After four years of temporary homes, one of SF’s most beloved pop-ups has found a permanent home for its distinct seasonal California cooking with Italian influences.
Recurring pop-up dinners that evolve into full-time restaurants in San Francisco is hardly a groundbreaking concept anymore. Remember, several modern SF legends like Lazy Bear, Saison and Liholiho Yacht Club started off as under-the-radar, unofficial restaurants that required some sleuthing to figure out when and where to join their pop-ups that were part dinner and part party.
When you step back and think about this entrepreneurial strategy for chefs and restaurants, of course it’s a natural fit for this city of start-ups! Just like how all of the optimistic start-up founders in San Francisco go from napkin sketches to elevator pitches to usually failing--with a select few making it to Series A funding and the big boardrooms on Sand Hill Road--pop-up restaurants follow a near identical path aspiring to climb the daunting mountain to full-time fulfillment. It’s definitely possible. But, it’s definitely really, really hard to go from a weekly dinner in a private home to a full-time restaurant.
Look up “pop-up dinners” in San Francisco any week and you’ll find an abundance of choices, most of which are involved with companies like AirBnb or Feastly. The bubble still hasn’t burst on San Francisco’s prime pop-up moment, which started with Liholiho or Lazy Bear, depending on who in the industry you ask. There are roughly a dozen well-known, even mainstream pop-ups currently running or recently ended for various reasons. Count Rice Papers Scissors, Pinoy Heritage, Masak Masak and a pair of BBQ concepts (Horn and Native Sons) right now as the pop-ups that SF diners most eagerly follow on their social media feeds and can’t wait for a full-time spot to materialize. Some pop-ups were temporary fixtures and are planning to be permanent soon, like FOB Kitchen. Others ended recently and reopened as full-time concepts, including International Smoke, Avery (né R.T.B. Fillmore) and Sorrel.
None of these pop-ups spent as much time preparing for the next step as that last one mentioned, named for a somewhat obscure herb/plant. Sorrel’s tasting menu-only concept lived in eight locations but mostly occurred in the Mission’s Naked Kitchen space. Over the course of four years of dinners with 135 being sell-outs, it found a distinct voice, crafted a polished delivery and gained a huge, loyal following. Now, the pop-up has hit prime time as a full-time spot--as in 58 permanent seats in a gorgeous, well-heeled Presidio Heights space.
It’s pretty mind-blowing to think how long Sorrel has been “Sorrel” as a pop-up. Sorrel’s first dinners were served at the Hotel Rex in 2014--back when the Giants had only won two World Series titles. How many real restaurants have opened and then closed in that time span? Even in 2014, Sorrel had its sights on being a permanent restaurant eventually. For co-founders Alex Hong and Brennan Spreitzer, Sorrel was a side project where they could “play restaurant” as if they were elementary school students pretending to do some imaginary game, and that “restaurant” would truly exist some day.
Like in theater, where productions have rehearsals then dress rehearsals and so many practices for months or years, a pop-up restaurant concept that lasts four years has an incredible advantage for working out its kinks. You might get bored or annoyed after awhile of not having your own space but you find your rhythm for service and cooking. You’re ready to go from day one, unlike most restaurants that go from planning to funding to hiring to show time in a matter of months.
Indeed, Sorrel is ready.
They had the team all set years ago. Spreitzer (a former Olympic level soccer player) is the business partner and runs the financial and front-of-house side with the Director of Operations, Colby Heiman. Heiman joined the team in 2015 after graduating from Cornell’s renowned hospitality school and set off on a real estate development and investment career in real estate in Chicago. Upon moving to San Francisco, he did some restaurant consulting and joined Sorrel to get the pop-up all prepared for its full-time gig. Hong runs the kitchen side as Executive Chef and is letting Sorrel evolve into a bit of a different vision for the larger and more diverse audience of its 2.0 version.
Diners are now offered both a $90 tasting menu and an à la carte menu with several overlapping items between the two. It’s definitely an added challenge for Hong and his kitchen team to do both simultaneously. The timing of meals for tables can be brutal on the staff. This is why very few restaurants even try this. Central Kitchen, Commonwealth, Flour + Water and Rich Table are four rare success stories for this format.
