If you can't tell Locavore's modus operandi from its name, you've been spending too much time in Burger King. Jason Moniz, who made a name for himself as the opening chef at Flora, is doing all the things Michael Pollan recommends — building relationships with farms (listed on the menu), bringing in whole pigs from a farm in the Capay Valley, switching up the menu frequently and thoroughly to capture this very moment in time. "Whole animal cooking," he calls his food on the menu. "Straightforward California cuisine," I'd add. Locavore, which opened a few months ago on Mission Street at the base of Bernal Hill, balances on the boundary between populist and foo-foo. In lunch, its ethics-conscious, omnivorous food is righteously good; its dinner can come off as simply righteous.
Moniz and partner Mario Duarte (who owns the building) had to do a thorough revamp on the cavernous room, which last housed the rather dowdy Bella Venezia. They gutted the space, polished up the poured-concrete floors, painted the walls the color of a ruby port, and fitted out the dining room with stocky-legged furniture and banquettes and lamps made of reclaimed materials. There's a long communal table at the center of the room, and in front of it, an open space big enough for an indoor chicken coop, or at least a hot tub. It's no Bar Agricole, but it's comfortable, and the space is warmed by a neighborly feeling. Lunch is priced so affordably that I watched Duarte welcome back quite a few customers familiar to him. And after one night's dinner shift wound down, the staff left the kitchen to drink with customers at the bar and even a couple of tables.
How, you ask, did I stick around to see the end of the dinner shift? That's a story in itself. We arrived just in time to see the room reach the half-full mark, which, according to the host, was quite a rush. The meal started off lovely, with spiced, unbattered baby artichokes ($8) that blossomed in the deep fryer like five-day-old roses, becoming papery-crisp; we swabbed them through a tablespoon-sized dish of hollandaise. Along with them came a plate of roast carrots and avocados ($8) — it was hard to tell which one was sweeter — tossed with cilantro and greens in a creamy dressing flecked with toasted sesame seeds. The flavors referenced Asia, perhaps, but in small print; the dish stayed firmly in Cal-Med.
Then came a lull. It stretched on. An hour, maybe 75 minutes. The room was only half-full, but it seemed to leave the staff scrambling. While we waited, we watched a nearby table, apparently industry types, arrive after us, consume a couple of bottles of wine and two courses, and leave just as our entrées arrived. (The waiter comped us a bowl of sweet-potato bread pudding and a glass of wine, which improved his standing.) By the time the stressed kitchen turned to our food, they'd gotten sloppy. The lentils with leeks, sunchokes, and soft-cooked eggs ($15), which looked so appealing when we read the menu description, were slopped together without a final round of seasoning. Another dish, Dungeness crab with potatoes and chicories ($16), turned out to be no more than that: one half crab, nicely boiled but not cleaned or cracked; a couple of creamy baby potatoes; a couple of fronds of purple chicory, the edges charred on the grill and doubly bitter for it. When I looked at the menu later, I realized the cooks had left off a bowl of aioli.
For a restaurant that claims to specialize in "whole-animal cooking," I was surprised to see nothing but standard cuts of meat on the menu and no offal — and the fried chicken ($16) we received was a standard-issue airline breast (wing attached). It was fine. So were the roast sweet potatoes, slippery braised onion wedges, and sautéed dino kale. Nothing extraordinary.
I wasn't quite sure why a half-full restaurant should fluster so many industry pros, but I've had worse nights in my cooking days. And when I returned for lunch to try Moniz' house-made sausages, which he serves only during the day, they had all the subtlety and polish the dinner lacked. For $7 a pop, to boot. (There's also a $6, grass-fed burger — a rarity.)
The sausages — which range from spicy Italian to German beer sausage — are all made from a whole pig Moniz has Riverdog Farms deliver every week. They're all served on soft Sandbox buns pressed cut-side down onto a grill until the bread has crisp, brown outlines. There was a rich maple andouille sausage, topped with a shredded apple slaw, that popped and gushed with each bite, tasting as if the chef had dropped a slug of butter into the grinder with the meat. The sandwich made a fine contrast to a roast-pepper-smothered adobo sausage seasoned with a little vinegar, as well as peppercorns and garlic. I asked for mustard on the side, but the sausages were so robustly flavored I didn't touch it.
Locavore comes off as the newest generation of the friendly trattorias, tapas places, and gussied-up Thai restaurants we San Franciscans like to make a regular custom of. It's a neighborhood joint rather than destination, whose appeal is good ingredients at good prices. With a little higher purpose on the side, of course.