The contrast with the grittiness of the Lower Haight neighborhood is key: the restaurant’s façade is a neutral grey and the windows have a one-way treatment so you really can’t form an idea of the space until you’re inside. But once you are, you feel like you’ve been admitted into a hidden oasis of swank in the midst of the Lower Haight’s graffiti-covered jumble of steam-table restaurants, bodegas, and dive bars. In this respect, it’s not unlike a lot of trendy eateries in “transitional” neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn. After you’ve settled in, though, the vibe becomes distinctly West Coast as you realize that you’re not going to get served any of that East Coast attitude.
The long-time maître d', Robert, is a case in point. Always extremely dapper and well-groomed, from a distance he looks like he might be the type to give you one of those do-you-really-think-you’re-worthy-of-eating-here looks they seem to teach advance classes in at maître d’ school. Every time I’ve been to RNM, however, the opposite has been the case. My partner and I are always greeted warmly and graciously, regardless of whether we’re dressed to go out for the evening or if we’ve just come from the park in shorts and sweatshirts. Of course, if you’re planning on arriving any later than 7 p.m., especially if it’s a weekend, I’d recommend at least putting on long pants: the crowd gets rather natty during the peak pre-party hours.
But RNM ranks among my favorite spots in S.F. not because of the décor, the super-nice maître d’, or the good-looking, Juicy-couture-clad Lower Haight scenesters. It’s really because of the consistently inventive and well-executed menu from chef-owner Justine Miner. Part of what I love about rnm is the way Miner infuses her personality and personal history into the whole dining experience. Both the name of the restaurant and the menu’s White Castle-style sliders are tributes to her late father, Robert Miner (the former being his initials and the latter, one of his favorite dishes from his native Chicago). More substantially, the menu reflects her sophisticated but never too fussy approach to California cooking. The Italian influences are hard to miss. Many of the dishes emphasize earthy flavors and rustic preparations, but Miner is especially adept at contrasting these dominant tones with clean, tangy high notes.
A great example of that talent is a discovery I made on my most recent visit: the pancetta, sorrel, and Fiscalini cheese pizza. While I’ve been an ardent admirer of Miner’s pizzas ever since the place opened -- the crusts alone are miraculous -- I’ve generally stuck to the menu’s perennial standby, the wild mushroom and caramelized onion pizza (Justine, if you’re reading this, for the love of God, please bring back the one with smoked salmon and crème fraîche.) This time, for a change, I tried the alternate, and it was astonishingly good. The Fiscalini (a locally produced Swiss-style cheese, I later discovered) has an intensely sharp and nutty flavor. This, combined with the salty pancetta and the loamy sorrel, makes for an extremely rich and savory first bite. But the real stroke of genius here is the lemon oil drizzle over the top: a high C of tartness that soars above the lower chords of the other flavors.
This sense of playfulness runs throughout the menu, and, to Miner’s great credit, it almost always works beautifully. The NY steak, my entrée choice this last time around, was accompanied by a huckleberry potato puree, a concept that could have easily gone wrong had it been executed with a too-heavy hand. In this case, however, it brought wonderfully unexpected shades of sourness and fruit to a familiar comfort food staple. With similar finesse, the duck breast -- also a regular on the menu and one of my absolute faves -- is served with a bright and tart bing cherry gastrique, and the rich risotto on the side is lightened with English peas and fresh mint. The scallops with ricotta gnocchi, morels, and fava beans (my partner’s entrée on this visit) features a more restricted, Rothko-like palette of flavors, but the all different buttery, earthy qualities of these components come together in your mouth in a way that’s just…well, even metaphors fail at a certain point.
There are a lot of other highlights that deserve at least a passing mention: the bar’s version of the Maker’s Mark Manhattan which, to me, for some reason, feels like the potable equivalent of a filet mignon; the divine bread pudding which, if there’s any room at all for dessert after the standard salad/pizza/entrée triple-courser, is among the best in the city (and, trust me, I’m well-qualified to make that call); the grilled hearts of romaine salad -- yet another great twist on a classic, with blue cheese, apples, and hazelnuts; the insane bang-to-buck ratio of the early-bird prix fixe menu (three courses for 28 bucks!); the amazing charcuterie plate; the diverse, but unintimidating wine list…I could go on. The menu changes frequently, and even some of the standards will be tweaked, refined, or remixed, so don’t be surprised if you can’t find some of the things I’ve mentioned here. What won’t change, however, is the inventiveness of the menu, the quality of the ingredients, and the high standard of execution.
While RNM continues to be one of the flashier destinations in the Lower Haight, it’s definitely proved itself to be more than just a flash-in-the-pan. In a city with so many great places to eat, rnm has somehow managed to find a cozy little niche for itself exactly at the point on the Venn diagram where high-end destination restaurant overlaps with friendly neighborhood chow house. To me, ultimately, it’s that very quality that makes rnm feel so quintessentially San Francisco: like our city, rnm has somehow figured out how to reconcile the glamour, grit, and vitality of the urban metropolis with all the pleasures and comforts of community, neighborhood, and home.
