Verbena Blooms on Polk Street in San Francisco
When Gather opened five years ago, it celebrated vegetables prominently by assuring that 50 percent of its menu would always be devoted to vegetarian selections.
Verbena continues that thread of giving star treatment to veggies, but goes even further. It’s Gather’s more ambitious young cousin.
A dramatic back-lit wall stacked with jars of house-made pickles attests to that. Executive Chef-Partner Sean Baker has a penchant for preserving. He makes his own kimchi. And miso. Plus shoyu and even fermented black beans.
Parking is at a premium in this neighborhood. So are seats at this bustling six-month-old restaurant, as I found out when I was invited to dine as a guest a few weeks ago on a busy weeknight.
Walk through the antique Spanish front doors to an airy dining room with polished wood tables and an exposed brick wall behind the black walnut bar, where craft cocktails take their cue from the seasons. Rocket and Rose ($12) is a lovely bright pink from muddled strawberries plus gin, arugula-pepper syrup, lemon and the herbal liqueur known as genepy. The Emerald Remedy #2 ($11) is herbaceous with celery, lemon, gin, Pimm’s and Chartreuse. Both are bright, refreshing and perfect sips on a warm evening.
Sprouted seed bread ($7) is made in-house and served with chevre (also made on the premises — but of course) and a dollop of beet sauerkraut. After one too many supermarket seeded breads that were dense and dry, this one was a marvel. Served warm, it was soft and moist, with the seeds creating almost a mosaic in the interior of the bread.
Chef Baker sent out paper-thin slices of 14-month-aged Mangalitsa ham that had been sprayed with house-made shoyu to bring out even more umami flavor. The ham fairly melted the moment it hit my tongue, filling my mouth with nutty sweetness.
Having gnawed on my share of duck wings that were tough and dry, it was a shock to discover how good they actually can be. Smoked duck wings ($14) taste as if Buffalo chicken wings hitchhiked to Singapore. The duck wings are brined, roasted in a convection oven, smoked, then finally fried, leaving them crisp and mahogany on the outside and succulent within. Tossed in a cherry hot sauce that incorporates fish sauce, they are fruity, sweet, salty and carry a smidge of heat.
Mediterranean cucumbers ($13) are refreshing and crunchy, but get added complexity from a vinaigrette of aged black beans, as well as a touch of miso.
Little Gem salad ($12) brings tiny whole leaves tossed with cauliflower florets, beluga lentils and a creamy pumpkin seed milk dressing.
Tender squid tentacles and legs are arranged artfully in a single row on a plate with puddles of black squid ink ($15). Dehydrated kimchi sprinkled on top, as well as a root vegetable kimchi puree on the bottom of the plate, add a salinity and a subtle, pleasant funkiness. New potatoes round out the dish, creating a taste of the sea buoyed by earthiness.
Chicken thighs ($26) have unbelievable flavor, having been marinated in buttermilk made from koji, rice inoculated with mold spores to create sake. Indeed, the chicken takes on the taste of rice wine. It’s served with a delicious, hearty mix of rice, rye and wheatberries, as well as a slender eggplant half that was so lacquered and custardy that it could be a star on its own.
Porcini ($24) are cooked confit in rosemary and olive oil for 24 hours, rendering them silky, buttery and unforgettable. Cabbage adds a graceful sweetness against a pickled artichoke vinaigrette.
Dessert featured the first of the season peach poached in floral chamomile ($10). For a fun touch, there is not only a quenelle of browned butter ice cream that had been steeped with popcorn, but tuilles made of popcorn. The crowning touch was a compote of blueberries cooked with bourbon — so perfect together that I couldn’t wait to go home to douse my own blueberries with the smoky sweet spirit.
Whether you’re a carnivore or a vegetarian, there’s something for everyone at Verbena. Mostly, there’s the enlightenment of just how beautiful and satisfying even the most humble ingredient can be when it’s treated with care and respect.