Expectations were high for the first meal at Local Kitchen & Wine Merchant. For one thing, I thought I knew what to expect. I'm a big fan of chef Ola Fendert's other S.F. restaurant, Oola, and not just for its rich and sophisticated cuisine: It's one of the best options, in a not-particularly-late-eating-town, for a really good meal in the treacherous time between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. Many times I've dazzled friends in the wee hours, finding easy parking on deserted Folsom, pushing open Oola's heavy glass door, and leading them to a comfy booth and the solace of oysters, foie-gras ravioli, a juicy hamburger, elegant meat and fish preparations, and the best Caesar salad in town. (I only forgot about the alternate-side-of-the-
street-parking-after-midnight once, adding $50 to the price of my very-late-night Caesar.)
For another thing, I knew my audience: an arty couple and their arty child, who appreciate cutting-edge design as well as good food. (The last place I took them was Spork, whose witty makeover of an erstwhile KFC outlet sets the stage for an equally witty menu.) We all loved the fact that Local's home is a sleek, severe Bauhaus-ian building on the somewhat boring stretch of First Street that mostly serves to funnel cars toward the eastbound Bay Bridge. It forms a nice juxtaposition with the iconic Art Deco Sailors' Union of the Pacific building across the street at the top of Rincon Hill. Fendert has inserted a massive, sculptural glass-and-metal door, not unlike the one he installed at Oola. Behind it is a small anteroom; to the left is the Wine Merchant with which Local's kitchen shares an ampersand. Ahead is the restaurant itself, behind another massive, sculptural glass door, and just to confound things, one door must be pushed and the other pulled, occasioning nearly as much confusion as Dr. Doolittle's two-headed Pushme-Pullyu.
The hard-edged style of the restaurant, with bare wood tables, shiny silver-colored chairs, and sleek lighting fixtures, is that known as post-industrial chic. You can glimpse the open kitchen, with a prominent wood-fired oven, behind a counter with a few chairs. The room feels both lofty and snug, with a soaring ceiling up front and a cozy dropped ceiling in back, where there's a long, communal dining table. Color is lent by a stylish array of magazines for sale behind the hostess stand, and a regrettable big-screen TV above it.
We were snug enough in our four-top set along the wooden banquette, admiring the mismatched thrift-shop flatware. The one-page menu offers Your Appetizers, Your Salads, and Your Rotisserie, confusingly set up top next to Your Sides, not down with Your Entrée and Your Pizza. The menu also features a jokey little slogan: "You're welcome anytime. As long as it's Dinner." The prices are gentler: Oola's mains are all over $20, but Local's, gratifyingly, are all under — the top tab is for a pork chop with artichokes, at $18. I was startled, however, by the dazzlingly high prices on the separate wine folder proffered as coming from the Wine Merchant, especially since the eclectic list (even containing a white from India!) printed on the reverse of the daily menu mostly hovers between $30 and $50 per bottle, with all its several dozen wines and sakes also available by the taste or glass.
We started with a shared pesto and prosciutto pizza on a crackery crust, with a thin layer of fresh mozzarella and (not quite enough) roasted garlic. It did the wood-fired oven proud, as does a lovely assortment of clams and mussels in the shell, roasted in a pottery casserole in a broth of Guinness amped up with shallots and chile, dusted with parsley, and served with crostini toasts. The Caesar here is twin, thankfully, to my Oola favorite: romaine hearts drenched in a sticky, cheesy, lemony dressing, garnished with silky anchovies. And we adored the salty truffle and parmesan fries, served vertically in a paper frill, topped with generous shavings of the good cheese.
But after our punchy, well-flavored starters, things got a bit muted. The pan-seared mahimahi seemed a little mushy and wan on its bed of mashed potatoes, and was not so well served by its green olive–parsley vinaigrette and shaved raw artichokes. I expected the spezzatino, red-wine-braised beef with root vegetables atop soft polenta, to have more depth. It was a nice beef stew. A classic plate of tender butternut squash ravioli in sage, garlic, and brown-butter sauce was obscured by a sour note of balsamic vinegar. A risotto featuring delightfully springy yellow-foot mushrooms, bacon, arugula, and goat cheese was my favorite dish. It was elegant comfort food, more successful than the other comfort-food dishes we'd tried, but still a trifle bland. And I was annoyed by our clueless server, who didn't know much about the menu, and seemed to resent being asked, for example, what cavolini are.
Even Google hasn't heard of a dessert called cavolini, but by any name, they'd be our favorite of the night: cream-puff shells filled with ice cream and drizzled with rich caramel sauce. The cherry clafoutis was too dense for my taste and soggy with nicely alcoholic cherries, while a chocolate panna cotta needed a touch too much gelatin to be able to stand, adorned with bright citrus segments. On the way out, we paid a brief visit to the compact wine store, which also stocks a few staples, milk and the like, for its neighbors — the world's chicest convenience store.
On a sunny day, when the menu now reads, "You're welcome anytime. As long as it's Lunch," four of us lingered over an expertly served repast. There were highs — a fragile tomato and basil pizza with oven-dried tomatoes contrasting with fresh sweet grape tomatoes and dotted with Humboldt Fog goat cheese; a stunning salad of crackling caramelized pears surrounding a pyramid of rich goat cheese garnished with mâche and hazelnuts; a rerun of the luscious, profiterole-like cavolini; another unfamiliar dessert called boneto, which turned out to be an espresso-and-cinnamon-flavored flan. But there were also perplexing lows: a bland puréed artichoke soup; eggplant, romesco, and goat-cheese ravioli that tasted of nothing much under their sage and brown-butter bath; a repeat of the fries that featured about as third as many cheese shavings and an almost complete lack of truffle oil; and a oddly unalcoholic tiramisu, prettily served in a fat glass. The organic rotisserie chicken was moist and tasty, but its Tuscan white bean side, with olives, sweet peppers, cherry tomatoes, and arugula, was way undercooked.
My favorite of everything we tried, again refined comfort food, was "pytti panna," aka pytt i panna, a homey, satisfying bowl of steak, potato, and beet chunks sautéed with shallots and parsley and topped with a fried egg as big as the sun, the whole dish a reminder of Fendert's Swedish homeland. I don't know of another place in San Francisco that serves this tasty dish, reason enough to bring outlanders as well as locals to Local.