Employee Benefits Expert
Thursday June 7, 2007
I was so surprised to find such an upscale restaurant sitting at the lower end of Haight Street, and everything about RNM continued to pleasantly surprise me throughout the evening. When I walked in the door, I was greeted by the friendliest host, who wrapped his arm around me to show me to the table I had reserved in advance. I felt like I was a welcome guest, or a long lost friend.
The restaurant is set up so you may have small plates and large plates, so you really don't have appetizers and main dishes, unless that's how you want to eat them. I chose to have mostly appetizers, as I usually want to try a variety of dishes at a new restaurant, and this affords me the opportunity.
I started with the white corn soup, which was drizzled with white truffle oil, and had something in the center of the bowl that I think was artichoke hearts. It had a great silky texture, and while the first taste of the soup was very heavy with the flavor of the white truffle oil, it quickly grew on me.
Our party of four shared two charcuterie plates, which had an abundant selection of olives, meats, and the best pâté I've ever eaten. I chose to skip the larger plates, and to have the fried green tomato napoleon, which was a heavenly construction of cornmeal crusted green tomatoes, fried so they are just slightly cooked, layered with a soft mascarpone cheese, and drizzled with a sweet red pepper sauce. It was fabulous, and exactly what I wanted to eat.
We also split the caramelized onion and wild mushroom pizza, which came drizzled with truffle oil. It was nicely sweet, and was quite delicious.
Our table also had three entrees. The rib eye steak was topped with a truffle butter -- are you noticing a theme? The RNM burgers were small burgers served on focaccia bread with white cheddar cheese. They were quite tasty, but somewhat difficult to eat, since they kept sliding out of the bread. However, once a fork and knife were in hand, these little gems were very yummy! I didn't try the day boat scallops, but my dinner companion said they were the best he'd ever eaten. I did try the scallop's fava bean sauce, and it had a lovely flavor.
Desserts where huge, and varied in their taste, and all were delicious. The bread pudding came with a brandy sauce and toasted pecans. The cheese plate had a number of different cheeses, honey, and a warm olive and walnut bread. It paired perfectly with a glass of 20-year-old port. The dessert napoleon was also very good. RNM pairs their desserts with a selection of wines, making it easy to decide which dessert goes with what wine.
Most surprising about all the dishes was the portion size. These plates are definitely meant to be shared. This is a great place to go with friends and share a good meal, especially dessert. The bar has a big screen TV, and was showing Endless Summer, which captivated my friend, and somehow added to the evening's conversation. I will be back at rnm soon.
The Front Porch
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
I made reservations and went with a friend on a Wednesday (middle of week) at 7:30pm.
Parking was easy; a car was pulling out across the street just as I came. RNM is on the corner and it looked very classy, clean, and non-descript from the outside, especially since the neighborhood is a bit sketchy.
There were wonderful grey metal chain-link curtains over the walls and windows, giving it a soft modern industrial look, warmed by organic low lighting. I loved the main chandelier; it was a mess of wires handing down from the ceiling with lights on the bottom ends of each wire. It seemed very romantic. There was a bar with a flat-screen TV by the door and a food bar in the back facing the open kitchen, making it a neighborhood-y place for young urban professional to hang out.
It seemed pretty empty at 7:30pm. There was no waiting, and we were taken upstairs to be seated in the loft. The loft had sofas, another flat screen, as well as table dining.
I was not impressed with the sliced French bread, which seemed stale. The menu had a half page of cocktails that looked interesting, as well as several pages of bottles of wine. I asked the attentive and responsive waitress about the few selection of wines-by-the-glass. I ordered a glass of spicy red wine, which she brought out right away.
The menu had a complete variety of several salads, appetizers, pizzas, entrees, and one soup. All the dishes we had were unique with a very interesting mix of ingredients. There were several choices for both vegetarians and meat or fish eaters. We each ordered two salads to share -- the baby arugula salad, with fava beans, strawberries, mint, balsamic vinaigrette, and a fresh ricotta crostini, and the grilled Galapagos island shrimp on summer corn salad with arugula pesto and mâche. I tasted the spicier salad first and therefore I had to ask for pepper for the second salad. The fact that they did not bring fresh pepper says something about the chef's confidence. The salads were served promptly, but the waitress brought the entrees 5 minutes apart. By the time our entrees had arrived the restaurant had become fuller and a tad noisier, but we had no problem hearing each other.
The presentations on the plates were very artistic. For the entree, I ordered the pan-roasted Muscovy duck breast on a snap pea risotto with bing cherry gastrique, pea sprout salad, and shaved Himalayan truffles. It had an exquisite mix of tastes and textures on one plate. The crisp sprouts on top had a mild sour-acid taste, the duck came medium-rare and had a chewy texture, and the bed of sweet-tasting risotto had a soft texture. The dessert menu also had a good variety of options, with a selection of cheeses and aperitifs, but nothing looked unique. I could not remember what we shared; it tasted a bit average. I expected a better dessert.
Per person, food and drinks came to about $60 with tip. My two glasses of wine were 1/3 the cost. We did not choose the three-course pre-fixe menu for $28 each, which would have been the wise choice had we liked the choices.