Something about Kim Alter's food at Plate Shop in Sausalito took me back to Gourmet's website to read Edna Lewis' essay "What Is Southern?" one more time. In the piece, published after Lewis' death, the cookbook author reminisces about familiar Southern foods like barbecue and corn on the cob, but also exotica that a TOMS-wearing shopper would make a rush for at the Ferry Plaza Market.
"Southern is a meal of early spring wild greens," Lewis writes. "Poke sallet before it is fully uncurled, wild mustard, dandelion, lamb's-quarter, purslane, and wild watercress. These are greens that are looked for as the first taste of spring, boiled in pork stock and served with cornmeal dumplings. ... Southern is a midday dinner of potted squab, tossed until done in a covered iron pot." The essay, each time I reread it, jabs me with regret over the bland, starchbound diner meals I wasted gut space on in my Midwestern youth, and sets me wondering at the strange flavors my Ohioan great-great-grandparents relished.
As steeped as it is in classic Americana, Alter's food piques the curiosity with those same twists. Only the rare greens and odd roots that appear on the plate come from Plate Shop's garden, not the Virginia forests, and the strange flavors (Jameson gelées, something called "fish bacon") are foraged from her time in the kitchens of Aqua, Ubuntu, and Manresa. The flavors echo James Beard and Edna Lewis more than they do Alice Waters and Richard Olney. The strongest Mediterranean influence on the restaurant: GM Matt Kahn's Italian-leaning wine list.
Alter planted an expansive container garden on the back patio last summer, thinking the restaurant would be open six months earlier than its actual February start date. During the long construction delays, she had to send most of the produce to other restaurants, then start harvesting during one of the rainiest winters in years. Not an easy beginning.
But still, the garden is already producing enough tiny turnips and sweet carrots to roast for her vegetable entrée ($20), poised on parsnip purée around quenelles of quinoa, the last sweetness of winter they carry echoed in the coffee-tinged cider-Teeccino reduction sauce spooned around the plate. And one meal began with pâté en croûte ($14), whose forms belied their French name. What looked like buttery dinner rolls opened up to reveal a rustic pork sausage in their centers, made from the suckling pigs Alter and her staff have been breaking down every week. (Starting this week, she's switching to whole spring lamb.)
The restaurant looks as if it was built out of wood foraged from an old ship. The columns are braced with steel, the floors are covered in barely varnished planks, and the cocktail bar is lit by single-filament bulbs suspended from iron pulleys. Another line of bare bulbs with glowing coils hangs over the dining room tables; in the age of watt-conserving LCD bulbs, their tepid, gold-tinged light casts the same nostalgic light for my generation as kerosene lamps did for my farm-raised parents.
For all Plate Shop's stark urban-rustic sheen, though, we're not in San Francisco. The percentage of blonds in the room reaches Minnesota levels, and the standard dress for men seems to be a jacket and an open-necked shirt, which either says "power at rest" or "the Man can't force me to wear a tie." In Sausalito, it's hard to tell where bohemia stops and bourgeoisie begins, and so the waiters, hosts, and floor manager take no chances. There's an openness to their welcome many San Francisco waiters would deem too gushy, and a coordination to their approach that I rarely see in restaurants without an assistant sommelier and two or three food runners.
Let me illustrate: My dining companion one night headed up to the mezzanine to find the bathroom. One passing waiter spotted my friend's cloth napkin on his chair and veered over. He greeted me and picked up the napkin, roughly folding it and setting it next to the plate. A minute later, a second server, moving the opposite direction, noticed the napkin and stopped to crisp up the folds and greet me, too. She left, and the host, who was standing directly across from my table, spotted my empty water glass and came around with a pitcher and a smile. It's possible they made me for a restaurant critic, but watching the servers attend to the other tables, I got the impression that was just how they roll. (Incidentally, when my friend returned, he was as entertained by the bathroom soundtrack, a poetry reading, as I had been by the napkin show.)
For all the intricate naturalism of her plating — tiny leaves strewn here, vegetables and meats woven together on the plates like basket reeds — what made me think of Edna Lewis was the straightforward appeal of Alter's food. Her flavors are far from brash, in the style of the New American food of the 1980s and '90s, but they do come at you head on.
Her bavette steak ($25), judiciously rare, is splayed across a network of avocado and charred green onions, with only a little onion soubise underneath to foster dialogue between the crackling bite of the onions, the savory green gush of fruit, and the grilled beef. Her "pig roast" ($24), a composition of different cuts, is garnished with roasted baby turnips and poufs of squash purée, but the focus is entirely on the pork: A nubbin of grilled sausage. A tiny, tender chop. A hunk of fatty, crisp-edged braised shoulder. A papery curl of ear. Remove the last off-cut, and the plate would have emerged from a Hoosier potluck as polished as mine did. So would the warm monkey bread ($8), puffs of cinnamon-sugar-dusted brioche dough clustered together like a giant spoonful of caviar, with a quenelle of vanilla ice cream melting over their surface. In fact, it may spark a citywide revival.
There are times when she plays it too straight. Aside from a whiskey gelée-covered ramekin of chicken-liver pâté, Alter's "the whole chicken" entrée ($23) is composed just like the pig roast — one fried wing, one roast breast, one confit'ed leg, with a swath of fried skin and some smashed baby potatoes — but wants for something other than solid technique. (Gravy?) A few splay-leaf clusters of Little Gems lettuces ($11), garnished with dabs of a caramelized shallot jam and spindly red radishes, simply lacks for salt and dressing. And the dish that Alter spins farthest out into the avant-garde, a smoked risotto ($13) topped with petals of sea urchin, nasturtium leaves, and sea beans, needs to be reeled back. Namely, by cutting the smoking time for the rice and halving the salt so it doesn't taste as if you're licking the blackened rub off a 14-hour brisket.
The perfect balance: a warm winter salad ($12) of baby artichokes and wheat berries fattened up with vegetable stock. The flavor of braised black sunchokes permeates the dish, making it taste as if the grains had coalesced out of almond butter and sweet cream. Each time my fork slid through one of the orange dots of puréed mandarin freckling the plate, the flavors seemed to glow gold.
Plate Shop's strength is Alter's ability to fold just the right amount of novelty into each dish — the date purée at the bottom of a cardamom-scented panna cotta ($7), the way a few spoonfuls of a duck-stock reduction sauce underneath her crisp-skinned Arctic char ($23) gather up the flavors of the sautéed maitake mushrooms, kohlrabi strips, and sweet strips of maple-cured fish bacon surrounding the char. She balances good cooking, good ethics, and technical legerdemain skillfully enough to satisfy diners who are out for a good, no-bullshit meal, as well as those of us who prefer our Americana, like our America, to have a little more thrill.