The recession has made way for people to open restaurants with the same DIY spirit that's inspired the current rash of picklers. Without a doubt, it's given the dog-eat-dog restaurant industry here a softer, more earnest face, infused with that original 70's Chez Panisse idealism. Whether or not this makes for a sustainable business model, the jury is still out. But for now, I'm enjoying watching neighborhood restaurants open here with a true homespun touch and genuine intentions.
Such is the case with Heirloom Cafe, which was opened by Matt Straus just over a week ago. (Read his "Heirloom Grace" blog entry to see what I'm talking about: "Heirloom great restaurants and big business do not go together." "Heirloom remember to dream." "Heirloom sing in the shower." I don't imagine Thomas Keller has these affirmations.)
Situated in a recently remodeled Victorian on Folsom Street on a residential stretch of the Mission, the quaint, almost Amish-looking restaurant, is product of a man who puts his love of wine first. The cellar is full of stand-outs. I spoke to Straus over the phone.
Tell me about your background.
In LA, I was the opening wine director at Grace in 2003, and the opening wine director at Wilshire in 2005. After looking for a wine director postiion in San Francisco for a year and a half—and not finding quite the right gig—I decided to just wait tables. I took a job as a server at Jardiniere but on my first day, the assistant wine director broke his foot on the day so I ended up splitting my time as a server and a sommelier.
How did you end up in the city?
I'd always wanted to live up here. It always seemed like the best place in the world to me. The cliché about it being the center of food. I love the fact that the city is so independent that when I was opening, it asked me to testify to the fact that I wan't a chain. On one hand, it's a lot of beaurocracy and on the other hand, I thought this is exactly how I want it. I'm thrilled that I'm asked to declare that this is a one off.
You're taking on the role of chef as well as wine director here.
My first job was in the kitchen, but eventually I moved out of the kitchen because I wanted to make some money. For a few years, when I was living in LA, I was in active conversations with good, talented chefs about this project. What became clear to me—and very clear after I got out of cooking school—was that there was a certain type of food I wanted to serve. And it was really simple. I find that kind of food is incredibly rare in refined restaurants. In a nutshell, the people who I was talking to were all interested in pushing one envelope or another. Some were taking about sous vide cooking or their own art on a plate, and some wanted to use fiddle head ferns and foie gras. But I wanted the complexity to come in the wine, not the food. With all due respect to the cow, a piece of meat is a piece of meat.
Don't you think simple food in refined restaurants in San Francisco's m.o.?
Well, Nopa comes to mind as a place that does that. But other than that, a place where you can go and drink a bottle of wine from Umbria and have a hamburger? I don't know of any.
What are you most excited about in your wine cellar?
People come in and they look at the cellar list and they're completely jazzed by the import list. The wine geeks are into the Burgundies. But the screaming deals are the California wines. I have a 1986 Claret from a producer called White Rock. It's on the list for $130. And I have wines from Qupé and Havens and they're drinking so unbelievably well. People really haven't tapped into that yet.
Reactions so far?
People seem really pleased. I think part of it is the space. I think there's something inviting about it. But one of my best friends used the word "unremarkable" to describe the food. He meant there's something unflashy about it. But I think there's something remarkable in that it's balanced. Michael Mina was quoted in the paper as saying he didn't know what was going into the Aqua space, but he knew it would be something spectacular. And i thought, that's what I don't want to do. Mark Peel of Campanile [in LA] used to say we can never forget it's just dinner.