tarragon in the aioli for this delicately flavored dish. (The platter's peppery broccoli rabe, on the other hand, is a marvelous accent.) Conversely, the excellent Niman Ranch pork chop is simplicity itself: a perfectly prepared chop with nothing more to detract from its purity than a dollop of fiery prune-and-apricot chutney.
The dessert menu is rich with big, plain comforts. In the primary spot sits the baked Alaska, a rarely encountered classic that in this rendition is not unlike an oversize marshmallow with an undercarriage of sponge cake and vanilla ice cream. Opposing this sweet, pale bouffant is a darkly delicious chocolate cake that is as intensely chocolaty as it is surprisingly buoyant. A dense, fudgy sauce and scoops of chunky chocolate ice cream provide further culinary decadence. There's also affogato, a big bowl of vanilla gelato and chocolate shavings over which hot espresso is poured to your taste. The result would be satisfying and pleasantly gooey if there wasn't so much cinnamon thrown in, too.
The wine list features 29 bottles carefully selected to accentuate the herbaceous flavors on the menu. (The spicy Hart's Desire cab from the Alexander Valley goes especially well with the grilled-vegetable polenta.) Seven choices, including three dessert wines, also come by the glass. In addition, the menu offers a dozen excellent ciders and microbrews -- calming drinks in case any latent leopards are up and about, disturbing your slumber.