After earning Michelin stars for his food at The Restaurant at Meadowood and Cavallo Point's Murray Circle, chef Joseph Humphrey ventured off on his own to launch a very personal project: a Southern-inspired restaurant in the Presidio called Dixie. It was years in the making, and now that the restaurant is about to wrap up month two, the San Francisco foodoscenti are beginning to understand the food of the South, translated into Humphrey's very particular, very refined style.
Let's begin by saying this is not a new, hot fried chicken joint. The menu might not even seem Southern to a casual observer. Nods can be subtle: As in asparagus and grilled maitake salad with pecans; or a bit more obvious. See "the Dixie version" of chicken and biscuits: a moist crisp-skinned slab of organic chicken breast served alongside fluffy ricotta gnudi. Some of Humphrey's dishes even take a step toward Japan, like pea salad with cured salmon, Mendocino seaweeds, and bonito.
Given its setting in the former Pres A Vi, diners can use the restaurant in many different ways. The 200-seat, Marina-bordering Presidio space encompasses a spacious horseshoe bar, a lounge, huge dining room, several private dining rooms, and expansive outdoor patio. On my visit, I ran into a friend who was sitting at the bar with a cocktail and some hushpuppies to begin a casual, impromptu meal. The kitchen went through tons of $5 grass-fed burgers on the patio for Fourth of July, and in the bar there are bourbon tastings on the way, and a brand new happy hour with free housemade chips and a daily $5 cocktail for nearby office workers. On the total opposite end of the spectrum, everyone at my table went in on the $72 five course tasting menu, which includes several amuse and a few mignardise before dessert.
The highlight of the meal, which spanned three hours, was easy to pick out. The middle course of acorn grits with sea urchin, fried chicken skin, and 62 degree egg was served at an exclusive chef's table inside the kitchen. The dish played intriguingly with flavors from the woods and the sea, and of course we felt special sitting inside Dixie's huge state-of-the-art kitchen to enjoy it. Humphrey smartly sends everone back to the dining room with a palate-cleansing lollipop—his cheeky way of letting the rest of the dining room know there's something special to be had behind closed doors.
At six-week-old baby restaurants like this, it's advisable to steer towards the hits. Cocktails included a perfectly balanced Old Fashioned and a bracing "Preakness" made with scotch, black tea, benedictine and sweet vermouth. The quail served with garlic waffle (pictured, above), was perfectly moist under its crisp exterior fry. Things ended with a delightfully sophisticated take on Bananas Foster: Banana soufflee captured the candy-like sweetness of overripe bananas with a side of rum ice cream to cut through it.
Dixie is already getting some things just right, and I'm eager to explore it's many possibilities. Next up: I'll be glugging a beer at the bar while tasting through Dixie's deviled eggs, and a few gulf shrimp glazed with sugar cane syrup from Humphrey's brother's barn in Sopchoppy, Florida. It doesn't get any more personal than that.