There is a framed print in one of the bathrooms at State Bird Provisions that asks, “Where’s the f&#@ing party?” Well folks, it’s right here! Dinner at State Bird http://www.statebirdsf.com is exuberant and exciting. It’s a lot like being at a super fun, fairly exclusive dinner party where you might not know many of the other guests but you’ll have a great time anyway.
There’s been nothing but buzz around this place since it opened on New Year’s Eve in 2011 and it’s still one of the toughest tables to get in San Francisco. The restaurant does take walk -ins and keeps a nightly wait list at the hostess stand, but if you are committed to eating here, you need to have a reservation. Online reservations open at midnight PST, 60 days in advance, and fill up promptly. Getting a booking is kind of like winning the lottery — your chances don’t improve even if you’ve dined there before. Is it worth it? Yes!
State Bird’s cuisine is deliciously creative and the concept is American dim sum. Each evening enthusiastic servers with carts and trays make their way through the casual dining room with a rotating selection of a dozen or more tantalizing treats. These “provisions” are innovative small dishes meant for sharing, like everything available at State Bird. This is a great place to come with friends—more people mean more dishes to try. Leave anyone who isn’t good at sharing at home.
Word of advice—pace yourself! It all looks so good that you’ll be tempted to take one of everything right away. Before you know it you’ll have seven different dishes on your table and are just too full for that extraordinary one you didn’t even know you wanted– until it passed by. Sad face.
Our recommendation—take a look at what’s available, choose a dish or two at a time, savor and repeat until you can’t eat another bite. In our case, two of us had eight of the passed dishes, the small portion of the state bird (more on that later) and half portions of dessert. Service is very attentive and no one is offended if you say no or ask to have a dish brought around again later—they do that as a matter of course.
There are a few items that appear regularly, like the sensational smoked trout-avocado chip and dip—a layered mousse-like trout and creamy avocado served with crispy house made chips, and the savory guinea hen dumpling with aromatic broth. We’d enjoyed both on a previous visit but ordered them again because they were just so good.
Because the focus is on seasonal and local fare, dishes change regularly. On our recent visit the “provisions” included hog island oyster with kohlrabi kraut and sesame; guanciale chawanmushi; duck liver mousse with almond biscuit; summer squash with roasted nardello and smoked almonds; shishitos with cumin- goat cheese fondue; sweet corn polenta ‘elote’; pork belly pluot salad; heirloom tomato bay shrimp ‘louie’ ; chanterelle, ham and fregola summer salad; charred octopus with kampot peppercorn and tomato sauce; air dried beef with red chili vinaigrette; and wild king salmon tartare with cucumbers and kosho aioli.
Knowledgeable wait staff happily answer questions and explain preparations. Prices are clearly marked on each dish and range from $3 to $14 (for the large portion of pork belly pluot salad). Most are $5 and $6. Servers mark your menu each time you choose something, just like in a typical dim sum restaurant.
There is a small printed menu that features the actual state bird, which happens to be California valley quail, served in two portion sizes($9/$18) and accompanied by seasonal “provisions.” It is delicious—crispy and succulent and you really should order it.
Other “commandables,” as the plates on the printed menu are called, included red trout with toasted hazelnut-mandarin-garum vinaigrette; fresh Hawaiian heart of palm salad, with tahini chili oil; ‘kung pao’ beef tongue and sweetbreads with bacon, nuts and seeds; and Don Watson’s lamb with squid, shishito peppers and dates. These range from $14 to $22 and are good- sized servings.
The printed menu also lists a variety of interesting sounding toasts and pancakes. There is heirloom tomato Cabot cheddar whole-grain pancake, pickled local anchovy-tomato toast and smoked chicken walnut ‘Waldorf’ toast, among others, at prices ranging from $3 to $5 each. We have not sampled the toasts—very of the moment– or the pancakes, but perhaps next time.
We saved room for dessert on our recent visit and we’re happy we did. We shared half orders of a wonderfully refreshing suncrest peach granite with tapioca, smoky tea gelee, Asian pear and mint; a surprising chevre ‘ice cream’ sandwich with sesame macaron and roasted strawberries; and a dense, moist apple pudding cake with cocoa nib cream and blackberries. We also sampled a shot of the ‘world peace’ peanut muscavado milk ($2). Desserts are $9 each and while the menu doesn’t indicate this, they are happy to give you half servings at half the price, on request.
The wine list has interesting offerings from U.S. producers in California, Oregon, New York and even Utah. The Utah selection was a 2014 Arneis/Dolcetto/Barbera blend from Fox Hill Vineyard that was served cold—we just had to try it. Austria, Germany, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy (including Sicily), and Crete are all represented on the list. Diners can choose from a large number of by the glass options or the bottle. Though it isn’t printed, half glasses are also available. This latter option makes for a really fun evening of wine pairing with all of those delicious small dishes.
We sampled a great selection of half glasses to compliment our meal. We began with a palate pleasing sparkling Reisling Sekt from the Mosel region of Germany and a Portugese Naga/Bical “metodo tradicional rose” that was super dry and nearly red. After consulting with wait staff we worked our way through the list with a food-friendly 2013 Gruner Veltliner from Wagram, Austria; a crisp California Riesling from J. Brix in Santa Barbara; flinty 2012 Falanghina from Mustilli in Campania, Italy; a well-balanced 2014 Marsanne from the Rhone Valley’s Yves Cuilleron; a surprisingly bone- dry 2014 White Zinfandel from Napa Valley’s Turley (I know, but it was from Turley–we couldn’t pass it up); an earthy 2011 Liatiko from Crete; and a big, juicy 2009 Zweigelt from Austria’s Johnanneshof Reinish. Our last half glass was a lovely, floral Gamay from Jean-Paul Brun– the perfect ending to a delightful evening.
We’re looking forward to our next meal at State Bird and will also try to get a place at the table at The Progress— husband and wife chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski ’s new restaurant next door. Diners “choose their own family-style adventure” by selecting six dishes (from a list of 17 plus three desserts on a recent menu) for $65. We’d love to hear from anyone who has already been to The Progress, and as always, we welcome comments and recommendations.