The Art of Being Earnest at Ernest

Chilled asparagus spears with furikake potato chip crumble and chunky Jidori egg salad -- at Ernest.
Chilled asparagus spears with furikake potato chip crumble and chunky Jidori egg salad — at Ernest.

Ask Chef Brandon Rice how long he toiled to open his first restaurant, Ernest, in San Francisco, and he’ll tell you the short answer is three years, but the long answer is his entire life.

No matter how you cut it, the endeavor took untold blood, sweat, and tears, plus enduring the standstill of a global health crisis. Named after his grandfather, a Virginia butcher, Ernest, finally opened in March 2021 to widespread acclaim, making it a tough reservation to land almost from the get-go.

After being invited in as a guest of the restaurant last week, it’s easy to see why. Rice is the former chef de cuisine of Rich Table in San Francisco. If you’ve enjoyed the playful, creative fare there, you’re guaranteed to relish it here, too, with its similar whimsy and daring confidence.

While Ernest offered some outdoor dining tables last year, it’s unlikely to do so this year, even when the weather warms. San Francisco weather being what it is, it proved too unpredictable to count on.

Chef Brandon Rice in the open kitchen at Ernest, the first restaurant that's his own.
Chef Brandon Rice in the open kitchen at Ernest, the first restaurant that’s his own.

However, the restaurant’s interior boasts 16- to 20-foot high ceilings, a bonus for air circulation. The soaring, light-filled space, done up with ash wood tables, actually used to be the shipping dock and warehouse for Best Foods mayonnaise, Rice says.

A high shelf is decorated with waving Japanese lucky cats, with plaques underneath of the names of folks who donated to the restaurant’s Kickstarter campaign. An ’80s soundtrack dominates with tunes from the Police, the Cars, and the Clash, which add to the carefree vibe.

The industrial-chic interior.
The industrial-chic interior.
The restaurant's mascot, which also adorns the staff's aprons.
The restaurant’s mascot, which also adorns the staff’s aprons.

Study the menu as you enjoy a Cheri Negroni ($14), made with gin, Camapari, Carpano Antica, and a preserved cherry leaf floating in the glass, which imparts a lovely floral cherry note to this classic cocktail.

The Cheri Negroni.
The Cheri Negroni.

You can order a la carte or opt to “Let the Kitchen Cook For You” for $95 per person. The latter is what I opted for. It’s quite the deal when you realize you’ll be getting more than half the dishes on the regular menu. And it comes out in a big flurry.

A bowl of tangy creme fraiche dip covered with Kaluga caviar lands first with a bowl of tater tots that are so crisp, light, and fluffy inside.

High-brow, low-brow caviar and tater tots.
High-brow, low-brow caviar and tater tots.

A minute later, uni toast arrives. It’s squishy Japanese milk bread cut precisely into long beams and fried to a golden crisp, then garnished just so with sweet, creamy uni. It puts shrimp toast to shame.

Gorgeous uni toast.
Gorgeous uni toast.
Smoked whitefish dip.
Smoked whitefish dip.

Then, a bowl of smoked whitefish dip garnished with dill appears with thin Kennebec chips. If you’ve had the famed sardine dish at Rich Table, in which a sardine is threaded through a slice of thin potato, then fried to create a Frankenstein potato chip served with a creme fraiche dip, this is shades of that. The flavor profile is very similar. And like that dish, you will find yourself dipping away even as you get full. But you just can’t help yourself.

A big bowl of ice is set down next, holding oysters on the half shell adorned with bracing, frozen apple-wasabi granita; spicy, tomato-y Mexican shrimp coctel with avocado chunks alongside saltines to scoop everything up; and lastly, probably what had become the restaurant’s most famous dish, “Sushi Rice.”

A dazzling trio on ice, including the famed "Sushi Rice'' at the top.
A dazzling trio on ice, including the famed “Sushi Rice” at the top.
Make your own hand rolls with the "Sushi Rice.''
Make your own hand rolls with the “Sushi Rice.”

The name, “Sushi Rice,” doesn’t do this beyond-clever dish justice. Think deconstructed sushi made into a molded parfait with a bottom layer of rice, followed by what’s usually chopped ahi tuna, then vivid salmon roe covering the entire top. Only in this case, it’s beef tartare that stands in for the ahi. How audacious is that? Chopped finely, they look much alike. But the raw beef delivers a much richer mouthful. Sheets of nori come alongside so you can put together your own hand rolls.

Ora King salmon sashimi will haunt you with its big jolting surprise of fermented black beans. What an incredible combination as the rich, oily fish can definitely stand up to the salty funk of the Chinese condiment.

Salmon sashimi with fermented black beans.
Salmon sashimi with fermented black beans.

Then come the Parker House rolls, which are some of the lightest and fluffiest I’ve ever had. They’re as squishy as milk bread, and served with soft, house-cultured butter.

Parker House rolls to inhale.
Parker House rolls to inhale.

