Small plates have been popular for so long that I've grown accustomed to their quiet tyranny. The hassle of trying to share a few bites that aren't really made to be shared, the long odds of assembling a coherent meal from appetizers, the anxiety over whether you really need "three to four plates per person" or if you can get away with two ... all dining out disorders of the modern age. Not so long ago, the only places that served small plates were tapas bars and dim sum restaurants.
Lauren Kiino, of the Ferry Building's Il Cane Rosso and SOMA's new Red Dog, has always known there was a better way. She understands a thing or two about the art of the entree, a well-composed plate with a protein, a starch, and a vegetable wedded together with sauce. In the face of such simplicity, there's no need to make a half-dozen decisions, only one, and with her food you're guaranteed something interesting: The main dishes hum with as many contemporary techniques and ingredients as classic ones. If only the rest of her new restaurant were as well put together as its entrées.
Kiino's food is the reason I've returned to Il Cane Rosso ("the red dog" in Italian) more than any other business in the Ferry Building over the years. That stand excels at square meals through a California lens: rotisserie chicken with marinated beets and farro, a warm egg salad sandwich with a little gem and avocado Caesar, short ribs with mashed potato and salsa verde. Tables are often hard to come by near the restaurant, though, and despite the Ferry Building's many charms, it's not an ideal destination for a leisurely meal.
That's where Red Dog comes in, a project long in the making that keeps the farmhouse-casual spirit of Il Cane Rosso, even if its mostly concrete interior is pure SOMA faux-industrial. On a summer evening, you might order a beefy short rib perched atop al dente butter beans and dotted with blistered cherry tomatoes, all tied together with a buttery, rich sauce with just a hint of horseradish. Or the nicely cooked petrale sole, paired with some wilted lettuce and English peas; the plate's only misstep was the roasted new potatoes, which looked craggy and crisped but turned out to be disappointingly dry and mealy.
At lunch, SOMA workers talk Series-B funding and Tinder profiles over combos of soup, sandwich, salad, and cookie. Kiino's sandwiches skew rich, like a deep-fried pork trotter burger topped with pickled beets and served with thick-cut french fries. She's brought over the much-beloved, anchovy butter-laced warm egg salad sandwich from the Ferry Building, served open-faced on toasted rustic bread. The green olive-studded tuna melt is lighter, more fish than mayo, though it is topped with burrata. There's a stalwart burger and a roasted chicken sandwich with blue cheese dressing.
If you're pretending to be healthy today, there's a dreamy little gem lettuce, bacon, and green bean salad, a sort of take on the Cobb, with a smooth, garlicky dressing and a smattering of boiled egg and shaved radish about the plate. Like a great Cobb, it's made by a liberal hand with high-quality bacon bits. Unfortunately the same generosity wasn't extended to the summer corn salad. It was maybe too early in the season — the corn was crunchy, bitter, and the sprouted grains sharing the plate added crunch and more bitterness that wasn't counteracted by the few tomatoes or the dusting of sorrel.
Things got a little fuzzier as you strayed from the main courses. The deviled ham Scotch egg had a crisp shell and perfectly seasoned interior, but chicken wings were just one-note hot, utterly forgettable (a shame, as we are in something of a chicken wing renaissance in the Bay Area). At dessert, the grasshopper ice cream cake was reminiscent of something from Baskin-Robbins in both taste and appearance, but better than the panna cotta, which had too-soft custard and came with a meringue so hard that an attempt to cut it sent pieces skidding across the table.
The dining room is most pleasant at lunch, when it's flooded with natural light and its tables are filled with people. The noise level rises significantly after work, when the bar gets busy with the after-work crowd. Out in the dining room, too-bright lights create a cold atmosphere that doesn't match the warmth of the cooking.
But lights can be dimmed, noise can be dampened, and the dinner crowds will eventually come. That corner of SOMA is changing: If you look in any direction, there is construction; eventually the condos will be finished and their residents will need to eat dinner somewhere. They'll find at least one place where they can get a fully integrated meal.