Starbelly — a breezy, very popular 1-year-old restaurant on the edge of the Castro district — sticks to a proven formula in San Francisco: A seasonal menu top heavy with small dishes, a hamburger, pizza and a few main courses.
Starbelly’s two Italian-accented sister restaurants with similarly formatted menus — Beretta in the Mission district and Delarosa in the Marina district — both serve cocktails.
Starbelly does not, but the real difference is that Starbelly’s chef, Adam Timney, cooks with quirky California eclecticism.
As an alum of the flamboyantly fusion-centric Eos, and then the chef at Bacar, Timney cooks in a style that is free and unfettered, unattached to culinary tradition, except perhaps a personal West Coast dedication to creativity.
Most recently, he worked at Bocolone, a salumeria, with Incanto’s Chris Cosentino, and some of the tastiest items on Timney’s menu are charcuterie and cured Italian sausages.
I guess one should share a generous slice of velvety, full-flavored house-made chicken liver pate ($10) presented on a wooden board with dabs of grain mustard, onion confit and toasted levain.
But be sure to also get Timney’s mortadella ($5), slightly smoky, fragrant with sweet spices and larded with elegant little squares of pure white pork fat. Rabbit rillettes ($5), soft and buttery, are nice too.
Follow with spring gazpacho ($9), a vibrant chilled green soup of peas and cucumber smoothed with avocado and textured with a bit of crab meat. It’s tart, bright and well-balanced, a refreshing chaser.
Three cornmeal-crusted fried oysters ($6) need only the tiniest dip into vinegary aioli. They’re tasty on their own.
The big plates are all under $18. I liked a juicy, chewy, rare bavette steak ($18), deliciously charred, glistening with a round of melting green-garlic butter and accompanied with a shaved-fennel and arugula salad, which needed dressing.
Roasted Berkshire pork shoulder ($17) didn’t work as well because the components — tart grilled apricot halves, grits made with fruity green olive oil instead of butter, pea leaves and a garlicky salsa verde — all spun in different directions.
Desserts reprise the excitement and balance of the smaller plates. You can feel each grain of rice on your tongue with every spoonful of stirred, not baked, Arborio rice pudding ($6), its sweet creaminess offset by sour cherry compote and a handful of toasted hazelnuts from Oregon, gloriously fresh.
Warm toffee cake ($7) defies expectations as well. A warm, tender-crumbed individual cake with a dark caramel edge is divine with Italian cream, mascarpone. Caramel sauce and sliced dates add two more facets of brown sugar.
Caramel and salt play off each other like a witty couple, in caramel pots de creme ($6) served in a charming flat jar, the top crunchy with sea salt, with a rosemary-scented cornmeal cookie.
Starbelly’s clean, industrial-modern design with lots of wood, exposed metal venting and an open kitchen means that the noise level can get high.
One solution: the pleasant canopied wooden deck outside with the caveat that it be vacated by 9:30 p.m. to assuage neighbors.
Starbelly’s enthusiastic staff wants only to accommodate. They’re friendly, knowledgeable and efficient, and they make diners feel like part of the Starbelly restaurant family.
Such inclusive esprit de corps makes an already-appealing neighborhood place indispensable.
Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 3583 16th St. (near Market Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 252-7500, www.starbellysf.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Fridays; 10:30 a.m. to midnight Saturdays; 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays
Price range: $5 to $21
Recommended dishes: Chicken liver pate, mortadella, rabbit rillettes, spring gazpacho, bavette steak, rice pudding, toffee cake, salted caramel pots de creme
Credit cards: All major