Dining at Nightbird
It’s elegant yet whimsical, with a name inspired by the chef-owner’s fondness for owls.
Kim Alter’s Nightbird celebrates eight years this year in San Francisco with an exciting development. Alter took over a space next door in late November, allowing the restaurant to expand its footprint. The new space will be used for private dinners, as well as occasional pop-ups by Nightbird’s pastry chef, vintage boutiques, and potentially even members of La Cocina’s food incubator.
It joins the restaurant’s other adjoining business, the Linden Room, a swank cocktail bar perfect for a pre- or post-dinner libation.
Last Saturday, my husband and I enjoyed the $195 tasting menu and $130 optional wine pairing. Alter added a few extra morsels on the house. The restaurant does include an automatic service charge, which is an increasingly common practice at many fine-dining restaurants. What’s out of the norm, though, is that it’s only 16 percent.
The minimalist, graceful dining room is compact and intimate. There’s a good number of staff, overseen by General Manager and Director of Hospitality Ron Boyd, that delivers an attentive yet unobtrusive service experience.
Dinner begins with no menu to peruse, making everything that appears a surprise, as Prince and the Talking Heads play in the background.
It starts with a series of bites: First, a two-bite beignet filled with sweet-savory-tangy persimmon sofrito that’s balanced on a dome-covered dish. Finish the beignet, then lift the cover to discover the flakiest little tart filled with caviar, smoked egg yolk cream, and creme fraiche.
Second, a soft-poached quail egg enveloped in brown butter hollandaise with crisp leek threads that tastes like a miniature Sunday brunch.
Then, it’s on to the “Taste of the Ocean,” a perfect, ice-cold oyster adroned with snail caviar, brown butter “sand,” crunchy oyster plant, and a savory, salty pop of fermented XO sauce.
Alter does a playful take on takoyaki, forming a dashi-flavored spherical soft pancake into a golden donut hole topped with uni and grated truffle.
For the next course, my husband was served a seared scallop garnished with toasty hazelnuts, purple amaranth leaves, and a foamy vin jaune sauce made from the yellow wine from the Jura region of France. Owing to my allergy, I was served instead a round disk of seared daikon that was juicy and crunchy, and cleverly mimicked the look of a scallop.
A mini boule of farro sourdough arrives steaming hot, already sliced underneath surreptitiously to preserve its appearance on top. Slather on the soft butter to enjoy its formidable crust and tangy, earthy, and nutty taste.
A teeny tamal, wrapped in corn husk and tied with twine, is served with creamy smoked parsnip puree. Untie the package to revel in the very fluffy and nutty tasting blue corn masa.
When Perigord black truffles are in season as they are now, you don’t have to do much to make them shine. A perfect example was the next dish of egg semolina pasta glistening in a butter sauce with garlic confit and draped with truffle slices. The supple noodles were tender-chewy, and the butter sauce just rich enough — all to let the earthy-musky qualities of the truffle dominate.
A surprise additional nosh followed — a riff on Japanese chawanmushi. Only this was a dollop of cold egg custard that proved a simple yet harmonious vehicle to propel more black truffles to the forefront.
Roasted squab brought forth a rosy wedge of breast and a rich, fall-apart tender confit leg with its skin crisped up and its talon still attached. Alongside were broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts leaves finished with fermented apple to lend a zingy taste. To enjoy with the squab were brioche rolls that were fluffy, buttery, and had just a hint of sweetness.
The next course fully encapsulates Alter’s whimsy. A delicate porcelain coffee cup and saucer is brought to the table, along with what looks for all the world like a teeny-weeny sprinkle doughnut. It’s not time for dessert. Rather, it’s a savory course in disguise with the cup containing an intensely flavored, warm squab broth with a touch of chicory, and the doughnut actually a chocolate-glazed puff pastry filled with whipped duck liver mousse. As you sip the broth, you’ll dream about how fantastic it would be with ramen. With its juxtaposition of sweet and rich with gamey and mineral notes, the doughnut can’t help but make you smile.
Wagyu follows in the form of sous vide short rib that’s melty tender. It’s finished over binchotan, and served with black trumpet mushrooms and a buttery, nutting tasting nugget of sunchoke.
Alter then brings out an extra morsel of Wagyu, so marbled and bursting with fatty juices that it practically quivers on its plate. It’s dotted with giardiniera to add a burst of piquant and heat to cut the richness.
Ruffles of grassy tasting tete de moine cow’s milk cheese are served with seed-and-nut bread along with honey and honeycomb from Urban Bee San Francisco’s rooftop hives.
Then, it’s a wonderfully refreshing palate cleanser of mandarin sorbet and tonka bean ice cream that together are like a creamsicle. The piece de resistance is the citrusy, minty tasting shiso granita on top.
Dessert is a festive Mount Blanc, a Play-Doh-pumper spiral of creamy chestnut puree adorned with gold leaf that sits atop a foundation of chocolate cookie crumbles.
Mignardises mimic the start of the meal, but with sweet versions of those snacks in the form of chocolate mousse tarts, persimmon pastries, and chocolate-brown butter ganache bonbons that resemble the poached quail eggs. To accompany are shot glasses of fragrant vin d’orange.
Lastly, the printed menu arrives with the Nighbird wax seal, and wrapped around a box that holds a cube of tender corn cake glazed in lavender to take home.
As we walked to our car, my husband asked in disbelief, “Why doesn’t Nighbird have a Michelin star?”