First to come around was a tray of crudités, each of the small plates a minimalist collage: a single baby fennel spear, whirled pyramids of romanesco broccoli, and tiny radishes orbiting a tuft of whipped goat cheese. When we nodded our assent to the waiter — the crudités only cost $4, according to a spindly, letterpress sign sprouting out of the plates — she balanced the edge of the tray on our table in order to flip over our menu and check a box. Before she could move away, we were already craning our necks around to get a closer look at the bowls of potato chips and fish roe that were rolling toward us on a metal cart.
Anyone who's heard about Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski's new restaurant knows its five-second elevator pitch: Western food served dim sum-style. On any night, half the dishes coming out of the kitchen can be ordered off a printed menu, and the other half circulate with the waiters, creating a meal of constant motion and surprise. The restaurant hasn't quite grown into its format yet, but at its best, the food is among the most intuitive cooking happening in San Francisco, the kind that teases out odd connections and unknown sympathies between flavors.
Case in point: Those potato chips ($7), served up with a dollop of crème fraîche and a spoonful of glowing steelhead roe, which resembled ball bearings made of orange glass. As the eggs popped and deflated on the tongue, brine and orange zest spilled out, followed by the salty crunch of the chips and then the prickle of horseradish, hidden in the tart cream. One of State Bird's most interesting dishes even fit onto the tines of a fork — a transparent pane of fried guanciale (cured pork jowl) draped over a hunk of avocado and a pomelo segment ($3). It took a full minute for that one bite to spool out the story it was telling. Creamy, bland fat segued into the acidic flash of the pomelo, followed by avocado's lush coolness; finally, the meat and spice of the cured pork emerged.
Those choreographed moments came in the form of the larger, made-to-order dishes, too. A pan-roasted trout fillet ($9 half-portion/$18 full), skin side covered in a fine layer of cornmeal that cooked up into a pebbly crunch, was napped in a nutty garum brown-butter sauce (garum is a Roman fish sauce). Painted onto that warm, umami-rich backdrop were brighter, finer flavors: slender threads of ginger, toasted hazelnuts, and sweet kishu mandarin segments.
And each of the desserts created by Krasinski, the restaurant's pastry chef, was a tiny tone poem: A few sips of deeply flavored peanut milk ($2), its caramel undertones courtesy of muscovado sugar. A warm, eggy profiterole ($4), hollow inside, with a nubbly surface speckled with poppy seeds. A small chunk of milk chocolate and black sesame bark ($4) whose dark and toasty crunch was offset by a swipe through bright clementine jam and chocolate mousse. For the desserts' size, there was nothing obvious or straightforward about them.
Squeezed into a small, narrow space whose first half is taken up by the open kitchen, State Bird Provisions is the architectural translation of a synth-rock album cover. The dining room is bare and jagged, with walls of rough concrete and mustard-colored pegboard. The only decoration is an abstract string-art mural; it goes without saying that the soundtrack is 100 percent Pitchfork-approved. State Bird has already found its demographic, too — they have the look of user-interface designers and third-year medical residents, with enough thought put into their outfits to hint that in another decade they'll be worth far more than they are today.
As anyone who yum chas regularly will know, in a room full of roving servers it can be hard to catch the attention of the one who's supposed to take charge of your table. The service improved dramatically in the three weeks between visits, though. On my second visit we had a clear idea of who our primary server was — boy, did that help — and she wove her way through the tables and carts often enough to make sure that wine glasses were full and that we weren't yet.
Other format problems: The complexity of the dishes was sometimes undercut by their small size and the fast-moving progress of the meal. The whole point of the squishy, meaty duck-neck dumplings ($6) was to soak them in tart kraut jus, but we didn't figure that out until we'd each eaten our single bite. And at one moment, there were so many brothy dishes on the table that I thought about paying the waiter to run over to Safeway for bowls and bread to actually eat them with. Once my companions and I had fished out ethereal cubes of braised pork belly and pickled baby radishes out of a cast-iron pot of kimchi stew ($8), the crimson broth remained in the center of the table, ignored. (The dollar-sized sourdough sauerkraut pancakes the waiter offered us as a bread substitute weren't terribly interesting, and didn't fill the sauce-sopping role I'd hoped they would.)
So occasionally — and only occasionally — it was necessary to order an entrée like the ricotta cavatelli ($16) and zero in on it, focusing on the chew of the tightly rolled pasta coins, the earthiness of the sautéed mushrooms, the scent of sage in the sauce. It was a relief to wave off the waiters with the pickle plates and the duck rillettes for as long as it took to finish the dish. They'd be back around soon enough.