Like so many of the dishes, the Zuckerman Farms’ asparagus comes garnished with dainty fresh petals and leafy herbs, adding a burst of brightness and beauty. The thick chilled stalks are finished with a chunky and creamy Jidori egg salad, and crumbles of crushed furikake potato chips.

Sea urchin lo mein.
Sea urchin lo mein.

Carbonara gets a twist here, done with chewy, thick lo mein noodles colored deep yellow by a creamy sea urchin sauce and garnished with tiny bits of bacon. This is a very rich dish, loaded with sweet brininess.

The main course that night for us was barbecued pork neck, which tastes like the most tender Chinese char siu you’ve ever had, with Barhi dates giving it a sweet, almost hoisin-like taste. Grilled over a Japanese grill, and then served sliced neatly, the meat is incredibly tender. It’s almost as succulent as pork belly, but with more meat on it rather than fat. A puddle of hot mustard lets you add more heat, if you like.

Barbecued pork neck.
Barbecued pork neck.

Alongside is a bowl of Monterey Bay squid, with tender pieces awash in a fairly fiery, creamy Calabrian chili sauce. You have to dig to get to the squid, which is underneath a pile of crispy broccoli de ciccio, kumquat slices, and grapefruit and orange segments, all of which add a nice counterpoint to the spiciness.

A variety of citrus hides spicy calamari below.
A variety of citrus hides spicy calamari below.
Duck confit fried rice.
Duck confit fried rice.

There’s also a bowl of fried rice with chewy, individual grains mixed with shards of duck confit and green garlic. A touch of aged Parmesan ups the umami factor even more.

The kitchen then sent out not one, not two, but all three of its desserts on the menu. Holy moly!

Vanilla soft serve with magic shell.
Vanilla soft serve with magic shell.

Let’s start with the soft serve sundae — a Marge Simpson beehive of vanilla soft serve first drizzled with hazelnut sauce, then brought to the table, where the server will pour over the magic shell chocolate sauce that hardens on contact. The ice cream is far richer than anything at your local Dairy Queen. It’s a true gourmet version of a kid’s delight.

Strawberry shortcake shave ice.
Strawberry shortcake shave ice.

Next, comes shave ice as big as my head. Rice imported a kakigori machine from Japan to shave down large blocks of ice. The shave ice flavor changes with the seasons. That night, it was strawberry, with a vibrant berry syrup covering a huge dome of of the shaved ice, then crowned with a big cloud of creme fraiche sprinkled with sweet-tart li hing and strawberry cake crumbles. The bowl is set on a small wooden tray for good reason — as you attack the shave ice with your spoon, invariably chunks of ice will break off and result in a messy tabletop otherwise. It’s fruity, tangy, creamy, a little salty-savory from the li hing, and as refreshing as it gets.

Lastly, the mesmerizing “Medium Rare Basque Cheesecake.” This was a project that Rice and his girlfriend worked on during the pandemic. They should be proud because this is one unique interpretation on this popular crust-less and deeply burnished cheesecake style.

The distinctive "Medium Rare Basque Cheesecake.''
The distinctive “Medium Rare Basque Cheesecake.”

What sets Ernest’s version apart? You need a spoon to eat it, not a fork. The kitchen blowtorches the top to burnish it and warm it a bit before it arrives like a slice that’s about to melt into a vast puddle. It’s flecked with vanilla bean, and enlivened with a touch of orange blossom. It’s runny and oozy, impossibly smooth, and almost the texture of warm, voluptuous pudding.

Rice says it’s made with all yolks, not whole eggs, for extra luxuriousness. The batter is not whisked, either, so when baked the cheesecake doesn’t rise only to collapse in the center like others. Instead, this one ends up uniform when under-baked to create that flowing texture. It’s a true marvel.

From first bite to last, it all makes for a thoroughly joyful experience at Ernest.

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6 comments

  • OMG, what a fabulous meal! Iā€™d have to fast a couple days before hand to manage all that! I think I would have been full before even getting to the main course! What a life you have getting to eat like this!

  • Hi Suzy: It was an exceptional feast! And yes, I nearly fell over when I saw THREE desserts come to the table. If only I had three stomachs to finish each and every bite. Hope you get to try Ernest sometime soon. It really is a ton of fun.

  • I can tell from the four dollar signs on Yelp that I will probably never dine here, but thank you for sharing your experience! It’s easy to see how much care was put into every element, although the saltine crackers did take me out of the environment a little since I associate them with elementary school snacks.

    As for the dessert, I’m always amazed at how many variations there are to cheesecake! The soft serve and the shaved ice look delicious as well. I’ve never heard of using li hing powder with desserts, but I can see how it would be a nice counterpoint to the sweetness.

  • Hi Joanna: Even with the four dollar signs, you could still enjoy a night here. The bar takes walk-ins, and you could indulge in a couple of dishes, plus a mega dessert, without breaking the bank. šŸ˜‰

  • Judith Stewart

    Wowee wow! That looks incredible, and a good deal at $95!!

  • Hi Judith: So true! When you think about how pricey most tasting menus are these days, this one is a relative bargain. Plus, it’s just such a fun experience. šŸ˜‰

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