The Hungry Palate
Over the past decade, a curious thing happened: restaurant plates got smaller but the menus got bigger. While I expect to go back three or four times to eat through the offerings at La Folie, I am a bit put off having to make the same number of visits to the latest loungey hipster hangout where the myriad small plates are merely an appetizer for the real entrée, the mixologist’s fancy cocktails. But at Naked Lunch, I found an unassuming eatery bucking the trend with a one-chalkboard, lunch-only menu, an enticing testament to the old adage that less is more.
When Ian Begg became executive chef at Cafe Majestic, critic’s tongues started wagging early about his modern, creative cuisine juxtaposed against the elegant Old San Francisco dining room. But three-star reviews and San Francisco Chronicle “Rising Star Chef” status wasn’t Begg’s scene; he had humbler aspirations. He wanted to open a gastropub. When Begg and Majestic sommelier Ryan Maxey had differences with the management, they took their cue and the next flight to the Basque country, where they spent a few months dining around. The trip was, in part, research for a project they had in mind – a Basque gastropub – but after returning to San Francisco, they put the pub on the backburner and opened a delightful storefront lunch joint in the annex at Enrico’s (504 Broadway at Kearny). Called Naked Lunch (a wink and a nod to the novel by William S. Burroughs and the Beat heritage of North Beach), chef and co-owner Begg and general manager and co-owner Maxey have hit the spot with the best artisanal sandwiches, soups and salads I’ve had since Ryan Scott’s clever concoctions at the sadly defunct Myth Café (I still dream of Scott’s ethereal carrot and sweetbread soup).
Open Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 to 2 p.m., the daily-changing menu is displayed on their website (www.nakedlunchsf.com) each morning (a la Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc and Dennis Leary’s The Sentinel), as well as on a chalkboard next to the register. You place your order, take a number, take a seat on the good-sized enclosed patio in front of Enrico’s (grab a high-backed red velvet couch if you can), and servers bring your food a few minutes later. It’s a decidedly downscale operation, but the food is worthy of much fancier digs. And while there are usually 10 items or less available, everything sounded appealing, and everything I tried was delicious.
The artisan foie gras torchon and duck prosciutto sandwich ($15), the one constant on the menu, has already become a signature for Begg, and with good reason. Served on an Acme baguette with butter lettuce, tomato, and a restrained sprinkle of black truffle salt, it is decadent and large enough to make a meal or to share with a side of soup or salad, but the ideal balance of ingredients manages not to feel heavy.
Anyone who reads this column knows that I almost never order salmon – it always makes my list of overdone dishes, and, when it’s wild and in season, I can easily buy it and prepare it at home. But at Naked Lunch, the salmon – wood oven roasted to rosy medium rare so it flakes apart and melts in your mouth, served on a soft round Acme bun with peppery watercress, cucumber and garlic aioli ($10) – was so good I look forward to ordering it on a future visit.
On Tuesdays, Naked Lunch offers a Fulton Valley Farms fried chicken sandwich that is positively the best chicken sandwich I’ve ever eaten, fried or otherwise – moist and juicy, served on that same soft round bun and topped with buttermilk coleslaw and green garlic aioli for a little kick ($8).
Even with the number of items barely in double digits, Naked Lunch offers more for vegetarians than many restaurants with three times as many choices. A salad of grilled asparagus spears, wild arugula, chives, and preserved Meyer lemon ($6) is given substance with generous shaves of Manchego cheese. To make it even heartier, ask to have it topped with an egg – the warm yoke oozes down through the greens and creates a rich dressing that coats the asparagus. Potato and green garlic soup ($5), served without fanfare in a paper coffee cup, is a homey, satisfying yet light purée that reminded me of the soups my mom used to make in the spring. You might also find an oven-roasted tomato and Manchego cheese, or a roasted butternut squash and chevre sandwich (both $8) alongside a sandwich of grilled octopus and piquillo peppers ($11), or grilled Kurobuta pork belly with apple and scallions ($9).
Begg and Maxey also get a little help from their friends. Who needs potato chips when you can snack on the Bay Area’s best chicharrones ($3) from San Francisco chef and butcher Ryan Farr’s 4505 Meats? These are not your after-a-long-night-drinking convenience store variety; Farr’s all natural pork rinds are made with sea salt, cane sugar and select chilies fried to crunchy, puffy perfection in healthful rice bran oil. Salty, sweet and spicy, you definitely won’t be able to eat just one.
For dessert, try the equally addictive ice creams and sorbets from Rebecca Dunlap’s Flash Freeze. Dunlap churned her magic with Begg at Cafe Majestic, and he smartly brought her products with him to Naked Lunch. The rotating array of unique flavors includes salted caramel (dulche de leche), Thai iced tea and Blue Bottle espresso, plus refreshing sorbets like blood-orange-fennel and blackberry-sage ($3).
You won’t find beer, wine or a mixologist’s cocktails at Naked Lunch, but they do make a mean fresh fruit cooler (think honey tangerine) and iced tea infused with herbs and spices – on my visit it was cinnamon ($3).
Good things do come in small menus, very good things indeed.
Naked Lunch: 504 Broadway (at Kearny) at Enrico’s annex, 415-577-4951, www.nakedlunchsf.com. Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. No reservations; phone orders accepted; cash only.
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