Sunday, November 29, 2009

HFF Re-Returns (again): Maverick

There are very very few restaurants that I return to regularly, or at least at the premium dining level (places that'll set you back at least a hundred bucks for two). They were uncommon in SF and are currently rare (non-existent?) in LA. But a holiday weekend stumble back up to the Bay took me to one of my favorites for the nth time: Maverick.

So what brings me back to a restaurant time and again? It's worth a musing or five....

1. Value. This is essential. It's not a matter of inexpensiveness (good inexpensive places I'll go to weekly in some cases), but rather a sense of satisfaction with my dining experience combined with a feeling of not only not being robbed but that I got a good, solid deal. I've had fabulous meals at restaurants I'll never return to. This isn't because of sticker shock (I knew what I was getting in to) but because the fabulousness was matched by restaurants at half the price. Maverick delivers on that count, with prices 10-20% less than comparable restaurants.

2. Variety. If there's a restaurant I enjoy but it's a place where I can essentially eat through most of the menu in a couple visits with friends, I'm not going back regularly, except in the rare instance there's something truly indispensable (i.e. Zuni's chicken). Maverick tweaks its menu daily and makes wholesale changes frequently, making each trip a chance to try something new.

3. Atmosphere. A restaurant's a place to hang out. I'm more than competent in the home kitchen to prepare interesting food, so going out to eat is as much about enjoying the space and service as the food (provided the quality hits a certain benchmark). And that's tough to pull off. I'm turned off by overly attentive service and overly stuffy spaces, no matter how elegant (cf Aureole in Las Vegas) but something a place too cheap and brightly lit has the same effect. And once again Maverick--simple, uncomplicated space that's perfectly lit, dark, and welcoming--succeeds. Service has been the one inconsistency, ranging from friendly but inattentive to quiet and withdrawn.

4. Consistency. Otherwise good restaurants have been dragged done by consistent inconsistencies. For instance Bendean never had good desserts, Chez Panisse Cafe's entrees were always heavily outshined by its appetizers, and Zuni never seemed to pull anything out of its hat that was ever as retardedly great as its chicken. Maverick has had a few individual duds here and there but nothing categorical, nothing reliably problematic.

5. Wine. Wine has proved to be more of a problem in LA than SF, where most high quality independent restaurants have a nice diversity of wines from small producers and boutique importers. But in LA I've encountered restaurants with killer food that have wine lists that don't go beyond a Whole Foods selection. But then there are lists that can diverge into total wine geekery (Hotel Biron, A Cote), which is great for me but is not, I imagine, for everyone. Maverick has an approachable list with plenty of noble options from small producers coupled with a nice cluster of esoteric oddballs.

So on to this meal.... We hit Maverick up with a five-top and tasted through basically half of the small menu.

First round: we started with a couple salads. The grilled persimmon salad was fresh and fall-y, though the featured persimmons were second-fiddle to the Little Gems lettuce, so billing the salad as "grilled persimmon" was kinda bogus. The second salad, chioggia beets, was delicious and beet-laden. We also finished up with a baked cheese and apple dish, tasty but unmemorable.

After the salads we had chicken liver pate--rich, creamy, and only slightly livery, pretty fabulous--and the salt-cured sardines. The sardines kicked ass, like giant meaty (and less salty) anchovies.

The entrees shown spectacularly. The buttermilk fried chicken was as good as ever. My pork shoulder was rich, tender, and perfectly paired with the braised cabbage and cippolini onions. The braised lamb brisket was one of the best pieces of lamb I've had and reports on the winter squash ravioli in leek broth and grilled hanger steak with fries & turnip/radish/pea sprouts were strongly positive. I didn't try the last two.

Desserts hit the brakes though, in the form of an odd sweet cheese-y profiterole dish that was neither sweet enough nor savory enough to really make sense. It was just kinda unpleasant. Our other dessert, something chocolatey that I don't quite remember, was very good, as was the cheese preparation.

Wine-wise we did it up with a couple bottles of our own (an 03 Mendocino Zin and an 05 South African Pinot Noir) along with a nice toasty Cava and a brisk Georgian (the country) white that was round and fruity, in stark contrast to the often bitter, underripe selections I've had from that country.

If you're in the Bay Area and still haven't hit up Maverick, please do. It's a great, locally-owned eatery that's doing everything right. Plus, it won't break the bank when compared to other dinner options in the neighborhood.

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