These days, every designer of a certain name has added a diffusion line — second-tier brands of clothes that can retail anywhere, be it Target or Bloomingdale's. The same can be said of many chefs: Think of Thomas Keller's Bouchons, Michael Mina's BOURBON STEAK, Roland Passot's Left Bank Brasseries.
For 17 years, Boulevard's management team — Nancy Oakes, Pamela Mazzola, and Kathy King — resisted the call to expand their brand, seemingly content to ensure there were no dings to their prestige. But after working together for more than a decade, and mentoring their chef de cuisine, Ravi Kapur, for eight years, it appears they were ready for something new.
Hence Prospect, which opened six weeks ago in the northern section of SOMA that grows more FiDi by the year. Billed in the advance press — hours of interviews transcribed, dozens of photos released — the team has used talking points like casual, modern, even edgy to describe their new place.
Well, it sure as hell isn't any of those things. Rather, the restaurant is more like a $300 pair of jeans: Calling them casual and edgy betrays how long you've lived among the moneyed classes. A meal at Prospect costs $80 a person (and that's without counting cocktails); drinks and appetizers more like $50. After an anticlimactic first meal, I revised my expectations, ditching comparisons to the herd of wild-haired, experimental, lower-cost restaurants stampeding into town this summer. And when I returned, it became clear that everything Prospect actually wants to be — urbane, subtle, playful in the mannered tones of an 18th-century French noble — it realizes beautifully.
Consider the subtlety of Kapur's black cod ($15), one of the small plates that dominate the menu. Two tiny filets of this northern Pacific fish — the croissant of the ocean, all buttery fat and cold-sea sweetness — rest on a pool of pale-peach red curry. Nickel-sized shiitake mushrooms and a fritter of shiso-wrapped shrimp orbit the cod, while finely cross-sliced snap peas cover its surface in green diamonds. You think you're in for 1990s-style Asian fusion until you taste the curry. It hints at the fragrance of Thai-restaurant food but delivers none of its potency; the sauce is precisely calibrated to the delicate flavors of the fish and the vegetables. Modern, possibly. Edgy, no.
Consider the urbanity of the setting as well. The 120-seat restaurant, so vast you could ride a pony up and down its aisles, is surprisingly warm. Earth tones dominate: chocolate browns and soil browns, accented in creams and bronzes. The dining room is framed in concrete pillars of Stonehenge proportions, and lit by circular lamps the size of decommissioned satellites. And although it is so open that you can spy on every diner from the bar to the back wall, acoustic ceiling tiles vacuum up all the excess conversation. Waiters and food runners, dressed in browns and tans, swiftly circle the earth temple administering rites; the busers, after completing their water-pitcher circuits, return to the side wall where they stand at attention, a row of temple guards.
Each of Kapur's dishes looks like a bonsai landscape, fronds and seedlings sprouting out of its crevices. His salad of giant pastel wedges of heirloom tomatoes ($13) could have doubled as a My Little Pony playset, with arugula leaves springing out from the crevices between pink and green boulders, clouds of fromage blanc floating at their base. Kapur gave the cliché new life with the most invisible of tweaks: Instead of sharpening the tomatoes' acidity with a bold vinaigrette, the chef found a way to mute it, bringing back the fruits' mellow, early-summer sweetness. The wagyu beef "zabuton" ($29), by contrast, resembled something out of Tolkien's Dwarvish lands: square-cut hunks of a finely marbled steak, creamy-centered baby potatoes covered in a buttery mustard sauce, smoked trumpet mushrooms that bewitched the dish with their aroma.
The chef's tendency is to buff away any strong contrasts and sharp flavors, which sometimes leaves the food overpolished. The cucumbers in his Green Goddess salad ($11) looked like chunks of translucent jade, but all their watery crunch was absorbed into the gush of a thick, basil-flecked avocado purée. The flavor of an overcooked sockeye salmon filet ($27) sank into the unabated unctuousness of a bacon-scented butter-bean "mousseline," whose texture was somewhere between a custard and a foam. A roast quail ($16) laid atop a plot of herbed bulgur with sweet black currants and toasted almonds was a like a perfectly pleasant conversation you have with someone whose face you can't remember the next morning.
And while the edgiest dish I tried was the kitchen's only flat-out failure — fried oysters and chunky tasso mayonnaise overwhelming a bland expanse of buffalo carpaccio ($17) — Kapur hit a sweet spot when he indicated he knew where the fringe was, such as when he molded pork trotter meat ($18) into square fritters, then anointed the crisp cakes with lobster-infused aioli and fresh, sweet cubes of lobster. The best entrée I tried was a duo of pork cheek and pork belly ($22), each braised to its own — the belly a custardy cube that melted on the tongue, the cheek all succulence and depth. To brighten up the dish, a shaved fennel salad; to anchor it, a bed of mixed grains perfumed with orange zest.
Pastry chef Elise Fineberg seemed to have the same sweet spot, shying away from the avant-garde but aiming for something more than simple and seasonal. Her deconstructed "peach hand pie" ($9) failed to reassemble — the thin layer of cooked peaches in a Pop-Tart–like pastry square was barely detectable, so we used it to scoop up chopped fresh nectarines, and found they were underripe. But her cornmeal shortcake with orange-scented pastry cream, fresh berries, and raspberry sorbet ($9) was classically Californian, perfectly realized; salted-caramel corn ($5) was candied just lightly enough to draw hands back to the bowl, over and over again; and she concocted a sassafras-scented foam that was bold enough to animate a root-beer-chocolate cake ($9) paired with brown-sugar ice cream.
Actually, the most daring aspect of Prospect may be Brooke Arthur's cocktail menu, a collection of tricks and curiosities. The rosemary sprig that scratched my nose when I sipped her cherry-red Roxana ($11) foreshadowed a cool, resiny drink, but the herb turned out to be a high hedge guarding a sunny fruit orchard. The rim of her Kingston Crusta ($11) was dusted in salt and sugar and something else — while I puzzled over the blend of Jamaican rum, lime, and Maraschino in the cocktail, my lips began buzzing, and I realized the mysterious flavor in the coating was toasted chile powder.
A night at Prospect is a reminder of how comfortably San Francisco wears its money. A clothes-watcher, scanning the dining room's open matrix of tables, might identify the occasional Zac Posen top. But there's more good tailoring than bling, more open-necked shirts than $300 ties. The crowd has the look of TED Conference attendees relaxing at the end of a day's sessions — setting their might aside like a motorcycle helmet and shaking out their hair. They are the Boulevard crowd, dressed down for a weekday night out, and Prospect is designed perfectly for them.