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Haute Paleo at Dirty Water 

Wednesday, Jul 15 2015
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The first thing you see upon perusing Dirty Water's menu is a gin-carrot-ginger-absinthe cocktail called The King of Carrot Flowers, a reference to the song by Neutral Milk Hotel and a rather promising sign.

But to get there, you must walk through the 6,252-square-foot Art Deco foyer of Market Square — a building that, although it houses Twitter, isn't called the Twitter Building — or else via the Market on Market, the hyper-Bi-Rite that opened this winter. Dirty Water is a little like a casino in that it's tough to grasp the full breadth of the place from any one vantage point, but no matter where you sit, you're going to be wowed. Mid-Market's anchor tenant is now complete. (Or it will be once the fermentation tanks in the back of the restaurant have yeast and Dirty Water brews beer on-site.)

Chef Jared Gallagher — who has worked for Michael Mina, One Market, Plumed Horse in Saratoga, and Chez TJ in Mountain View — named his massive restaurant after a pre-Prohibition nickname for moonshine, but he could have easily called it Haute Paleo. Although the restaurant's philosophy is "Drink Love" (a corporate-sounding snoozer if there ever was one), its kitchen is all about animal protein.

With that in mind, my dining mates and I made sure to order the Dirty Greens ($14), the biggest house salad of all time. "It makes up for the fact that everything else we ordered is meat," one said. While I hate professing my love for the most overexposed vegetable, the crispy kale was the star, and the charred citrus vinaigrette, rich and sweet, was ladled on with finesse instead of the total overkill I've found elsewhere lately.

Then it was meat, meat, meat. For $30, the charcuterie platter was astoundingly generous, although apart from the prosciutto and the unmistakable jamon iberico, the remaining three were tricky to differentiate. This charcuterie came with ciabatta, mustard, a sprinkle of pistachios, and pickled carrots that are great for crunch and color, but the plate could have benefited from more accoutrements, like olives or cornichons, a slice of pâté, or maybe some simple crudités to cut the salt and nitrites. It was slightly overwhelming and the only thing we didn't finish.

The mediocre Spanish octopus ($18) was the closest thing to an outright letdown. A gaggle of halved tentacles with tamarind, avocado, and bacon, it was slightly tough and flavorless, an inferior version of what I ate at Seaside Metal in Guerneville two months ago. Octopus does best with clean flavors, but here the sauces were too competitive.

When it came to deer tartare ($22), though, the consensus at the table was, "We must order this, because where will we ever have this again?" (Venison tartare is on the menu at Alexander's Steakhouse but Dirty Water's was still a smash.) One mixes the egg in oneself, and the salty buttermilk-and-beef-stock sauce lent heft to the meat without obliterating the more delicate components, like housemade chips with rosemary and thyme, or the beets shaved razor-thin, like gem-toned potato chips. It was easily the best dish.

Nearly as good was the roasted squab with smoked eggplant, cherries, favas, and puffed basmati, oriented on the plate so that the bird's feet looked like antlers. At $36, it's hard not to feel sticker shock — especially compared to the underpriced charcuterie — but that's a drop from its initial $42 price. However self-consciously manly all this meat might seem, it gradually came into focus how the Haute Paleo sensibility works best when buttressed by delicately prepared sides. This was some fine squab.

By the time the olive-oil-poached king salmon ($26) came around, I was excited by the mere idea of peas. The fish bordered on being undercooked, but the combination of pea hummus, mint, and sauce soubise (Béchamel plus onion purée) was so springlike and fresh that it pulled together nicely.

And in true food-porn form, the servers poured out the bone broth stew (with beef cheek, olive oil, potatoes, and a five-minute egg, $14) from several feet above the table. Delicious to start with, this one improved noticeably as it cooled to room temperature. Just be prepared for some sticky lips. (As an aside, I kind of hope that tableside stagecraft creeps back into high-end dining. I think it got chased into teppanyaki land when people started getting embarrassed by overly theatrical Caesar salads.)

Dirty Water wouldn't be afraid to go there, either, because on the dessert list, like an outtake from the Mad Men finale, are Floating Islands ($10). These meringue-and-custard delights with crème anglaise, slathered in almond slivers as if they'd been dipped like ice cream cones, sound like something your grandparents ate at a dinner party where people listened to Yma Sumac and nibbled on rumaki, but they were a fine way to wrap up things.

Mid-Market has come far, fast. Definitely a little too far, because the remodeled Hot Spot across the street feels less divey than it used to, and upstairs from Dirty Water, in the cafeteria at Twitter, there is a carving station called "#Tenderloin." I expected a little of that tone-deaf self-satisfaction at Dirty Water, but what I got was a fantastic meat parade. Mid-Market may be in transition, but Market Square is officially a destination.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

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Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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