Since opening in 2011, Bluestem Brasserie in downtown San Francisco has seen its share of chef changes. But in the times I’ve dined there over the years, I’ve never had a bad meal, no matter who was heading the kitchen. In fact, that’s why I often send folks there if they don’t know where to go eat after a day of shopping on Union Square.
It’s easy to walk to if you’re already in that area. There’s easy parking at the Fifth and Mission Garage or a BART stop steps away. And the two-story restaurant is so large that you rarely have to wait to get a table.
So recently I took my own advice. My husband and I, finding ourselves in that vicinity one night with no reservations anywhere, strolled into Bluestem and were seated immediately. We paid our own tab at the end.
There’s a large bar, as well as 90 seats in the main dining room, and another 45 on the mezzanine.
Trevor Ogden, former chef de cuisine at Park Tavern, oversees the kitchen now. And one of my favorite pastry chefs, Lori Baker, is doing the desserts. If you’re like me, you fell hard for her desserts at the now-shuttered Baker & Banker in San Francisco, where she crafted homey, irresistible desserts that had the volume turned up — way up — on the decadence level. In fact, she recently debuted a new dessert menu at Bluestem. So do save room for that.
With a glass of rose, we sat back to tear into trout “pastrami” tartare ($15) piled on toasted pastrami. Forget avocado toast. I would happily eat this every day instead. It’s all the peppery flavors of a New York deli pastrami sandwich but with smoked trout subbing in for the pile of beef. There’s the requisite Russian dressing, as well as house-made sauerkraut and a bit of horseradish for extra bite.
My husband, of course, opted for a big hunk of beef for his entree — the Bavette steak & frites ($34). The grassfed flank is a leaner steak. Juicy and full of big beefy flavor, the steak was finished with a classic red wine Bordelaise. The fries were golden and perfectly crisp.
Although the Spanish octopus ($29) is listed on the menu under “for the table,” meaning it’s more like an appetizer generous enough in size to share with one or more other dining companions, I had it as my entree.
It is indeed a substantial tentacle, supremely tender, that got a good tickle of heat from a pungent fermented chili oil. What really made it was the black garlic in it, adding a wealth of umami, as well as a wonderful buttery molasses-balsamic flavor. It was accompanied by crisp Yukon Golds scattered around the octopus.
When I had asked the server if the octopus would be good as an entree, he answered affirmatively, and suggested adding a side of crispy Brussels sprouts ($9) with it. I’m glad I took his advice because the Brussels sprouts were not only crispy but a kaleidoscope of flavors — smoky porkiness from ham hock, buttery sharpness from garlic confit, and brightness from the crowning touch of candied lemon slivers that really made the dish.
Desserts are all $11. We shared the whimsically named “Yellow Fatty-Beans & Peanut Butter Bacon.” “Yellow fatty-beans” is apparently the term the animated Simpsons’ family coined for “bananas.”
A tumbler glass arrived layered like a parfait with peanut butter mousse, peanut butter cake, roasted banana pastry cream, a fluff of whipped cream and a drizzle of salted caramel. There was supposed to be candied bacon, but I think it might have been forgotten, as I didn’t really taste it. No matter, as I often think bacon in desserts is over-rated. As it was, the dessert was glorious just as it was — like a banana cream pie without the crust, but the added attraction of plenty of rich peanut buttery goodness.
It’s enough to make me long to be in downtown San Francisco again with no reservations or plans — except to drop into Bluestem Brasserie again.