By Andy Hayler
The state bird of California is the quail. It could be worse: in Minnesota it is the loon. The speciality of quail here explains the rather esoteric name of this restaurant, which opened on New Years Eve in 2012 and quickly became a cult success. It ticks all the “too cool for school” boxes. Small plates? Check. Open kitchen with tattooed staff? Check. No actual sign outside? You bet.
It is in an unmarked grey building in a once unfashionable but “up and coming” area called Fillmore, which used to be known for its musicians, flexible approach to drugs and a noted jazz scene (Billie Holliday played here) but these days is more heavily populated by twee fashion shops and Japanese restaurants. It takes reservations on-line on a rolling 60-day basis, all of which disappear almost instantaneously. They keep back almost half their 66 seats for walk-ins though, which has led to notorious queues. Opening at 5:30 p.m., when the place was at its most fashionable people began queuing at 3 p.m. to secure a table. It is not quite so insane these days: I came down at 5 p.m. and was the eighth in line, though the queue quickly filled up behind me. Next door is a slightly larger sister restaurant called Progress. State Bird Provisions gained a Michelin star in the 2014 guide. It is owned by a married couple, Stuart Brioza and pastry chef Nicole Krasinski, who had both worked as chefs in Chicago and prior to this at San Francisco restaurant Rubicon. Glenn Kang is the current chef de cuisine; he previously worked at Campton Place, Rubicon and Delfina in San Francisco.
There is a short menu supplemented by a series of dishes that appear from the open kitchen on trays, which are shown to the diners by the chefs and waiters. This is quite a clever trick since you are more likely to order something that is put under your nose, and you can pick as many or as few of these little dishes as you fancy. There is a wine list, though curiously the next-door Progress has a more extensive, different and posher set of wines on offer, so if you are in the mood to splurge then ask to see this list too. Example bottles were Jurassic Park Vineyard Habit Chenin Blanc 2014 at $60 for a bottle that you can find in a local liquor store for about $35, Bien Nacido Chardonnay 2014 for $90 compared to a retail price of $48, and Gramercy Cellars The Deuce Syrah 2012 at $125 for a wine that will set you back around $60 in a shop.
Duck liver pâté had good liver flavor and came with soft almond biscuits with pleasant texture. However there should either have been less biscuits or more pâté in my view (14/20). Potato briquettes with gulf shrimps and green garlic was enjoyable, the shrimps tasting sweet, nicely complemented by the carefully seasoned potatoes (15/20). Citrus pork belly with Vietnamese vinaigrette was perhaps a little dry, though the sharpness of the marinade distracted from this (13/20). Smoked trout mousse with tomatoes was superb, the combination of tastes effective and the tomatoes having plenty of flavor (16/20).
A steak tartare was less successful, the meat fine but being rather swamped by sesame oil and needing more seasoning (12/20). Kung pao (spicy stir fried) beef sweetbreads and tongue with bacon, nuts and seeds was delicious; the sweetbreads were soft, the tongue had good flavor and the spices and hint of bacon lifted the flavor of the meat, the texture contrast of the nuts and seeds a nice touch (16/20). Carrot “mochi” (which is a Japanese rice cake) came with with brown butter and pistachio dukkah (an Egyptian condiment of herbs nuts and spices), the subtle spices working nicely with the carrot (14/20).
The quail itself, from Wolfe Ranch in Vacaville, was fried and carefully cooked, having delicate flavor (15/20). Brent Wolfe has been supplying restaurants such as Chez Panisse and The French Laundry for decades, so the State Bird clearly takes its sourcing seriously.
Desserts were not the most appealing creations I have ever encountered, but the lime granita with avocado milk tapioca and golden nugget (a type of mandarin) gelee tasted a lot better than it sounds, the overall effect refreshing (14/20). Service, much of which is from the chefs themselves, was very friendly. There seemed to be eight chefs working night, all but one of them female, an unusual ratio in a commercial kitchen. The bill came to a hefty $204 (£140) per head, but this was mostly due to an excessively extravagant bottle of Emrich Schonleber Halenberg Grosse Gewachs Riesling 2012 and some other wine. A more realistic cost per head, assuming a modest wine choice, would be around $95 (£65). Overall I enjoyed State Bird, the staff being charming and the best dishes very good indeed. I wish there was greater consistency though, as there was quite a gap in standard between the best and least good dishes that we tried.