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Local: Mission Eatery is on a local mission 

Wednesday, May 12 2010

Some new restaurants arrive in this world fully formed, teeth bared and growling. Others scuttle into a crevice the moment they hatch, hiding from predators while they grow stronger on the prey that wanders into their grasp. And then there are places like Local: Mission Eatery, at 24th and Folsom streets, which emerge from their plywood wombs eager and coltish, gangly joints pointing in all directions, bleating their existence to the treetops. If starvation or confusion doesn't kill the place while it's still finding its feet, it may grow into something quite wonderful.

There are three primary actors. Owner Yaron Milgrom (his side project is a doctorate in medieval Jewish mysticism at NYU) runs the front of the house and serves as the restaurant's voice. The chef is Jake Des Voignes, last the co-chef of Fish & Farm and a Melissa Perello protégé from her tenure at Fifth Floor. Shauna Des Voignes, Jake's wife and an alumna of RN74, operates Knead Patisserie — actually a separate business — in the back of the space.

The trio's overarching locavore mission is not a superficial one. They purchase ingredients (and breads not made by Shauna) only from local suppliers. They get their produce, meats, grains, and olive oils from California. They make pickles, condiments, pastas, and fresh cheeses in-house.

Summarizing what they're trying to do isn't easy, but here's my best shot: They've opened a combination sandwich shop, high-end restaurant, lending library, cooking-class space, and bakery.

During the day, Jake primarily makes oh-so-timely sandwiches — no more than four to five varieties, along with a soup, a few salads, some pickles, some spritzers, and a cheese plate. At present, he also cooks a four-course prix-fixe dinner on Thursdays and Saturdays that requires advance registration. So do the "cooking labs" he and Shauna lead several times a month, such as May 12's lamb butchery workshop, large-animal butchery being the macramé of this decade.

The partners have also started a cookbook library, in which you buy an annual subscription ($35 for one borrower, $50 per household) and have the right to check out one book at a time. Shauna's pastry counter stocks a small selection of sweets and the occasional whole loaf of brioche; she also sets up a stand in the entryway from 8 to 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, where commuters can pick up slices of lemon bread and whole-wheat scones on their walk to BART.

Local: Mission seems to hide from 24th Street. A narrow, deep room with only one storefront window to let in sunlight, the restaurant maintains a cool, tailored appeal all the way from the hanging gardens in the entryway, through a room decorated in reclaimed woods and Heath tile, back to the rustic bakery counter that frames a view of Shauna's ovens. The cooks, in their shiny-surfaced open kitchen, work opposite the bookshelves and a glass-walled walk-in fridge.

A lunchtime stop for sandwiches (all $9) and grapefruit-tarragon coolers ($3) feels like leaving the chaos of SFO's domestic terminals for the serene hum of the airport BART station. The open-faced sandwich doesn't just illustrate the all-local cooking; it's the best thing on the lunch menu right now. A slice of toasted brioche with the airy crumb of a chiffon cake is topped with bright green planks of blanched asparagus from Zuckerman's Farms, crisp and sweet, slatted to fit the square. Squatting on top are two poached eggs from Glaum's, napped in an herb-flecked mousseline (a brown-butter hollandaise lightened up with whipped cream). Slice through the egg, the asparagus, and the toast with a fork, and within seconds the square is coated in yolks so yellow you wonder whether the chicken was injected with saffron. Des Voignes makes the mousseline tart enough to meld with the yolk, an unctuous dressing for the vegetables and bread. The consolation for its richness: You're giving back to the community.

One sandwich didn't quite meet its intentions: Its roast potato slices, garlicky housemade ricotta, and dandelion greens didn't have the pucker and bitter bite to enliven its starch-on-starch construction. And some sandwich eaters won't note the silky texture of the roast cod fillet, the dainty twang of its pickled turnip slices, or the perfect dose of capered aioli on top so much as the fact that the sandwich is small and they'll need to double up on desserts (not the crumbly chocolate sandwich cookies — add a Meyer lemon madeleine to Shauna's signature pastry, a ring of light, thousand-layer dough filled with rum-flavored custard). Bulk-is-better diners should order the braised lambwich instead. It's as intricately designed as the asparagus-egg sandwich, and almost as good: Some bites come strongly perfumed with shaved fennel, others with the earthy smoked chard, and each bite of fragrant orange marmalade gives the most pleasant jolt of all.

A dinner I attended last week came close to maxing out the capacity of the room. Diners, universally in their late 20s to early 40s, filled the counter seats and the communal table as well as the stand-alone tables. The four-plus courses progressed in round-robin fashion, with diners near the kitchen starting on entrées just as the ones at the other end of the room were finishing their appetizers.

It was not a perfect meal, but a good one: The meal started with a tiny cup of nasturtium-carrot soup for an amuse-bouche, deeply creamy, with a peppery tickle to the taste and a single orange petal on top; the restaurant's Twitter feed advertised that Jake had foraged the nasturtiums himself. Tender asparagus spears and roasted potato halves peeked out from under a tangle of frilled cress, with a pool of pale green asparagus vinaigrette for swabbing the vegetables through. Tiny, purple squid tentacles sprouted from a thyme-infused fish broth, along with roasted carrots and toothsome, precisely pinched housemade farfalle. Although a fillet of California-caught halibut arrived overcooked and cottony-fleshed, the flaw was forgiven for the sake of the velvety turnip purée, the just-shelled fava beans and sweet peas, and the dusky oyster mushrooms heaped over one end. (The vegetarian substitution for the fish — crepes rolled around ricotta and smoked chard — turned out spectacularly.) And if a frozen cylinder of ricotta came to the table so hard that the room rang with knives chipping it down to size, the roasted May strawberries that surrounded it more than made up for its texture. Sixty-five dollars, including tax and tip, seemed a fair price for a locally sourced, laboriously prepped, and sweetly served meal.

I like the inventiveness of the trio's approach, though the risks that come with it are significant. Many restaurants stake their existence on a glamorous buildout, a high-priced dinner menu, and a PR blitz, hoping to survive by crowd-surfing on a crush of buzz-high diners. Milgrom and the Des Voigneses, by contrast, have realized that in order to make everything in-house, be uncompromising in their use of ingredients, and work on such a small scale, they'll have to take off in half a dozen directions and allow demand to shape which ones they focus on. This idiosyncratic approach is perfectly tailored to Generation Indie. To make a real go of the place, though, they'll have to sell their complicated mission to the rest of us locals, too.

About The Author

Jonathan Kauffman

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