It takes less than minute after entering to understand that Prairie is neither your typical Italian restaurant, nor your typical restaurant in general. The opening item on the food menu is — mochi. Yes, mochi. Meanwhile, upon noticing that curveball, the host or hostess will inform you that the ordering process is done with the pencil on the table and accompanying ordering card with each menu item listed in abbreviated form. Then you just simply put the card in a slot at the edge of the table and a server will swing by to pick it up. It’s a checklist style of selecting the course of action for your meal, resembling how many yakitori or dim sum establishments ask for diners to order. Via this method, the generally long, rambling ordering ordeal of diners muttering “we’ll have the halibut, wait, no, the steak, or actually we can’t decide; hold on” is eliminated. The fuss is gone.
This sets the tone for the debut solo brick-and-mortar restaurant from Anthony Strong, one of San Francisco’s leading authorities on Italian cooking — an Iowa-born, Le Bernardin (New York) and Delfina-trained chef who isn’t one to follow the hard-and-fast rules of a particular cuisine or the customs of fine dining at the Mission’s newly opened Prairie.
“Take the fussiness out of it” is something that you’ll hear Strong say again and again, whether he is referring to fine dining food or fine dining service. He wants everyone to dig in, pour the wine and just get lost in the moment. In a city where every restaurant is constantly under the “everyone thinks they are a critic” spotlight, why not have diners, you know, actually just dine and drink and talk?
So, that mochi gets wrapped in guanciale, then nestled in a radicchio leaf, and drizzled with some thick, aged balsamic vinegar for a $4 two-bite wallop that sends a Japanese izakaya standard (bacon-wrapped mochi) to the hills of Emilia Romagna. Elsewhere, a full pound of Salt Springs mussels is steamed with Prosecco and…nasturtium butter ($23), a fascinating use for a plant that is better known as a finishing flower garnish to the highest of high-end cuisine plates. Strong isn’t interested in how many likes your Instagram photos of his dishes will garner. He doesn’t even own tweezers for Prairie’s kitchen. He happily told us, “there are no flowers, swooshes and dots on our plates.” Instead of looking at the pretty flowers, he “smashes” them.
Strong is a disruptor. He doesn’t want this to be another Italian restaurant in a city full of Cal-Ital highlights. Each one is a bit different,so where does Prairie fall on the spectrum? The restaurant describes itself as “New-School Italian” which is really a way of saying a cuisine that is rooted in classic Italian and then lets its hair down. As Strong puts it, for some dishes, “We’re just going to get straight to the damn point and do straight-up Italian food. And then in other things, we’re going all over the place.”
The guanciale-wrapped mochi and mussels are great examples of what this relentlessly forward-thinking chef is designing in the kitchen. Strong opens the food menu with a half-dozen antipasti, including the guanciale mochi, all of which are a world away from red sauce joints. As a nod to autumn, Fuyu persimmons partner with Urfa pepper (most commonly seen in Turkish or Arab cuisines) and pine nut miso ($8). Castelvetrano olives are dusted with a spicy Meyer lemon kosho ($7) — Italy, northern California and Japan all in one.
Meanwhile, bread plays a huge part in other starting options but aren’t your normal crostini-based antipasti. “Pane Distrutto” is a must-order giant crouton-like specimen that looks like a meatball after being soaked with olive oil, then sops up a pile of Early Girl tomato pulp for a relentlessly delicious and different take on bruschetta. Like the mochi, it’s $4 apiece and the majority of diners aren’t going to want to share the few bites of it. “Carta di musica,” a thin, crackery Mediterranean flatbread, comes with salt cod gratinita and Senise peppers ($16) in a nod to the French white fish and potato classic gratin/thick spread, Brandade.
Switching from France to an American football tailgate favorite, sour cream and onion dip is the inspiration for Strong’s burrata preparation served with grilled levain ($14). Strong considers burrata a near “perfect food” and wanted to think outside the burrata ball beyond just topping the cheese with a garnish or two like is the customary preparation. To tweak but not disturb such a fantastic original ingredient, the chef incorporates crème fraiche, folds them together with deeply cooked spring onions accented by lemon zest, and all together achieves the smooth-meets-chunky consistency of cottage cheese curds with the plush richness of burrata.
Another one of the many additional ways that he is changing up the restaurant status quo is service. As mentioned earlier, ordering is done by hand. Just check off the items that you’d like. Of course, servers are on hand to explain the difference between obscure Italian regions on the wine list (most wines are from Italy but the roster is always open to a few California or other European exceptions) or answer what “Pane Distrutto” even means (answer: destroyed bread). There is no robot making the pasta or tablets to order on or servers hawking small plates from carts.
