Bacar, much heralded as the quintessential 21st-century South of Market wine bar and restaurant when it opened seven years ago, has a serious new chef in Robbie Lewis. He is transforming the food in this smartly converted brick warehouse, from quirky, fusion-y and inconsistent to luxurious, California-French and rigorous. Lewis, whospent the last four years as chef at Jardiniere, is taking Bacar upscale.
Tables in the multilevel, skylit space are now covered in heavy white linen and menus are bound in thick leather folders — no more breezy metal clipboards. The famous list of 100 wines by the glass has been cut to a mere 60 and the live jazz has been moved from the bar to the downstairs wine salon to ease conversation in the dining areas.
Dinner begins with warm, flaky cheese biscuits, puffy olive oil-brushed focaccia and tender wheat bread, all house made and doled out item by item. You nibble as you do your reading of wine lists. So many decisions.
The foodcentric like me go straight to a concise menu. The only problem here is choosing among tempting possibilities, such as a delightful salad of fava beans and shaved artichokes ($10) interwoven with salty curls of aged ricotta. One night I had wood oven-roasted asparagus ($11) sauced with a poached egg, and bracing, vinegary, ground almond-thickened romesco sauce. On a second visit, after the Delta asparagus season had ended, Lewis substituted roasted baby leeks ($11) to equally fine effect.
Roasted marrow bones ($12) stand straight up on a rectangular white plate like soldiers. You scoop out the buttery marrow with special long spoons, spread it on toasts and clean your palate with parsley salad. To celebrate summer, Lewis serves a pretty nectarine salad ($11) with endive, wisps of prosciutto, toasted almonds and a whisper of mint.
Main courses are as seasonal and tightly composed as the starters. Steamed wild Alaskan salmon takes on an ethereal, almost custardy texture, which seems to melt into a ragout of morels, peas and radishes bound with crème fraîche ($32). It's one of the best dishes in town. A thick, meticulously trimmed slab of rib-eye ($38), grilled perfectly medium rare was crowned with a sexy melange of vegetables — peppers, squashes, romano beans, fried onion strings,united by a black olive sauce — all on a base of buttery potato purée. The dish was extraordinary.
Lewis really thinks about the whole plate and how everything works together, yet keeps the ingredients tasting distinct and inevitable.
My least favorite desserts ($10) are collections of thematically related mini-sweets on one plate, and you will find some of these here. But pastry chef Leena Hung also knows how to pull out all the stops with the straight-ahead rich and gooey Milky Way-fudge cake, malt ice cream and bourbon caramel. Currently she also makes my dream dessert, shaved nectarine topped with yogurt ice cream, ginger ice, crunchy meringue, a dusting of cookie crumbs and a drizzle of honey — so fresh, light and exciting.
One night I watched Bacar turn into a sophisticated supper club. As the outside light dimmed, the inside lights glowed, the women’s necklines dropped and the scene became urbane and glamorous. But, for me, as always, the draw remains the food.
Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at email@example.com.