Hong’s cooking is distinctly of the here and now. The Colorado native certainly has a way of speaking eloquently of California’s season, where right now we’re in the heart of spring and his menu is sparkling with peak asparagus, peas and strawberries. His training at Jean Georges in Manhattan and Quince here in San Francisco certainly played a role in his cooking style. It’s a somewhat elegant, very clean and unfussy cuisine. This isn’t remotely yoga cooking but, if you’ll indulge us, it’s a very mindful and present form of cooking. You’ll see Jean Georges-like hints of haute French with mild Southeast Asian touches and there’s no doubt that Quince’s Italian focus pops up all over the menu. It was at Quince where Hong fell in love with handmade pastas. As diners at the pop-up and now full-time Sorrel can attest, Hong definitely learned a lot from his Quince colleagues because he has a special touch with pasta.
So, should we opt for the à la carte menu or tasting menu for a run down through Hong’s food? Let’s do both since you can’t actually do that while eating at Sorrel.
The à la carte menu has no categories. It just rolls from bread and oysters to lighter dishes to pastas to more substantial items you might think of main courses. The bread is hardly just bread. It’s a sourdough focaccia hybrid ($6) that truly does have the soft texture, bubbly inner crumb and tangy flavor profile of sourdough but also sports focaccia’s crisp, tan outer crust and doesn’t have a shattering consistency like most sourdough. The bread boule comes piping hot and is served in a custom-made claypot vessel by Mary Mar Keenan, who has a neat studio in Hayes Valley. The sourdough focaccia (sourcaccia, anyone?) kicks off the tasting menu and should also kick off your à la carte experience with the partners of butter cultured in-house and topped with sorrel; and an umami-fest composition of olive oil, boquerones and green garlic (both are $3).
Our second sorrel sighting comes via the oyster and sorrels ($4.50 each). Perfectly shucked bivalves come with diced Asian pear, oro blanco (a tart citrus) and wood sorrel ice that explodes the moment the oyster hits your tongue.
The menu is full of tableside finishes by the service staff, like pouring roasted sunchoke vellutata into a bowl of frothy white miso broth, dried sunchoke chips and hazelnut in the second tasting menu course ($10). Next comes a delicate, shimmering shima aji crudo ($18) brightened up by poppy seed and finger lime in a nut milk broth that certainly calls to mind a leche de tigre for Peruvian ceviche. Other à la carte items for potential starters include spring lamb tartare with cured egg and white anchovy ($16); white soy-poached aji ($19); and a chicories and charred little gems salad accompanied by blood orange, Pecorino and tarragon vinaigrette ($13).
Ready for pasta? Yes, you are. The tasting menu presents a pair of stunners. Tortellini in brodo is having a moment (see Avery's version) and here the tiny parcels swim in a smoked duck broth with fava beans and addictive puffed duck cracklings ($17). The restaurant’s already signature dish (and most Instagrammed) is springtime on a plate with pea and sheep’s milk ricotta-stuffed cappellacci (like triangular ravioli) in a light sauce made of the ricotta’s leftover whey and finished with mint and spring onions ($17). Purple flowers garnish everything as if to loudly prove that we’re all safely out of the winter doldrums.
The à la carte crowd can continue on a pasta bender. There are five other options ranging from a hearty gnocchetti with hen of the woods mushrooms, smoked almonds and a Parmigiano Reggiano fonduta ($17) for a foggy night to a bright, sunshine-evoking bigoli with green garlic, bottarga and cockles ($22). If it’s time for a splurge, there are a pair of $30 pastas--an Acquerello Carnaroli risotto studded with Dungeness crab and white asparagus; and highly coveted blonde morel mushrooms gently tossed with chestnut tagliatelle, Meyer lemon and onion blossom.
If you didn’t fill up on pastas--and you better not--there are four larger dishes, plus a dry-aged duck for two ($85). Carnivores will be tempted by a Wagyu zabuton steak ($38), joined by blue grits from blue corn. At the other end of the spectrum, Hong creates a vegetarian, spring produce bonanza of farro verde with asparagus, fava greens and taggiasca olives ($26). He also offers a pair of fish choices. King salmon is the richer of the two ($32) with a Champagne sauce and celery root pudding. The tasting menu folks will get the crisp-skinned striped bass with sultanas (like raisins), flowering cauliflower and tender artichoke, all tied together by a powerful saffron sauce poured tableside that packs more of that flower spice’s punch than any bouillabaisse you’ll find around the Vieux Port of Marseilles ($34). Then the savory part of the tasting menu concludes with a small portion of that fantastic duck, lightly crusted with fennel pollen and pistachio, residing next to Hakurei turnips and kumquats.
