Ironside, a new eatery and hangout northeast of AT&T Park, takes American classics like pizza, burgers, Caesar salad, mac 'n' cheese, clam chowder, and corn on the cob; adds seasonal and locally raised aspects and accents; and serves up the results in an urban-industrial setting. It's a familiar setup, but executive chef Bob Cina and owners Jon D'Angelica and Chris and Ryan Vance of District wine bar have introduced a wrinkle to the formula.
The place is continuously open from 8 in the morning till 10 at night, giving the neighborhood's new army of white-collar cubicle drones an array of nutritional options throughout the workday. There are gourmet breakfast snacks and Four Barrel coffee drinks in the morning, and classy salads and sandwiches you can order online and get to go. Around 3 o'clock, there's an all-points Twitter alert that freshly baked cookies are on the premises just in time for the midafternoon sugar rush, while happy hour (3 to 6 p.m.) offers pitchers of upscale beer for $15.
Ironside is located in the Chronicle Books building, which was built a century ago to house the Moore & Scott Iron Works machine shop and later Moore Shipbuilding. Designer JeAnne Ettrick has respected its industrial heritage with lots of exposed brick, rough beams, a steel and timber staircase, and even a chandelier crafted from a massive old wooden gear. There's a moody upstairs mezzanine for private imbibing, big windows look out on the neighborhood's still-extant warehouses and lofts, and all in all, the place looks like a spruced-up version of where Jack London might've spent a few hours between freighters. The mood, though, is thoroughgoing 21st-century plasma-TV SOMA.
We began with a platter of tender stewed baby octopus ($9) served with a fresh, lip-smacking parsley-frisée salad studded with chickpeas and olives and oomphed up with bits of bittersweet lemon zest. Another starter featured half a dozen slices of ripe, creamy avocado ($5) served tempura style with a crunchy deep-fried coating not unlike the deep-fried quasi-veggies served at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, although a bed of puckery frisée delivered a nice, silky foil for the lush avocado.
Ironside serves half a dozen pizzas throughout the day. The autumn vegetable variety ($11 small, $17 large) offered a smorgasbord of sweet, earthy flavors — roasted apples, turnips, squash, braised greens — atop a crisp, wafer-thin crust strewn with basil, oregano, and tart goat cheese: a chancy proposition that succeeded beautifully. The flammenkuchen flatbread (aka Alsatian pizza, $11) wasn't as rewarding. While the flatbread itself had a pleasantly delicate crunch, the stuff draped across it (chopped scallions, caramelized onion, bits of bacon here and there) didn't amount to much.
The restaurant's most successful attempt at reinvigorating vintage American cooking was the house macaroni and cheese ($9, $12 with bacon, $13 with broccoli and bacon). Mac 'n' cheese is a test case of New American cuisine, and whereas most attempts are oily or gummy or soupy or Cheez Whiz-y, Ironside's rendition delivered all the flavor without the excess goo, draping (not submerging) the soft noodles in smoked Cheddar and Gruyère. A ramekin of the stuff arrived at the table still bubbling, thick shards of bacon adding chewy heft and smoky savor.
Another dish that has been popping up on retro-moderne menus is roasted game hen ($18), not the tiny Cornish varietals we used to stuff with wild rice on special occasions, but big, meaty birds ideal for sharing, family (or postwork happy hour) style. The house version was on the dry side, a practical inevitability when it comes to game hen, but its skin was crisp and tasty in an upscale-KFC sort of way, and its accompaniment, escarole braised in a jus du ham hock, was velvety, bittersweet, and yummy. The cube of moist semolina pudding cake sharing the platter was distinguished only by that Proustian Santa Cruz flavor coating.
As the birthplace of cioppino, San Francisco deserves a better seafood stew ($23) than Ironside's version. Dry, overcooked halibut cheeks; chewy squid and so-so scallops; and a few clams were arranged around a towering chunk of bread that would've been ideal for soaking up the broth — if the broth had been worth soaking up. But the porchetta ($17) is well worth ordering. Mildly chewy, this thick slab of slow-roasted pork saddle was meaty, elemental, and richly flavored, with an outer ring of pig fat making its own smoky, delectable contribution. It came with stewed white beans and braised kale, adding a country-French accent to the dish.
Dessert is the best thing on Ironside's menu. The brownie and banana sundae ($7) was a glorious mash-up of grilled bananas, über-rich maple-walnut ice cream, and a thick slab of buttery brownie remarkable for its satiny endorphic qualities. The maple-walnut gelato also figured in the ice cream trio ($5, 75 cents per additional topping), co-starring with a fragrant Tahitian vanilla, a puckery crème fraîche, a hillock of luscious whipped cream, salted thyme-caramel sauce, and thick chocolate syrup with plenty to recommend it. Best of all was the heirloom apple tart ($8), in which a flaky, butter-rich crust barely contained an abundance of sweet-tart tender apple slices, crème fraîche ice cream melting on top: a simply satisfying meal-closer.
Sommelier Caterina Mirabelli (also of District) has put together a brief but intriguing wine list that includes a couple of in-the-barrel house vintages (Teira's 2008 Sauvignon Blanc and Unti's 2008 Rhone blend, both $6.50 per glass) served on tap by the glass or carafe. The other 10 selections, all in the $25-$50 price range, are available by the glass, bottle, and half bottle. (Try the dry, fruity Raymond Merlot with the smoky porchetta.) Beers include four drafts (including a potent IPA from Shipyard XXXX, $5 per pint) and Carnegie's marvelous Swedish porter in a 25-ounce bottle ($12). You can also wet your whistle with six agave-sweetened fountain drinks ($2 each). Matched with the right pizza, some stewed octopus, and a bowl of mac 'n' cheese, this is a handsome place to pass the time of day.