All of this comes not because Strong is anti-fine dining. He fully acknowledges that there is a time and place for all-encompassing special fine dining, like at some of Prairie’s neighbors (Lazy Bear is across the street and Californios is three blocks away). But, that is just not what he wanted to do with his own restaurant. Strong is just as much an entrepreneur trying to solve problems in his industry, as he is a restaurateur. Prairie is one of the few San Francisco restaurants to not accept tips, instead adding an 18% service charge to be shared by front and back of house staff in a democratic way that tips can’t provide. Strong isn’t one to attach formal titles to himself, but if he did, it would be something along the lines of Chef/Owner/General Manager/Cocktail Creator/Décor Designer/Carpenter/Doer of All Sorts of Random Tasks That Your Restaurant Needs.
While it can seem striking at first to diners who are new to Strong, his desire to lightly shake things up is something that makes complete sense dating back to before he played in his high school band that is one of the namesakes for the restaurant. The restaurant’s other namesake also is, of course, where Strong grew up and his road to San Francisco’s Prairie began.
Well, technically, he pointed out to us, he didn’t grow up ON the prairie. Strong is from eastern Iowa near the Mississippi River, where the “prairie ends and the bluffs drop down to the river.” There wasn’t much of a food culture there beyond “lots of corn and all sorts of livestock,” but there was lots of gardening and farming involved in his youth, with prominent produce in Iowa that even the most food-obsessed San Franciscan covets like morel mushrooms, ramps and fiddlehead ferns. As a hyper-energetic kid who loved the contrast of the manure smell of a garden to the beauty of a perfectly ripe tomato, and a kid who admittedly “geeked out” on first wave TV cooking shows by the likes of Martin Yan, the cards were set for Strong to be a chef.
His teenage years were spent in Minneapolis and there he transitioned from “basically being an honor student to skipping school to go work at one of his two restaurant jobs” because he thought, as his eyes widened when telling us recently about his adolescent self, “knives are cooler!” Strong continued: “I thought it was the coolest thing ever…I’ve always been a little nerdy, so hiding in a corner and playing with sharp sticks and fire and making stuff look and taste cool was right up my alley.” It seemed like the perfect future for him.
On his first day of being elevated from a dishwasher and busboy to a kitchen role, Strong completely bombed in a Lucille Ball at the doughnut factory-type of comedy of errors. Another more experienced chef told him in a not-so confidence boosting way that day, “Dude, you are horrible at this.”
Somehow that did boost his confidence and Strong bypassed college for the Eric Ripert School of Cooking, getting the lowest level kitchen position at Le Bernardin and moving to New York at the age of 19. It was extremely difficult work at extremely low pay, but his drive to rise in the kitchen led him to soak up everything that legendary fine dining establishment could provide him. In 2006, it was time to pack up and head west, though, where Strong admits that he essentially “blew his last 80 bucks at Delfina.”
It may not have been the most fiscally prudent decision, yet it did prove to be a game-changing professional move as he asked for a job with Delfina’s chef and co-owner, Craig Stoll. He traded in Le Bernardin’s “live uni and expensive caviar” for the spaghetti and roast chicken at Delfina, along with California’s bounty of local ingredients. He remembers upon leaving New York, “Then I came out here and had sand dabs and anchovies for the first time, and it was like, ‘What are these lowly creatures that are so amazing?’ I just fell in love with it.”
For 11 years, Strong grew from the beginning stage at the 18th Street modern SF classic.
He dove headfirst into each of the Delfina establishments and was never afraid of shaking things up, something that obviously is reflected by Prairie. When Strong figured that time was up in the Delfina sphere, he knew that he wanted to “think outside the Italian box” and he “didn’t want to do anything normal.”
That is how Strong ended up creating a restaurant without a home…or a truck…or a pop-up space…or any chairs for diners. He would share the kitchen at the Tenderloin’s Vietnamese stalwart, Turtle Tower, and create whatever he felt like cooking and sell it on the various meal delivery apps under the faux restaurant title of “Young Fava,” a nickname given by a pair of former Pizzeria Delfina chefs (one is now the sous chef at Prairie) to him while frying fava beans and as a nod to a generation of rappers who called themselves “Young” something (Young Jeezy, Young Money).
Whether Strong has a future in rapping or not — and probably not — he knew that he had to cook for real people in a sit-down room again. However, for that restaurant, Strong decided, “We’re not going to be an Italian restaurant with a three syllable name and I didn’t want an Italian restaurant with a three syllable name and I’m going to try to mess with service model a bit.”
Prairie eventually emerged for Strong in the former Hog and Rocks space. He inherited a compact 2300-square feet restaurant where roughly 30 percent of the real estate is devoted to kitchen space. Four chefs are stationed in that area with one devoted to pasta and one devoted to Prairie’s tour de force mesquite charcoal-fueled grill duo. One is a Josper grill that hails from Spain and one is a Texan & Woodshow Broiler.
The two grills are responsible for half the menu, ranging from a beautiful octopus sprawled out over seemingly a quarter-pound of fregola ($28) to charred Corno di Toro peppers ($9; like roasted marinated red peppers) that achieve the über-intense smokiness of mezcal to marrow bones ($22) that can later function as a good times igniting sherry shot “luge” depending if guests so desire.
