We're finally getting to enjoy the pleasures of the city again without most of the anxiety we've felt for the last year, and one of those pleasures is obviously new and interesting food.
Open since March in the loft-like space once occupied by Coffee Bar at Florida and Mariposa, Ernest is the kind of restaurant that makes San Francisco the dining destination that it is — and it joins us at a time when we could all use a little culinary surprise and delight.
It's the first solo venture of chef Brandon Rice, who formerly served as chef de cuisine for over five years at Rich Table. Rice came to know Evan and Sarah Rich in the kitchen at Coi, where all three picked up some of the refined playfulness with ingredients that Daniel Patterson made his name with. And at Rich Table, Rice says he found his voice and cooking style — a decidedly global and eclectic take on California cuisine, and one that clearly revolves around seafood.
The menu at Ernest is divided into three main sections: raw bar and snacks, vegetables, and mains. Like at any great restaurant with a point of view, the dishes at Ernest reflect what Rice himself loves to eat — flavors mix from across Asian and Mediterranean cuisines, and the focus is on the casual and fun with surprises arriving in layers of flavor.
A prime example of the intersection of the refined and casual comes in Rice's caviar presentation — the Tsar Nicoulai caviar is dolloped over creme fraiche in a bowl, with plenty of chives and lemon zest, and served with tater tots for dipping. There's also a complex and stellar take on onion dip served with perfectly light house-made potato chips, and the Mexican-style shrimp "coctel," in which pieces of shrimp and avocado are tossed in tangy cocktail sauce, is served with Saltines.
Rice makes buttery, perfect Parker House rolls that are reminiscent of the stellar rolls Dennis Leary once served at Canteen (RIP). And beef tartare becomes a filling for a nori "taco" combined with lightly salty salmon roe.
One of Rice's starring dishes, a decadent lo mein tossed in buttery, nutty, smoky sea urchin "carbonara" and topped with bacon, is a riff on a Rich Table staple, the sea urchin "cacio e pepe." But this version is over-the-top, drenched, and you'll want an extra Parker House roll to sop up the extra sauce.
On the current menu is a terrific soft-shell crab served avocado "al pastor" and house-made tortillas, meant to be eaten taco-style. And another stellar and decadent dish is a boneless short rib covered in a sweet and complex barbecue sauce — likely prepared sous vide because it's perfectly tender without falling apart. That's served with perfectly fried onion rings that are reminiscent of any state fair stand worth its salt.
A handful of house cocktails are uniquely balanced creations and interesting riffs, like the Alpine Colada — a milk punch version of a colada made with genepy, pineapple, coconut milk (minus the solids), and Douglas fir — and a Negroni made with preserved cherry leaf. And the wine list is well curated and suited to Rice's food — with a surprisingly great selection of French and Italian bottles at reasonable prices.
Desserts also emphasize playfulness, with a rainbow-colored shaved ice — light and intensely delicious, with a half dozen early summer fruit flavors including strawberry and aprium — topped with sweet yogurt; and a soft-serve sundae topped with homemade Magic Shell. There's also a divine example of the extremely trendy but undeniably crave-worthy Basque cheesecake.
Service was prompt but easygoing, and everyone on staff seemed well-versed in the food — itself a major point of praise at a moment of severe labor shortage in the restaurant industry, and barely three months in to the life of the restaurant. And at $95 per person, the current chef's prix fixe is a steal, featuring a family-style selection of three-quarters of the menu that comes in four waves. (The only thing lacking was a pairing option.)
There's no doubt that Ernest will be featured on many Best New Restaurant lists this year, after a year in which no such lists could be written. It's a place that feels well suited to the city and this moment in food, but also like a come-as-you-are dinner party at the home of a very skilled chef. The experience, from start to finish, left me satisfied, delighted, and full of gratitude that such a meal was waiting for me at the end of this ridiculous fifteen months.
Ernest - 1890 Bryant Street (entrance at Mariposa and Florida) - Open for dinner Wednesday to Sunday 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.