The most ambitious small plates can also be the most treacherous for a group of people: It's difficult to judiciously, conscientiously divide and conquer a dish that combines several elements such as the sauces and garnishes that dress the basic protein, veg, and starch. A plate of food that might delight one person can frustrate or confuse several.
That's how I felt about Brick, an ambitious small-plates restaurant and bar on the fringes of the Tenderloin that I first visited with uneven results a couple of months ago. There were four of us that first night, it was late after a movie, and I'd chosen Brick because it's one of the rare places that serves food until midnight.
The soft light spilling onto the sidewalk from big plate-glass windows seemed inviting, and the place looked promising. There's a big bar taking up about a third of the room as you enter, with a generous seating area slightly elevated behind it, full of small wooden tables that went well with the exposed-brick wall that I assume gives the place its name. Brick didn't seem overly full in the dim light, but it turned out that almost all the tables were taken, at least the ones that would seat four. So we were led to the big communal family table in the back of the room, somewhat too wide and too high for our comfort. It was also too brightly lit, especially in contrast with the rest of the room.
Without much input from our server besides the usual "our food is designed to be shared" spiel, we assembled a collection of half a dozen somewhat disparate dishes: a couple of pastas, raw tuna, duck, scallops, wilted pea shoots. Here's where the small-plates idea goes bad for four people: It's often hard to divide items equitably, and if you're all hungry, you each get a bite or two. And at Brick, you're not getting straightforward Spanish tapas (olives, anchovies, mushrooms) or bar food (mini cheeseburgers, Buffalo wings) that are easy to share, but ambitious and complicated, arty dishes, featuring multiple ingredients and techniques. Chef Noah Tucker, whose resume includes stints with Michael Mina, describes his food as "modern American ... with international influences," which ranges from fettuccine amatriciana with guanciale to sourdough-crusted skate with veal jus and green tomatoes.
His food is dare I say it intellectual, somewhat in the tradition of push-the-envelope chefs like Ferran Adria or Wylie Dufresne. It seeks to add the shock of new textures or combinations to add to a dish's deliciousness, to make us think about what we're eating in a new way.
That night, Tucker's cuisine confused us. I knew that the tuna crudo, a carefully stacked small rectangle (built like a brick wall) of raw fish, pickled papaya, avocado, and sea beans, seasoned with kaffir lime and horseradish, was delicious, but it would have been messy to eat for one person, much less four people attacking it with forks (serving utensils were not provided; nor was bread, which would have been useful for sopping up sauces. When we asked for bread, none was available). Every item on the beautifully plated dishes needed to be sampled to make sense of the food; again, not easy when there are four forks involved. The gritty espresso salt, it was clear, was intended to cut through the sweetness of the scallops complemented with sweet fresh corn and leeks, and was successful, but it was difficult to make sense of the duck garnished with candied lemon, braised fennel, curried cauliflower, and blackberry jus.
Our two shared desserts left a bitter taste in my mouth, and not just metaphorically. One, called "coffee and toast," a takeoff on Thomas Keller's famed "coffee and doughnuts," featured a molé pot de crème that proved to be something of an acquired taste, and not sufficiently sweetened and balanced by its accompaniment of cinnamon bread pudding disguised as toast. And the single-cheese plate we ordered should never have come out of the kitchen: Its fancy garnishes, including clumps of fennel pollen, couldn't disguise the fact that the main ingredient was past its prime. (And I like stinky cheese.)
The second meal? Night and day, and not just because my friend Peter and I were eating early and seated at a comfortable window table with plenty of natural light. Again we had to request serving utensils and bread (and there was bread to be had, this time), but we started with two excellent dishes, easy to share: a sparkling, colorful, full-flavored chopped salad of seared watermelon, red peppers, purple onions, olives, and shredded white cheddar (Peter questioned the cheese, but I liked it), and tiny ricotta gnocchi in a mild pesto sauce (good for sopping) on a bed of crunchy fennel salad.
Next came, hey, modern bar food, Tucker's take on buffalo wings, made with chicken confit, the meat formed to make little lollipops on the ends of the bones. I loved the spicy root slaw they came with, and the poof of what Tucker called Gorgonzola foam (but was more like Gorgonzola cream, and entirely yummy) at one end of the plate. But the chicken itself was dry under its coating of hot sauce, and it seemed as if the confit technique was to blame.
By now our plates were quite messy, and clean ones should have been proffered, but we had to ask for them. The braised short ribs came as two small rectangles of succulent soft meat, sided by clumps of creamed baby spinach topped with a leaf of pastry bearing diced bone marrow: exquisite, the best thing we had. But the three chunks of pork loin, which would have been juicier if rarer, seemed bland next to the snappy sides of black-eyed peas cooked with ham hocks and spaetzle tinted rose with beets.
We felt we had to try the white chocolate mousse, as its list of ingredients mango, tapenade, goat cheese, sesame, and kumquat marmalade seemed so disparate, not to say wacky. The waiter plumped for the stuffed strawberries, so we tried them, too. The berries weren't big enough for the tomato confit inside them to make much of an impact, nor did the stripes of white chocolate ganache and basil syrup that we dragged them through make sense in the mouth. But the mousse, wrapped in a sheet of sliced fresh mango, dotted with, yes, salty black olive tapenade, sided with a goat-cheese/mascarpone mixture crusted with sesame seeds and a heap of exquisite kumquat marmalade, proved to be a brilliant and totally convincing combination. "I would come back here just for this," I said. "And the short ribs," Peter said.
Small plates of this ambition work better for two serious eaters than four hungry people. I note that at one supper we shared eight dishes for four people, and at the next, the two of us devoured seven. I wish that the first time we'd ordered seconds.