Sorrel doesn’t have a dedicated pastry chef but Hong and his crew have a blockbuster strawberry-based ‘fresh and frozen’ creation for the tasting menu finale (all desserts are $12). It thrills with myriad textures courtesy of strawberry three ways: fresh; glazed in elderflower and white vinegar; and shaved ice’s cousin, granita. The granita comes on a white chocolate and black pepper sablé with a lightly whipped elderflower posset. Then the finishing touches of grated white chocolate and cracked pepper are added in the kitchen and a well-balanced strawberry jus is poured into the bowl for a tableside flourish. One spoonful of everything together becomes the strawberry ice cream of your dreams.
À la carte diners can also opt for the sweet-savory buckwheat ice cream with an olive oil jam and a Marcona almond biscuit coated with Marcona almond praline, or a layered terrine type of dessert of three kinds of mousse: brown butter-vanilla, caramelized milk and dark chocolate, plus sourdough ice cream and caramelized milk sauce.
Hopefully, you can divert your attention from the ever-tempting plates for a few minutes and appreciate the wonderful decor of the 2,800-square foot space that previously was the excellent Cali-French tasting menu spot, Nico (opening soon at a new Jackson Square location). Hong and Heiman redesigned the room by themselves and kept the upscale look, hardwood floors and white-painted walls of Nico. However, they also gave it a forest-evoking natural vibe from a young ficus nitida tree growing in the center of the room, floral arrangements and local plants growing in tiny planter boxes above the center’s pair of long walnut slab tables made in Emeryville. The tree grows towards a skylight (trend alert, this the third opening with a skylight this month in San Francisco!), allowing plenty of natural light into the room, along with the front windows looking at Sacramento Street. Mirrors hang above one side of the room with dark blue upholstered banquettes, while its opposite side features only two-top tables and a wall mounted with an abstract painting by San Francisco artist Katherine Boxall that has replaced the prominent antique map of Paris in the same spot for Nico.
Like at Nico, Sorrel’s kitchen is easily in view, hidden by a glass window. In the rear of the restaurant by the kitchen is a spectacular private dining room complete with a stunning skylight and a record player. Upstairs is a rooftop garden that supplies many of the herbs for Hong’s menu. All in all, it’s a fascinating visual space bridging the gap between indoors and outdoors, relaxed and elegant, in a way that feels much more like Los Angeles or New York than the ubiquitous industrial-reclaimed wood aesthetic of San Francisco.
All in all, 50 diners can sit in the dining room and then eight guests can sit at the handsome white and green marble bar by the entrance. Come to the bar a little before your reservation and enjoy a low-ABV cocktail, designed by Kyle Greffin (Al’s Place). He has lots of fun with obscure liqueurs, fortified wines and amaros that are vaguely inspired by classic cocktails but really are their own exciting thing (all are $12). The namesake ‘Sorrel’ slightly resembles a Negroni, using the sherry-like Rancio Sec with sweet vermouth and rhubarb bitters. All the components get stirred together, poured on a large rock and, yes, garnished with sorrel. Meanwhile, the city’s many Aperol spritz fans will appreciate the 3-2-1, a refreshing Cappelletti, white vermouth, Prosecco and soda refresher.
The wine list was created by Samuel Bogue, an alum of the esteemed Frasca Food + Wine in Boulder, Colorado and also serves as the wine director for the Ne Timeas Restaurant Group (Central Kitchen, Flour + Water). He cleverly divided the whites and reds by ‘light,’ ‘in between,’ and ‘full.’ Selections tend to stick to West Coast boutique wineries and key French, Spanish and Italian regions, but he isn’t afraid to add some curveballs like a non-fortified Palomino from Spain (it’s the grape usually used for sherry). Thankfully, by the glass prices are mostly kept under $15, which is increasingly rare these days in pricey San Francisco.
At this point, you probably have wondered at least twice, “What does sorrel even taste like?” Well, it’s a bit like a tannic grape skin — not harsh but awkwardly tart. Unlike Sorrel the restaurant, you’ll want your sorrel the plant eating experience to be temporary. Luckily for San Francisco diners, Sorrel’s full-time restaurant is here to stay. After several years of pop-ups, there’s no place like home.