Behind us, a quintet of laptops, their screens leaning toward one another as if they're straining to stay in harmony. To our right, a blond woman sitting with a glass of wine and a 3-inch-high stack of photocopies.
And in front of us, a plate of gnocchi ($6), their surfaces crisped and browned in the pan, the smells of rosemary and browned butter emanating from the plate. The pale stems of tiny beech mushrooms twined around the tiny dumplings, their flavor more buttery than fungal, and fine parmesan shavings fluttered and melted onto their surface.
Not a bad Tuesday night dinner for a café.
"Pop-up" seems to be the easiest definition for Sous Beurre Kitchen, except the restaurant-within-a-café keeps regular hours and shares a page-long wine list with Sugarlump Coffee Lounge, its host. The three cooks shuffling around the stoves at one end of the counter belong to Sous Beurre Kitchen, while the baristas based at the other end double as hosts and food runners when they're not pulling shots.
Symbiote might be a better word. This summer, Michael Mauschbaugh, who'd cooked at Eccolo and Bacar, responded to the Mission café's Craigslist ad looking for someone to cook food on its premises. With the help of a Kickstarter online fundraising campaign, he supplemented the café's panini press and dishwasher with refrigerators, start-up ingredients, and smallwares. Sous Beurre Kitchen operates symbiotically with Sugarlump, the boundaries between the two operations fluid and comfortable, the café feeding the restaurant with a steady influx of snackers and the restaurant helping keep the café's tables filled.
Mauschbaugh's French-influenced food, at its best, is modest yet carefully made, well suited to a meal eaten amid the blank stares of 20 or 30 Word users. Bonuses: Most of the produce and meat comes from one farm. Nothing costs more than $15.
Truth be told, I had never warmed to Sugarlump until I ate at Sous Beurre Kitchen. The café's coffee service isn't at the level of the nearby Haus, and during the day the chocolate walls give the room a dim, almost forlorn feel. What I hadn't realized is that it's a space designed for nighttime, when mid-century lamps give the light a rich, creamy cast and a red glow emerges from the tiled, swollen belly of the fireplace at the heart of the room. Wood-framed chairs and tables — all Danish modern — are placed far enough apart from one another that students and diners never seem to encroach upon one another's space, both physical and psychic. You may find yourself eating off a coffee table, cradled in the leather cushion of an armchair, or at a high wooden bar across from the espresso machine.
For as small as the kitchen is, Mauschbaugh alters the menu frequently. Some of the changes are more cosmetic than structural — subbing out different sausages in his winter cassoulet from week to week, or tossing the gnocchi with grilled okra and chile flakes on a different visit (though the effect wasn't as entrancing). Chicken liver pâté spread on long croustades ($5) seems to be a standard, dabs of whole-grain mustard just the foil the rich, minerally liver needs. Another permanent item is the restaurant's sole dessert, crepes ($2 apiece, or $3 with topping) stuffed with crème anglaise and folded into plump triangles, though the chef switches out the fruit that he spoons overtop. Right now it's a gingery pear compote and tart, tiny huckleberries.
Some of the smaller, more temporary dishes on the menu can come off a little jittery. The chef served a grilled fennel bulb ($6) before the heat had transformed it from tough to sweet and silky. A cornmeal-crust tart ($7) topped with a nettle-cheese custard and a baked egg was underseasoned and hard to chisel out of its baking dish.
The entrées — small enough to fit into a tapas-like meal, big enough for a light dinner — received more focus. Mauschbaugh's cassoulet ($15) isn't the most traditional of versions, but it's satisfying nonetheless, a mass of creamy cannelini beans braised with fennel and chicken confit, knobs of garlicky pan-fried pork sausage scattered across the top. Most of Sous Beurre Kitchen's pasture-raised meats come from True Grass Farms near Drakes Bay, and it's hard to see how he can charge only $14 for thin slices of wagyu Denver steak, bloody-centered and tender, fanned across a mound of polenta. And he produced a sous-vide chicken breast juicy from the base of the wing to the tail end of the cut, crisping the skin just before serving the meat with butternut squash purée and a earthy salad of farro and roasted scarlet turnips.
If there's one area where the link between café and restaurant can come off as awkward, it's the service. On one visit, we had a designated server, sharp and quick to laugh, who revisited our table often, taking us all the way from menu to check. On another trip, we had to order at the counter, pick up a number to ID our party for the food runner, and sporadically catch her attention for water or dessert.
In the end, Sous Beurre Kitchen is better suited for a quick dinner or a few small plates than a big night out with four friends and a couple of bottles of wine. But I'm hard-pressed to think of another San Francisco café with such assured food. A glass of Tempranillo and a plate of gnocchi make the thought of reading through a stack of photocopies seem bearable. The next time one lands on my desk, my destination is assured.