STATE BIRD PROVISIONS, Lower Fillmore/Japantown (1529 Fillmore St. between Geary & O’Farrell, 415-795-1273)
Jazz is the soundtrack of the streets of Lower Fillmore. From its storied days as the “Harlem of the West”, to the current seat of Yoshi’s SF, Boom Boom Room, Sheba Piano Lounge, Rasselas, and other blues/jazz venues, the subtly gritty streets echo with its soulful past.
I would venture to say Fillmore newcomer State Bird Provisions is an ideal jazz companion. There’s no musical connection. The spirit of jazz is present in their playful, dim sum-style presentation… and in the way former Rubicon chef duo (also husband and wife), Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, evolve the menu almost daily, occasionally serving the same dish but varying its ingredients. They operate not only with the now typical seasonal approach, but more so by creative prerogative. What sounds good? Where else could they take a dish? What ingredients are new? Plates flow out on carts or trays like an experimental jazz riff, but never feel rootless.
Their actual soundtrack is more Johnny Cash than John Coltrane. This fits the casual, toned down setting with pegboard walls and a front kitchen where cooks greet your arrival. After multiple visits, the staff remember me, while Brioza is up front with a warm welcome. The flow of the place becomes tighter each meal as they near the two month mark.
There’s a short, thoughtful selection of bottled beers, teas, wines by the glass, and rotating house lassis (fennel salted yogurt, coconut milk persimmon). For those who want larger plates or fear the unknown, the menu lists a handful of “main” dishes. I’d recommend you go elsewhere if you want predictability. God knows there’s more than enough comfort food and traditional menus out there.
The joy of State Bird is that it’s unlike anywhere else. I find larger plates satisfying, even habit-forming, particularly the must-order CA State Bird (a quail, in case you were wondering). This is the one carryover from Brioza’s Rubicon days, the bird crusted in pumpkin seeds, cumin, etc… But it’s the small plates that offer the wider range of thrills. I am reluctant to even use the played out term “small plates”, so keep that free flowing, dim sum spirit in mind. At roughly $2-18, most dishes fall in the $5-9 range. When one adds up the final check, the variety is amazing given the per person price (on my visits, $30-40 without drink).
A full, printed list wouldn’t do the dishes justice anyway. Take, for example, the basic-sounding 7 pepper flatbread with oxtail (peppers used include long pepper, madras, etc…) I’ve seen a lot of oxtail and even more flatbread. This one is different. Upon first visit, the flaky, twisted bread, which forms a bit of bowl in which to pour braised, tender oxtail, transported me to Eastern Europe. It recalled crispy, fried langos bread from my travels in Hungary (Chef Nick Balla at Bar Tartine does a top notch langos). It speaks to the depth of Brioza’s influences and talent that a dish could evoke tradition while being one-of-a-kind. By my next visit, the dish subtly shifted in shape, now topped with lentils and cream. This time its spice profile conjured Morocco and Spain, another time India. Whatever the incarnation, this may be my favorite.
There are countless delights: spanking fresh raw tuna is dashi-poached, coated in toasted quinoa with chrysanthemum leaves and smoky bonito rosemary aioli. Silky duck liver mousse is ridiculously good (almost dessert-like) on almond financier cakes. Beef is served in three cuts (brisket, short ribs, chuck) on a bed of fried nettles and pomegranate.
Vegetarian dishes are as captivating as meat. Mushrooms arrive coated in hazelnut streusel with vanilla cream. Beets come crusted in rye grain, perked up with horseradish-ale cream. Chargrilled chicories are tossed with lemon, olive oil, dates and almonds over spicy yogurt.
Bites (under $6) are equally interesting. Celery root curd shows up in different ways: in a raw chicken ‘salad’, bright with Buddha’s hand citrus, or in a jar of creamy smoked sturgeon and sea urchin.
Krasinski proves equally inspired with unusual desserts, sometimes with welcome savory notes. $2 shots of peanut milk gently sweetened with muscovado (an unrefined brown sugar) are imperative. They call it “world peace” peanut milk because the happy feelings it invokes.
Milk chocolate and sesame mix with candied clementines and cocoa jam, the clincher being a crispy little wafer of chocolate, sesame and tahini. Pear brandy and long pepper make winning companions in sabayon form.
After multiple visits, I can’t recall a bad dish. In the hands of a jazz master, even the most off-course riff enhances a song’s limits. In the hands of a culinary master, playful experimentation and shifting boundaries feel as satisfying as a comfort food spread. You are in masterful hands at State Bird.