For decades, there’s been nary a soul inside Kate’s Kitchen after the thickets of brunchers and lunchers go home. Call it a morning playground for the hung over, a hushpuppy sanctuary where collards drip with bacon fat and ham hocks give red beans a backbone. The food is humble in the stick-to-your-bones kind of way — hearty, rich and smeared in sweet things like “pooh butter.”
The spot’s new nighttime iteration, though, is something entirely different. The restaurant’s newest partner is Thomas Martinez, the erstwhile executive chef of Mission Beach Café, and he’s filling the space with a dinnertime and late-night weekend pop-up called Chaparral, based on “seasonally progressive cuisine” — his term for sourcing locally from fisheries, farms and ranches.
The technique is more highbrow than what you’ll find in its daytime counterpart — think almond froth, confit alliums, reductions and compressed fruits. Yet a BYOB component and 2 a.m. cutoff lends a rather comfy, casual air to the whole scheme. Happily, so does the food.
The changing menu is short (all items are under $22), and everything on it bounces around inside the contours of refined comfort food.
Plump sweet potato gnocchi with butter beans and caramelized onion marry well with spicy arugula and a beautiful, soft egg in the center.
Tender lamb shoulder is swaddled in a Moroccan spread of spices: harissa for heat, confit garlic for depth, and a smear of pureed eggplant cut with cumin and citrus.
Both are fit for plate licking, which, in such a dim room, I hereby encourage as standard practice.
Service is casual, but excellent. On one crowded night, when the brisket was slow to come, a plate of snacky Brussels sprouts and addictive lemony almonds showed up to fill the wait. The brisket arrived shortly, tenderly braised and balanced by the sweet tang of roasted grapes, all resting in a red wine reduction.
The slow-roasted chicken is wrapped in a similar kind of pastoral nostalgia, nested in jus on a bed of roasted chanterelles with charred Brussels sprouts.
The tastes and ambience beg for a fireplace and a giant oak table, reminiscent of a flaxen countryside. Yet a giant brunch menu, written in chalk and hanging from above, reminds diners that they, indeed, are on Haight Street.
The only disappointment was a forgettable brownie for dessert, dressed up with raspberry “gel” and creme fraiche espuma. The raspberry had a lollipop sweetness and the brownie was gummy, sweeping all subtlety to the wayside.
Still, it’s the cauliflower that best defines Chaparral. The small dish (the kind of thing my mother would call “rustic”) takes a wild, blindsiding turn with a penny-sized drop of magic: namely, inky dots of red shiso and black garlic.
The cauliflower itself is perfectly roasted, flanked with woodsy miatake mushrooms and confit shallot. Just a swipe in the little black sauce pool brings a bright, sharp edge to the charred, sweet vegetables. Like a signature.
That, in a word, is Chaparral. Good and simple food that hugs an erudite sensibility. While its simplicity belies the prestige and character of Martinez’s staging pedigree (Saison, Coi), the experience of it does not. It treads along a thoughtful balance, wrapped tightly in the certainty that left to itself, good food will speak. But it doesn’t hurt to dress it up sometimes.
Location: 472 Haight St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 793-9016, chaparralsf.com
Hours: 6 to 11 p.m. Thursdays, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Price range: $9 to $22
Recommended dishes: Roasted heirloom cauliflower ($13), sweet potato gnocchi ($16), slow-roasted organic chicken ($22)
Credit cards: Not accepted