At first glance, the casual observer might say Dixie is built for bros. The space is dark-hued, all earth tones and hardwoods. Front-of-house staff — predominantly male — assumes the guy at your table will make crucial ordering decisions for the women. And the soundtrack features Camaro-ready guitar rock and blues about unfaithful women.
In its stately manor way out in the Presidio, Dixie has the trappings of a male-run Southern plantation. But its menu is a post-gender mashup, marrying meat-and-starch sensibilities with fresh produce and a light, artistic touch.
Much hoopla surrounds chef Joseph Humphrey’s hybrid portfolio: he logged many years in prestigious California kitchens (two of them Michelin-starred), but his roots are in the Deep South.
Dixie is the first restaurant he created from the ground up, an attempt to merge his early background with his recent past.
Think pork cracklings, a chest-bumping, fatty man-snack, tempered by the delicate umami of nori. Or think chess pie, a rich, eggy gutbomb dessert, paired with strawberry sorbet and airy pink meringue. It’s yin-yang food.
Sometimes balance was elusive, and high-concept mechanics overpowered straightforward, down-home cooking. But more often than not, Humphrey pulled it off.
The chicken-fried quail and garlic waffles tinkered playfully with the soul food staple. The dainty quail legs were crisp and tender; a side of cabbage and kale slaw was spiced up with Thai chilies and sugarcane syrup (Humphrey’s brother grows sugarcane in Florida).
I loved the kicky horseradish in the deviled eggs, punctuated by commas of fried chicken liver. A trio of oysters showcased distinct regional preparations — raw, smoked and fried — smartly paired with spicy vinegar, pickled onions and creamed cress, and carrot-tarragon butter.
Squint your eyes and try to envision actual summer weather. This would be the right backdrop for the grilled nectarine salad, draped with house-cured country ham in a field of arugula.
The lightly smoky corn and abalone soup was better suited to the Presidio’s cool mists.
Some of Humphrey’s finest dishes could have used livelier pairings. Take the roast rabbit, juicy white meat wrapped in a smoky bacon blanket. In this one, the potatoes felt like filler, the braised lettuce an afterthought.
The marvelous red miso black cod was oil-rich and soft as tapenade. A tender splay of leeks and morels fleshed out the filet, but the mountain of farro seemed to have escaped from a quieter dish.
Humphrey shrugs off a modernist label, but he’s clearly got some molecular magic up his sleeve. Thus the foam parade: A sweet, apple-tinted foam with the cod, a white cheddar foam ringing the collard green tortellini and a seaweed foam with the salmon and pea salad.
My dining companions rolled their eyes (“Isn’t foam over yet?”) but I was unruffled. Think of it like sudsy garnish, and move on with your meal.
Only a couple of dishes tanked — the rubbery salmon salad was a failed textural experiment and the tortellini was like overwrought, overpriced spinach pie — but it’s early in Dixie’s trajectory.
The Bay Area and the Deep South aren’t the most natural bedfellows; it’s remarkable there isn’t more discord on the menu.
Like any good buy-local acolyte, Humphrey changes his menu based on seasonal availability (e.g., green garlic soup morphed into corn soup). But I hope he’ll continue to make other adjustments, in a quest for overall balance.
- Location: 1 Letterman Drive, San Francisco
- Contact: (415) 829-3363, www.sfdixie.com
- Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
- Price range: $7 to $25
- Recommended dishes: Pork cracklings ($6), deviled eggs ($7), chicken-fried quail ($15), black cod ($22), roast rabbit ($23)
- Credit cards: All major
- Reservations: Accepted