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Chenery Park

Wednesday, Aug 14 2002
Like any city worth its asphalt, San Francisco is actually a loose confederation of small towns, each with its own politics, personality, and partially definable boundaries. Some areas generate more star power than others: Chinatown has its quaintly decrepit pagodas, SOMA boasts a beaten and gentrified -- yet unbowed -- club scene, North Beach maintains its Neapolitan hipsterhood. Glen Park, on the other hand, is difficult to find in the standard guidebooks. Tucked away between the equally underpublicized precincts of Diamond Heights, outer Noe Valley, Sunnyside, and the Excelsior, it may be best known to northern San Franciscans for its BART station and its Monterey Boulevard exit off Highway 280. My previous forays into the neighborhood were back in the '70s, when the Film Fair operated out of a flat on Chenery Street. There, a middle-aged fellow in a beret would screen Duck Soup or My Favorite Blonde for an audience of sociable strangers in his living room, serving Cheez-Its and apple cider in the kitchen during intermission. The setup may have been emblematic of a friendlier, less paranoid era, but it also exemplified the neighborly nature of this particular small town.

Thirty years later, Glen Park seems pleasantly untouched by time. Like Bernal Heights, its immediate neighbor to the east, the area feels like some remote Gold Country village, complete with white picket fences, thatched and shingled homes, narrow, winding streets, and perpendicular hills offering panoramic southern views of the ticky-tacky houses along San Bruno Ridge. At the intersection of Chenery and Diamond there's a coffee shop limned in Formica, a bookstore with LPs and poetry readings, and a couple of honest saloons as well as a wine shop, a cheese boutique, and other venues more routinely encountered north of 24th Street.

One such uptown establishment is the Chenery Park Restaurant, which has been serving cilantro sprouts, fingerling potatoes, and crème brûlée a couple doors up from Bill Tracy's New Lodge Bar for nearly two years. It's housed in a vintage pastel-green building with a Spanish-style tiled roof and inviting picture windows overlooking Chenery Street. The inside is simple, attractive, and upscale all at once, with a sage-and-black color scheme, vibrant abstracts by local artist Joe Novak, a sweeping staircase leading to the three tiers of the dining area, and towering ceilings that create both an airy ambience and a comfortable acoustic level. But despite the urbane décor and nouveau Americana menu, Chenery Park is at heart a neighborhood place, with eager, affable service, senior discounts, Tuesday Kids Night, and a welcoming spirit.

The food's good, too -- often very good. Executive Chefs Gaines Dobbins and Richard Rosen are both Boulevard veterans, and their cooking reflects the intricate combinations of New American cuisine as well as the more rustic flavors of Dobbins' New Orleans upbringing. Meaty jumbo prawns are steeped in a fennel-onion marinade, grilled until smoky and juicy, and served on a bed of refreshing, peppery greens. Another small plate, Manila clams, comes steamed and served in a sauce fragrant with hrisa, a peppery North African spice mixture, and chunks of andouille, a garlicky, intense Louisiana sausage that mingles wonderfully with the sweet, briny clams. The golden beet soup, meanwhile, contrasts the root's earthy essence with an undertone of citrus and bits of crisp, smoky pancetta. The exemplary house sourdough is especially indispensable with this dish.

Macaroni and cheese is rapidly becoming the panna cotta of the post-boom era (or whatever it is we're presently enduring); I've had this tarted-up comfort classic at four different restaurants in two weeks. Chenery Park's is in the no-frills category, with overly soft pasta, too much salt, and not enough of a crunchy top crust, but the sharp cheddar flavor is appealing, and the overall effect is ultimately homey. It's available as a small plate or as an entree. The black pesto raviolini is (as its name implies) a bit more cultivated. The pasta pockets themselves, al dente to the point of chewiness, come stuffed with a rich basil pesto lightened with steamed black kale. Flavored with a vibrant balsamic-vinegar sauce and strewn with shards of tangy parmigiana, it's a memorable, beautifully balanced dish.

Nearly as good is the tuna Niçoise, a bountiful reinterpretation of the Mediterranean classic. The fish in question, an impeccably fresh ahi, is grilled to the creamy, medium-rare stage and combined with crisp string beans and moist potatoes fragrant with lemon and olive oil. Considering Dobbins' Creole credentials, the house gumbo is surprisingly underspiced, despite an abundance of top-quality scallops, shrimp, and catfish. But the double-thick pork chop is tender, with a robust flavor, and its sides -- sweet yet sour braised cabbage; dense, bacon-flecked mashed potatoes; and a port wine reduction seasoned with mustard -- accompany the meat admirably.

For dessert there is, primarily, lemon pudding cake, a luscious, rich, not-too-sweet torte that oozes a marvelous, warm, citrusy pudding when you slice into it. A handful of ruby red strawberries provides backup. The chocolate angel food cake is problematic, though: Not only is its name somewhat oxymoronic, but the cake is also dry and bland. Even so, it's worth ordering for the mind-blowing blackberry-cabernet sorbet that accompanies and outshines it -- a lush encapsulation of orchards and vineyards in one package. The café au lait crème brûlée is smooth and luxurious, with a subtle hint of coffee as a bonus, and the cobbler is worthy of this year's excellent peach crop. Its fruit is fresh, plump, and baked to the proper sizzling consistency, and the crowning biscuits are sublime -- crisp on the outside, steamy and snowy within, and light as a feather throughout. A little more vanilla ice cream would be nice, though.

The wine list feels pretty standard: five dozen mostly local vintages, with the token Oregon pinot noirs present and accounted for. Twenty wines come by the glass, six by the half-bottle. Chenery Park has a full bar as well, and in addition to a serviceable selection of ports, cognacs, single malts, and tequilas offers specialty cocktails like the Mojito (a sharp, refreshing example), the Nectarini (an uninspiring martini glass of chilled vodka with no nectarine flavor), and the Wild Orchid (a tasty aperitif out of the tropical-drink tradition, in which coconut, pineapple, cranberry, and mandarin orange compete for your attention with Parrot Bay rum and Mandarin vodka). The cocktails and the foodstuffs may have changed considerably -- and for the better -- since the '70s, but Glen Park is still a friendly little town to get lost in.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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