At the Fillmore District restaurant called The Table at Merchant Roots, chef Ryan Shelton launched an intimate dinner series earlier this year that has everything to do with narrative and experimentation, and nothing to do with the hyper-seasonality of most Northern California cuisine.
With a background in fine dining at places like Baumé and Chez TJ on the Peninsula, Shelton most recently served as executive chef at Verbena and its 2015 incarnation Reverb — the Polk Street off-shoot of Berkeley's Gather. In May 2018, Shelton and partner/wine director Madison Michael opened small market/café Merchant Roots, along the stretch of lower Fillmore that's also occupied by State Bird Provisions and The Progress. Expanding on Shelton's background as a pastry chef, the cafe features a special, daily-changing array of sweets to go with coffee, as well as fresh pastas to go, and an excellent mortadella sandwich. They also announced they would be doing an intimate dinner series on the weekends in the rear of the space, with two seatings per night, which took a few months to get off the ground.
That series, called The Table — loosely based in concept on the intimate, Michelin three-starred Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare — is just winding down its current iteration, based on Vanity Fair, the 19th century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. Shelton's first nine-course menu, which launched over the winter, was called "Elements," and took inspiration from "elements and celestial bodies of the universe."
The "Vanity Fair" menu has a more directly narrative aim — to evoke Thackeray's novel, and the moment in England that it depicts, through the design and flavors of nine courses. Shelton says he took ideas from period English recipes, which often had French ideas seen through an English lens, as well as Indian spices which were all the rage at the height of the colonialist zeitgeist.
It's compelling from start to finish, and easily the most thoughtfully composed, ambitious meal I've had in a few years — though to be fair, this style of fine dining isn't something I've been seeking out too often. Maybe it's the sameness with which some chefs show reverence for certain ingredients, or the ways in which San Francisco chefs riff on similar ideas through the seasons, but this felt like a new genre. Shelton is being playful not just with ingredient combinations, but with the story he's telling in dishware, in the progression of flavors, and in the presentation.
The meal begins with "gougeres" formed in the shape of tiny swans, filled with sharp stilton mousse and port-cassis gel. Once seated at the intimate table for eight — this is an "avant garde dinner party," as Shelton and Michaels intended — we received a trio of bites that further hint at the mashups to come: a blood pate over violet mustard, a "mutton porridge" made with merguez sausage and figs, and a beet-pickled, deviled quail egg with a curried yolk.
There were no low points in the next array of courses, first with a prawn/crawfish "chimera" pictured below — a poached prawn tail sitting in a rich shellfish consommé topped by a crawfish head stuffed with a bit of pureed crawfish liver. Then there was a combination of crispy sweetbreads with a rich, tangy oyster sauce — a play on the 19th Century English fad of pairing veal with oysters. A "snail Wellington" was a brilliant twist on the classic pastry-wrapped beef dish, with garlicky escargot turned into a croissant and topped with bordelaise. And the sole vegetable course was an inventive, delicate exploration of the sunflower with sunchoke croquettes, "French onion dip" made with sunflower petals, a pesto made from the leaves, a tiny piece of pickled sunflower "heart" and a fresh piece of the inner stem. The culminating dish, unveiled from a gold-flecked bit of avian origami, was a vindaloo quail, roasted whole and stuffed with spicy biryani rice, with a balsamic fig glaze.
The meal closed with equally inspired, delightful palate-cleansing and cheese courses, and an intricately constructed "Chai Napoleon," that consisted of dozens of thin layers of chai tea buttercream and flourless chocolate cake.
Suffice it to say, at $148 per person for these courses (wine pairings, these delivered by sommelier Chelsea Sawyer, are $65 extra) feels like a steal with all of this thought and imagination at work. And while there is no literal storytelling going on here — the dishes don't try to portray specific theme or characters from Thackeray's novel, which would probably have felt forced anyway — the meal does feel like a story in itself. I felt rooted in England and in another era, with diversions to France and many digressions in India, and each element in each dish felt like it was playing a role, like a sentence within a paragraph that was worth reading twice.
"Long before I ever even considered cooking as a profession, I was in love with science," says Shelton. "Because of that, as a young cook, I always was drawn to Chef Heston Blumenthal. He has an incredible aptitude for using science to inform his cooking, and his series of 'Feasts' are so much fun; they definitely inspired my theme-focused approach at Merchant Roots. And while I’m passionate about finding the perfect ingredients and manipulating them to embody our menu themes, for me, the real prize is to tell a story and take people on that journey with us through food."
Next up in Shelton's theme calendar is "Color Theory," which sounds like it will get more experimental/molecular in its attempts to evoke the colors red, orange, blue, green, yellow, violet, black, and white, and advance tickets for that are available for $105 per person. After that, in the late fall, will be "The Mad Hatter's Tea Party."
"Color Theory" begins, like the next show in this restaurant's "season," on August 22, with seatings at 6 p.m. and 8:30, Thursday to Saturday.