There are restaurants where cocktails and hearth cooking are strong supporting players.
At Gibson in San Francisco, though, they are center-stage stars.
Located in the Hotel Bijou on the edge of Union Square, it offers up a unique dining experience, as I found out recently when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant. It’s a place that does some mind-blowing things with live-fire cooking. And it’s where you can enjoy not just a prix fixe dinner with wine pairings, but cocktail pairings instead if you are so inclined. That latter is what we went with.
With an al fresco ceiling, lots of brass and Art Deco touches, it’s a little like walking into a bustling Eastern European cafe in feel. Yet it’s all modern and whimsical in its approach.
We were seated at the chef’s table, a four-seat banquette that is right in front of the wide-open kitchen. How open? I literally could have gotten up from my seat, taken two steps and been right beside the cooks. From that vantage point, it’s almost like watching live theater before you.
That table does come with a premium. The chef’s tasting menu with paired cocktails is $180 per person, $20 more per person than if you sit at another table a little farther from the action.
The collaborative team consists of wood-fire cooking expert Ian Kannry, formerly of Prospect in San Francisco; Charlie Guyard, French-trained pastry chef, formerly of Perbacco in San Francisco; and Adam Chapman, chef-turned-bar-star, who was the general manager and bar director for the Daniel Patterson’s Alta Restaurant Group.
You will get to know this team well because it is the chefs and the bar staff who act as servers. That means the chef who created your dish will be the one bringing it to your table. It also means that everyone shares tips, making for a more equitable compensation system.
Additionally, with all members of the team involved in each table, it means it’s easy to tailor your food or drink to your likes or allergy issues. For instance, although we both had the cocktail pairing, Chapman was kind enough to create a non-alcoholic set of beverages to go along with the courses for my husband, who was the designated driver that night. So for instance, while I received a lovely dry white port with dessert, my husband was served a delicious coconut cola instead.
To begin an evening, you can never go wrong with bubbles, especially in a French 75 made with carbonated gin, French apertif, lemon oil, lemon verbena, honey, and the sparkling wine known as Cremant. Along with it came a parade of small bites, starting with a duo of an oyster crowned with a clear Bloody Mary gelee, and a shot glass of strawberry gazpacho made with vodka that had been infused with crab fat. They each complemented one another, with the gazpacho fruity, spicy and smoky, and the oyster sweetly briny with a Sriracha-like note. Together, they couldn’t help but make me think of Sunday brunch.
Next up, a big bowl of crushed ice holding servings of smoked hamachi that had the delicacy of sashimi but a profound smoky butteriness; and a peppery trout tartare. The tiny fried corn cake topped with spicy, saucy mix of shrimp and octopus might not have boasted the most dazzling of colors, but it ate well, if a little messy on the fingers.
That was followed by the world’s poshest chicken “nugget,” with a light, super crisp batter, that was finished with a flourish of caviar and a touch of honey. The caviar with its salinity almost took on the role of sea salt sprinkled on top. With its crackling golden shell, and faint floral sweetness, the taste of the nugget took me back to my childhood to the Chinese restaurant dessert of fried apples coated in hot candied syrup, then dunked into ice water to harden. It had almost that texture. Alongside was a spoon holding an egg yolk emulsion, honey, chives, and more caviar to accentuate all the flavors of the nugget in one tiny taste.
Beets get roasted in the embers to really bring out their sweet earthiness in a salad with crunchy smoked almonds and a beet vinaigrette.
Chapman has been aging apple cider vinegar in a bourbon barrel for two years. When he fills a wine glass with it mixed with sweet potato vinegar and soda water, you will be amazed. While it still has the latent tartness of vinegar, its caustic nature has been subdued to an unexpected sweetness. There’s almond and cherry notes in it, too. It’s very refreshing and such a treat.
The bread course is showstopping — a mini boule of sourdough made in-house that arrives so warm that you won’t be able to tear into it for a few minutes lest you burn your fingers. It will be hard to wait, though, because it arrives with Red Hawk fondue. Yes, Cowgirl Creamery’s triple cream with a washed rind that lends a hint of funk — turned molten. The small bread loaf carries a big payload of developed, tangy flavor along with a hearty, substantial crust. Scoop up the oozy cheese with it, and you will never swear off carbs again.
One precious barbecue chicken dumpling arrives in a lidded bowl, bobbing in a puddle of duck jus dashi. Savor this because it is worth lingering over.
The filling of the dumpling is chicken that has been smoked for six hours. Take a bite and it’s like you’ve inhaled an entire platter of barbecue in the South. The broth is so concentrated. It tastes like pure duck fat — intense in poultry fat and richness. One small spoonful will fill and coat your entire mouth.
With it came hot Japanese green tea, freshly steeped before you. What makes this tea so unusual is that it’s grown in the shade with seaweed mixed into the soil. It’s traditionally poured over rice when enjoyed in Japan. In my case here, it was mixed with sake before being poured into a wine glass. My husband had the non-alcoholic version, which was just the tea on its own. While you could smell the seaweed aroma in each, in the alcoholic version the taste of the kelp really came through, along with a lot of umami. It was almost like a delicate seaweed soup that was spiked.
The last savory course was carrots that were smoked over the hearth for seven hours, turning them deeply burnished like coal. They were accented with a swoop of carrot puree, and a gin botanical barbecue sauce. If you closed your eyes, you would think you were eating barbecued brisket. That’s how “meaty” this dish ate.
A pink prickly pear sorbet, floral, sweet and creamy, cleared the palate for the sweets to come. Up first, two teeny ones: a doll-size strawberry-jasmine tart that showed the berries at their very finest; and a mini black walnut cone, the shells burnt then ground to give it a dramatic color, and the filling made with walnuts and cream.
That was followed by a grapefruit gateau, its thin shell tasting of butterscotch toffee, and giving away to pure, flulffy creaminess like an Eskimo Pie, with puddles of lavender anglaise and thick milk jam alongside.
The last bite was truly unique. It was a whole apple — seeds, core, stem and all — that had been cooked sous-vide for two months at a high temperature until it shrank and shriveled to not much larger than a walnut shell. It was presented on its own little pedestal, with its bottom dusted in pistachios.
The texture is as sticky as a date. It has a very deep apple taste with a prominent burnt caramel characteristic to it. The flavor is like that of an apple canale. What a marvel.
When it’s time for the check, it arrives in a lidded glass case holding a deep bed of cocoa nibs on which cute little ceramic pandas rest.
Consider it a harbinger of just how well you’ll sleep after a meal like this.