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No Sign of the Colonel 

Chic New American eatery takes no prisoners at erstwhile Mission fast-food joint

Wednesday, Aug 8 2007
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Everybody in town seems to know one thing about Spork: It's housed in a building that used to be a KFC. Perhaps it was the location that inspired the name — sporks, almost-all-purpose utensils that are spoon-shaped with an edge of forklike teeth, are often handed out at fast-food joints. (And, we hear, prisons.) But, with other local places that have sported the names Tablespoon, Spoon, and Fork, it seems like a natural.

KFC's trademark red terra-cotta roof tiles, along with most of the exterior, have been treated to a coat of blue-gray paint, and the plate-glass windows are ameliorated with a border incorporating glass bricks. If you squint, you can almost see the ghost of Colonel Sanders.

Inside, all is calm and soothing. Sensuous cork floors have replaced the formerly high-traffic flooring; there's a sinuous blue-gray bar with eight stools for dining where adolescents once stood to take your order; and the wood-trimmed booths and tables for two are ergonomically designed for an evening's comfort rather than to encourage high turnover. Giant round light bulbs at the end of stalklike fixtures cast a soft light over the window tables overlooking Valencia. Three enormous, graphic posters of hands extended in sign-language gestures remind us of both the schoolroom and perhaps the three courses we're about to enjoy.

Spork doesn't take reservations, which tends to make us a bit uneasy — we don't enjoy waiting around, casting covetous, anxious glances at other diners. On the phone, we're reassured that Monday, the intended night of our first dinner, is their slowest night, but cautioned that we should arrive before 8 or 8:30. As it happens, the three of us arrive at 8:15, but we're immediately shown to a swell booth, from which we can admire through two cutouts and a pass-through door the immaculate, stainless-steel kitchen.

The one-page modern American menu — which now means multi-cultural comfort food — is short and sweet. Under "firsts" there are seven starters, and under "seconds," five mains. The seven firsts become six when we read the first entry: pull-apart dinner rolls and honey butter, served free upon request, which we immediately do, as everyone should. They emerge shaped like a giant three-leaf clover, warm from the oven, with a glossy, paper-thin crust lightly dusted with crunchy salt crystals, and they are amazing.

We begin with quick-seared ahi tuna, smoked trout croquette and beets, and the irresistibly named peaches and cream. Alas, although it's as pretty as its moniker, the tripartite heaps of sliced summer peaches, a hillock of whipped goat cheese drizzled with a moscato vinaigrette, and a thatch of baby lamb's lettuce leaves disappoints its orderer, who expected more of a salad. I quickly switch with her for my much heartier croquette, a sturdy cake of the smoked fish blended with mashed potatoes, sitting on a fan of huge pale-pink-and-white, paper-thin rounds of marinated Chioggia beets, amped up with horseradish and a sprinkling of pale-orange beads of trout caviar. The peaches and cream delights me, and our companion is also enthralled with his ahi: several slices of sushi-grade ahi, with barely seared edges, still cool at the heart, splayed over a toothy salad of farro, a bulgur-like, wheaty-tasting grain, in a sesame dressing, with a swirl of suave, pale-green pea shoot purée. Wonderful contrast of textures, wonderful tastes.

I think his main course, the steak stroganoff, described as griddled flank steak, gnocchi, kale, button mushrooms, and traditional sauce, also has wonderful contrasts of textures and tastes, but, though he likes the supple gnocchi and the unexpected mineral flavor of the dark-green kale, he misses the homeyness of the traditional egg noodles, and finds the sauce insufficient both in amount and sour-cream tang. Still, he cleans his plate.

I've chosen a first, "the red lobster" — note the big-chain allusion — as a second, partly because its list of ingredients hit all my buttons ("half Maine lobster, fresh corn polenta, and garden split peas"), and partly because, at $22, it's not only almost twice the price of the other first courses, but several dollars more than the most expensive second (sea bass, at $19). I'm rewarded with two big pieces of tender, sweet, pink lobster, perched on a sea of what I'd call creamed corn (rather than polenta) studded with green peas. I'm in heaven. Alas, I'm less enamored of the mussels and pork with a spork, inspired by a Mediterranean combination of pork and clams. The chunk of roasted pork is a little dry, and the mussels are piled alongside, still in their shells, steamed in Belgian beer, along with fresh green beans and smoked chile aioli, which don't seem to enhance the meat.

The desserts end our meal on a high note: three freshly made beignets, little pillows of yeasty dough dusted with cinnamon sugar; and a "pot brownie," not herbed, but served in a little round casserole, with a ball of vanilla gelato. I decide that the rolls were my favorite surprise of the meal, and when I request round two as my dessert, they're brought out immediately.

Our second dinner falls on a Tuesday, and I drop my two pals off as I search for parking. I find a place almost immediately, but they're already well into the warm pull-apart rolls when I arrive, with happy results. The menu looks almost exactly the same, but further examination reveals subtle changes and evolutions. The cheese plate that was a first course, which I thought we might order as a dessert tonight, has disappeared. The ahi appetizer, which we do try, is now raw, cubed, and served in Hawaiian poke style, like a freshly made ceviche fragrant with ginger, over a bed of the farro, heaped on petal-like white rice crackers, in one of those trendy bowls that are almost all lip, with a tiny central depression. This time we order "the red lobster" as a first, and it's also served in one of those bowls: There may be as much sauce as last time, but visually it seems a mingier portion. But it tastes as good as before. Our third starter is a good-sized hill of what Spork calls classic Bibb salad, and it is: whole leaves dressed with Dijon vinaigrette, sliced radishes, shaved Parmesan, and walnuts.

Of our three mains, only one, I think, is really stellar: the cast-iron sea bass, a carefully cooked piece of flaky fish, slicked with a bit of salty tapenade, topped with cherry tomatoes, perched over a bed of fresh corn on a plate swirled with saffron and beet purée. The night's "the devil wears pasta" is underwhelming: silky ribbons of fresh pasta whose spicy Italian tomato sauce is pretty bland, though prettily topped with torn basil leaves. My inside-out burger is kind of a stunt: two grass-fed beef patties encase a layer of bun, the whole topped with melted Tillamook and caramelized onions. It tastes OK, but not great. The crispy-edged, twice-cooked, smashed baby potatoes alongside, however, are great.

A rerun of the excellent beignets and the almost-molten-hearted brownie are joined on the table by berries (black and red, lightly touched with balsamic vinegar) on a bed of sweetened whipped ricotta.

The ghost of the Colonel has been exorcised.

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Meredith Brody

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