Saturday, July 07, 2007

As The Brunch Turns: Toast and Stacks

Breakfast and brunch, being the most important meal of the day and all, deserves some updated attention in this space. My last take on breakfast was over a year ago, and much has changed, including my secret spot (Maverick) no longer serving brunch at all.

Sidenote: You'll notice that I use the terms "breakfast" and "brunch" nearly interchangeably. For me, the only difference is the hour of the day they're served and the fact that you can't have brunch on a weekday. The food is the exact same for me, even at a big hotel brunch. In fact, it somewhat bothers me when I go to brunch with people who proceed to order a salad or a burger at 11am. It just throws everything off.

Well, two of my current favorite spots for breakfast aren't even mentioned in my last post, and that's because they weren't open - Toast in Noe Valley and
Stacks in Hayes Valley.

Both places take the upscaled-Denny's approach to a straight-ahead breakfast. Scrambles, omelets, pancakes, French toast... the staples, plus a few other slightly-more-interesting items. Both places also take a diner approach to the dining room. Toast is small tables and a counter plus some outdoor seating, though the feel is clearly diner. Stacks takes a more traditional approach with fluffy green booths and big floral arrangements. It's what you would expect at the flagship Lyon's, if there were such a thing. Stacks does get bonus points for being big as well. I'm a bit sick of the typical breakfast spot where eight people eat while three dozen others watch intently.

But the biggest aspect the two places share in common is that they keep it simple and they execute well. When you order an omelet, you get back exactly what you'd expect in balanced, hearty quantities. It's not that I don't like it when breakfast gets a creative culinary edge (Ella's is a positive example that comes to mind), but sometimes it's nice to see a menu with the old standbys.

One other interesting note on Stacks that you'll find reading Yelp is that there appears to be some
neighborhood backlash based on Stacks being a "chain." To be clear, this is now the third Stacks, the other two locations being in Burlingame and Menlo Park. They're owned by a sole proprietor from the Castro named Geoffrey who greeted us at the door in Hayes Valley on our last visit. If this constitutes everything negative about a "chain" for you, then I suspect you generally begrudge others' success if it's not on your exact terms. Go on leading your happy life.

That said, I'm always on the lookout for new breakfast places, be they simple or aggressive on the culinary scale. If you've found something new, exciting, and without a huge line, please
email me and I promise not to write about it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Spork: As Useful as the Name Suggests

Spork is a relatively new eatery on Valencia near 21st St. It's been high on my list to try for the whole two months it's been open. Unfortunately, until last night, I've had a severe mental block from actually entering the doors. While Spork seems to have the right combination of interesting, well-priced cuisine, a fun wine list, and a hip, alluring vibe, the problem has been that I wasn't able to get past the memory of a KFC being in the same location a mere six months ago. While KFC might be an erstwhile guilty pleasure (especially the biscuits), I could not imagine that the layers of reconstituted chicken and grease could possibly be gone from the walls. It turns out that I was considerably overdue making my first Spork visit, and KFC remnants are a distant memory.

The interior of Spork is very tastefully conceived and manages to be both modern and comfortable. My wife particularly likes the server uniforms, which I found to be a peculiar-yet-noteworthy observation. The tables and booths are spread out in diner-like fashion, yet I can see that it would still have a very lively buzz on crowded nights.

The menu is that undefinable cuisine that seems to be ever-growing in popularity, with a bit of Italian, some California/New American, and shades of Asian/Japanese. For instance, our starters were a yellowtail sash
imi with a Japanese citrus custard and wasabi vinegar, while the other was a gnocchi gratin with fennel sausage. It was an odd mix that worked well. The flavors aren't the least bit delicate, but in this case it keeps the meal interesting. And at the low price point ($13-$18 for entrees), that's the approach that makes the most sense and they execute it well.

The mix of entrees is also quite interesting. They offer a steak and an "inside-out burger," as well as a pasta dish, "mussels and pork with a spork," and a seabass. Our very nice hipster waiter steered us toward the mussels and the seabass and we weren't disappointed. The sweet corn and shitakes that came with the seabass was a highlight, while we did note that the broth for the mussels could've used more time on the stove.

Overall, my feeling leavin
g Spork is that it covers a niche that has been generally underserved in San Francisco: interesting, tasty entrees in the mid-$10s in an atmosphere that feels new, lively and vibrant. I had a hard time thinking of restaurants that were similar in that basic description, Chow and Street being two, though the comparison with both is very loose. Regardless, KFC is a distant memory.