Elizabeth Falkner, impish in her spiked multicolored abstract ’do, likes to play the bad girl, the arty girl, in San Francisco’s insular dining scene. First, she pushed the dessert envelope with architectural cakes — we’re talking Frank Gehry here.
Then at Citizen Cake, she started stepping over the boundary between savory and sweet. Now at Orson, her new, ebullient, completely personal version of a bar and restaurant, she recreates dinner from inside out.
Orson is located in an old SoMa foundry with a steel catwalk and exposed beams. The ceiling soars above the U-shaped bar where a translucent white sculptural lamp becomes part of a morphing wall projection. A dining area near the front windows beneath the mezzanine feels set apart, quieter, with comfy brown ultra-suede banquettes and upholstered chairs.
Expressionist oil paintings by Avery Falkner, her father, pulse with color against expanses of gray cement-block walls.
Falkner’s insouciant vision informs everything — food, menu, cocktails, wines, uniforms, lighting, music, art and architecture. This is her magnum opus, challenging yet fun, accessible because nothing costs too much.
The first-time eater pounces on duck fat french fries with brown butter béarnaise ($7), crisp and thin, the duck fat evident in texture rather than flavor, the classic butter sauce intriguingly toasty.
The intimidated can take refuge in buttermilk fried chicken sliders ($10) — just what they think they are — with irresistible deep-fried onion threads.
Pizzas emerge from the wood-fired oven with delectable thin crusts and progressive toppings such as mushrooms, ramps (wild green onion) and pungent robiola cheese ($14).
The real adventure begins with lengua croquette ($5), a thick slab of velvety tongue in a crunchy coating with pickled cherries; or crisp fried tofu cubes salted with bits of house kimchee ($5).
The lovely smoked tempura egg ($8) is a piece of magic. When you cut into its golden exterior, the bright orange yolk flows into an intense scallion broth that has baby favas, wisps of seaweed and lemon peel.
Explore uncharted territory with carrot dumplings ($8), shiny, gelatinous, orange “gnocchi” strewn with fresh peas, snap peas and tender pea tendrils, lubricated with buttery carrot-infused foam ($8). The plate looked likea surreal garden.
One night, a dish simply called roasted pig ($17) was a pork dream plate, with shredded braised pork in a delectable crisped patty; a slab of unctuous fresh bacon; a slice of juicy pork loin with tart sauce gribiche, and miraculous bouillon-filled ravioli. (On another visit, it wasn’t as well executed.)
Desserts provide the ultimate Falknerian experience, albeit through Luis Villavelazquez, her pastry chef. Take, for example, Invisible ($10), white bergamot-scented sorbet, white chocolate foam, jiggling white almond milk gelee, a free-form construction on a white plate. I can’t quite picture it now but I remember being delighted.
Or go mainstream — kind of — with Sundae Always Comes Too Late ($10), cube-shaped croquettes that spurt hot chocolate sauce when you cut into them (the waiter warns you), banana mousse, vanilla snow sorbet and candied pecans. Altogether, it tastes like a sundae.
In some way, Orson could only be in San Francisco. Falkner parses our civic anthem “great product from great farms and people passionate about cuisine” at the bottom of the menu. And her creativity and energy somehow feel home-grown. Typically San Franciscan, she buoyantly explores individuality and personal expression — dish by dish.
» Location: 508 Fourth St. (at Bryant Street), San Francisco
» Contact: (415) 777-1508, www.orsonsf.com
» Hours: 6 to 10 p.m. Mondays; 6 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
» Price range: $5 to $15
» Recommended dishes: Smoked tempura egg; fried tofu; lengua croquette; pizzas; carrot dumplings; duck fat fries; sundae
» Credit cards: Visa, Master Card, American Express
» Reservations: Accepted