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San Francisco Chronicle


S.F.’s Bluestem Brasserie soars to three stars

September 7, 2016 - Source

The impressive dessert menu at Bluestem starts with a box saying: “Celebrating our five-year anniversary with the Honolulu Hangover Cake.” It brought back visions of my initial review in 2011. At the time, I concluded that about the only thing worth ordering was dessert, particularly that Hangover Cake.

Soon after my review, the opening chef left, and several years later Jeff Banker, who formerly owned Baker & Banker, came on board. The menu improved greatly, and its rating rose to 2½ stars. Banker left earlier this year and was replaced by John Griffiths, who came to the Bay Area by way of St. Louis and showed promise as the original chef of the Advocate in Berkeley.

I decided to give Bluestem a try and was glad I did. It made me realize that in some cases, it takes a restaurant several years to find synergy with a chef. With its modern, glass-enclosed interior on Yerba Buena Lane overlooking Market Street, Bluestem is now one of my top recommendations near Westfield San Francisco Centre or Union Square, whether for lunch or dinner.

The menu has been shortened and the preparations tightened. Several are best in class, particularly macaroni and cheese tightly packed into a black cast iron pan ($9) crowned with more grated cheese and a sprinkling of herbs; diners can choose to add bacon, pancetta or truffle oil ($2 extra), but it doesn’t need any more embellishment.

Then there’s roasted cauliflower ($9), with the florets tinged by the fire and moistened with green harissa; and Santa Claus melon salad ($14) with purslane, verjus vinaigrette, and tissue-thin slices of Bayonne ham draped over the top.

I could quibble with some preparations — the beautifully browned and succulent roast chicken with nicoise olives, harissa and yogurt might have been better if the accompanying squash were warm rather than chilled, for example. And at lunch, the casarecce pasta ($18) could have been a tad more al dente to stand up to the roasted brocollini, crushed hazelnuts and truffle and pecorino pesto.

But most of the time, the food is like getting an unexpected gift. Supremes of oranges added a fresh introduction to charred octopus ($18) with chunks of fingerling potatoes, olives and a sprinkling of Espelette peppers. Duck confit with a fried duck egg ($25) was sufficiently lightened with lettuce, haricot verts and an assertive mustard herb dressing. New York steak ($48), blanketed with salsa verde, would compete with a version from the best steak house in the city.

The hamburger ($18) may have been a little messy, but I couldn’t find fault with the slices of peak-of-season tomatoes. Seared fillet of swordfish ($29) seemed to waltz with the accompanying artichokes, snap peas and pea-shoot pistou with preserved lemon.

Service, directed by owner Adam Jed, is efficient and attentive. Waiters always ask diners if they intend to share dishes; if so, they automatically bring all the necessary equipment. They are knowledgeable about the menu and are quick to respond to requests.

And when it came to dessert, I realized I couldn’t take a pass on the Hangover Cake. Desserts are now made by Lori Baker, the pastry chef who owned Baker & Banker with her husband, so the offerings (all $11) are more extensive than you’ll find at most restaurants. A Greek yogurt panna cotta comes with a tiny square of pistachio and walnut baklava and hard-to-find Bronx grapes, while the Strawberry Tall Cake consists of layers of vanilla cake with strawberry cheesecake in between.

Yet the Hangover Cake is still the winner, with rum-infused chocolate devil’s food cake, coconut rum filling, toasted marshmallow meringue and both caramel-rum and chocolate-coconut sauces.

It was a delicious reminder that while it’s been five years in the making, Bluestem has finally found its way.

Michael Bauer is The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic and editor at large. Find his blog at http://insidescoopsf.sfgate.com and his reviews on www.sfchronicle.com. Email: mbauer@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @michaelbauer1

★ ★ ★

Bluestem Brasserie