The oven’s bread and butter, if you will, are without question the meats. That was the case at Locanda after several Rome trips when Strong fell in love with the deep-flavored, flame-blistered meats at the likes of decades-old heavyweights in the Eternal City like Al Ceppo. That spirit follows to Prairie except in the globetrotting form of a half rack of Berkshire pork ribs with Calabrian XO rub ($25); thin-cut beef short ribs with a tea leaf salsa verde ($28); and lamb blade chops ($27), a lamb cut that is rarely seen on Bay Area menus. Strong describes it as, “Where the rib meets and the shoulder starts you get these cross-sections of all the fun stuff going on. It’s not like a cute little lamb chop and a little loin piece. It’s all this fun stuff. Fatty and texturally, it’s amazing.”
And then pivoting to the next-door primi station in Prairie’s kitchen, you really know this isn’t a North Beach trattoria when there are rice cakes on the pasta section of the menu. Strong loves rice cakes and sources them from Santa Clara, grills the stacks, then slices them and cooks them in bright, fragrant multi types of game fowl ragu. For the opening week, the rice cakes were paired with a Chanterelle mushroom sugo ($17). Elsewhere in the pasta sector, pappardelle might go the hearty beef route with beef cheeks “butcher’s wife style” ($18) or be bursting-at-the-seams Gulf shrimp and burrata tortelli in a slightly Szechuan evoking triple chili “action” and celery soffritto ($19).
Now, the cocktails, also designed by Strong. You’ll cringe when you hear about the Prairie Sour (all cocktails $13), but it’s an ode to a childhood school bus memory of Templeton rye (an Iowa based spirit and a nod to how the bus driver always smelled like bourbon), egg white (a fellow student always reeked of the eggs from his apparently recently eaten breakfast), and Sapling maple liqueur from his own maple syrup-soaked breakfast. And, there you have a whiskey sour via an Iowa school bus ride, folks.
Another cocktail borrows from Strong’s later research years visiting Italy. Outside of basic Negronis and appertivi, he was frustrated by the lack of cocktails. However, all of the corner bars knew who to do fresh juices for the morning, so he convinced one to work on fresh grapefruit juice for an unknown-in-Italy classic American cocktail: the Greyhound. So, an “ultra-fresh” on the spot juiced grapefruit-forward Italian Greyhound with Cappelletti and Bruto Americano sweet-herbal liqueurs is served at Prairie. You’ll also find a Kombucha Bellini ($12); a sparkling Negroni (not a Sbagliato but an intense soda water-powered, on tap version of the classic); and gorgeously balanced and fizzy Suntory Toki whiskey highballs, made on one of the few Suntory Toki carbonation machines in America, are among the other cocktail offerings. For beer, there are five northern California taps and eight rare Japanese beers by the bottle.
Former guests of Hog & Rocks will recognize the bones of the space and rough shape of the restaurant — the dining room half is by the door and the bar half is on the opposite side of the room. Except, now the walls have been covered in ash wood panels dyed indigo by a traditional Japanese treatment style called “Aizome.” Hog & Rocks’ old communal table has been separated into some high-top tables in the bar area. Half of Hog & Rocks’ old bar was cut away and is now part of Prairie’s bar backdrop. Meanwhile, Prairie’s bar is now smaller and is now a backward L–shape, offering eight seats for guests. There are a total of 70 seats combined inside and outside at a handful of sidewalk tables.
As you’d expect with a restaurant that looks to change things up, you’ll find quirky objects throughout the room that follow the fun, slightly freewheeling ethos of Prairie. Strong’s girlfriend allowed Strong to add her glass bok choy sculpture and her “Not-A-Flamethrower” Flamethrower from Elon Musk’s Boring Company as decorative objects on the bar backdrop. Then there are the most talked-about, slightly bizarre art items from the dining room walls: NASA theoretical space colony renderings from the 1970s.
There is no pastry chef, but that doesn’t hold Strong back from crafting some cuisine-bending desserts nightly, like chocolate budino or warm chocolate “baba” (like a cross of fluffy cake with a thin frosting layer and bread pudding) infused with Earl Grey or trying to solve the cheesecake conundrum via a sheep’s milk yogurt crostata on a cinnamon and rye graham cracker crust, finished with syrup-enriched kumquats. Strong admits, “I’m very disappointed in about 99% of the cheesecakes out there” and he certainly isn’t alone in that regard.
The man is relentless. He wants to solve cheesecake. He wants to fix fine dining’s faults on the menu and in the dining room. He’s loosening the rules of Italian cooking. He’s the rare independent chef these days who has entered the big stage of primetime San Francisco dining without being a spin-off of a successful existing restaurant group or starting out fast-casual.
He hasn’t been afraid to try anything in his culinary career, from screwing up egg salad on day one to pairing mochi with guanciale today. That is why Strong is such a important character in the restaurant industry and why Prairie is one of the Bay Area’s most compelling restaurants in recent memory.