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French and Sri Lankan Flavors Mingle at SF's New 1601 Bar & Kitchen

Fact: No one really knows what California cuisine is anymore. The modifier gets attached to any restaurant where the chef visits the farmers market and knows his way around a beet salad. In SF, our state’s seasonal and locavore philosophies hold sway in our food no matter the ethnic angle—we even 
have California-fied Eastern European (Bar Tartine) and Korean (Namu Gaji). Now, chef Brian Fernando is putting a local spin on French fare with a Sri Lankan accent at 1601 Bar & Kitchen, on the western edge of SoMa.

The Sacramento native is focused on unique ingredients from his father’s homeland that don’t get much play in the Bay Area. But the flavors aren’t totally foreign to us, explains Fernando, citing similiarites to south Indian and Thai cuisines. “They are just unfamiliar enough to make it seem new.”

Fernando’s dishes are sophisticated but never precious—no doubt thanks to his training in French technique at San Jose’s Le Papillon. Take, for example, his terrific spin on the kale salad, dressed with funky fermented black garlic-lime vinaigrette, coconut, and parmesan. He classes up Mulligatawny soup with chicken confit. And his umami-rich, black-curried sturgeon, served over red basmati rice with crispy maitake mushrooms, may be the menu’s star.

Rebelling against California’s typical restaurant interiors, designer Brent Kanbayashi skipped the reclaimed wood in favor of an industrial space with a palette of gunmetal and white and a well-lit bar at the center. Here, SoMa condo dwellers can already be found digging into egg hoppers and fried heirloom potatoes, washing it all down with bottles of Belgian beer. Contemporary oil paintings by Emily Burns and local artist John Waguespack lend splashes of color and quirk. It’s the kind of mash-up we can get our appetites around.