I had my doubts about The Tradesman, in the beginning. If a twee chalk sign and a peek inside can tell a person anything, I’d find little promise of adventure — big wooden tables, a benign mash of industrial chic accents and large photos of beer taps.
I resisted the innocuous sign on the corner: Beer! Wine! Lunch!
I love all of these things — what am I, a monster? — but it takes more than three nouns and a chalkboard to lure me in for a $16 burger. And then I learned that the burger had peanut butter on it, the eggplant was pickled and fried and the kitchen had crafted a ceviche from rutabaga. Inventive, I thought. But is it good?
Most of the time, yes. The rutabaga ceviche blended a nicely acerbic mix of peaches, onions and plantains with a pile of soft fritters, but nuance was lost in the overwhelming ratio of acid to sweetness. In the end, we couldn’t finish half.
The chicken nuggets, ordered for novelty’s sake, were happily a good deal better than their inspiration. Breaded and fried, the chicken was lovely and succulent but not very interesting beyond that. The sauce — a savory, garlicky mix that cut right through the white meat — was better.
Best, though, was the goat tartare. It’s easy, in a spot like this, to assume that ambition and concept will surpass the actual execution, but this ruby-red pile of goat on thin, crackling slices of country bread was one of the most thoughtful and surprising amalgamations of flavor I’ve ever encountered.
The goat had robust flavor and was tender. Livened by light, cutting aromatics of galangal and the assertive, peppery bite of watercress, it was the complex and successful. I still haven’t stopped thinking about it.
I had similar suspicions about the burger — a 21-day aged ribeye slathered with peanut butter on a sesame bun. The idea made me wonder: How far can you go just to differentiate a burger before you’ve ruined the thing entirely?
Granted, peanut butter is not an exotic condiment. It’s an old and simple one. And, as it turns out, is perfectly lovely on the right burger. The meat had a complex, developed depth of flavor — a multi-dimensional tour through umami-rich layers of aged beef — not often found on a bun. Surprisingly, toasty peanut deep-ended the earthy, rooted roundness of the beef. To top it off, a mild cheddar and pickled onions cut right through with a vinegary crunch.
As for the rest of the sandwiches, the fried and pickled eggplant was the most balanced, blending the creamy tartness of burrata with a pile of hearty braised greens and a smear of unctuous, pickled eggplant.
The Tradesman is quaint and on-trend, but the menu is happily more rogue than one typically encounters in settings this inoffensive. And it’s rogue with a purpose more honest than sheer marketability. There is a deft sense of balance in the kitchen, departing from beet salads and uni-rich stables of appetizers on so many menus in The City. The Tradesman is like an anarchist in a tux, or a burlesque star in a cable knit J. Crew sweater — an experimental renegade, camouflaged by the trademarks of normalcy.
Location: 753 Alabama St., S.F.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. to midnight Tuesday-Fridays; 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. to midnight Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays
Contact: (415) 814-2276, www.thetradesmansf.com
Recommended dishes: Goat tartare ($9), fried pickled eggplant ($14), burger ($16)
Price: $7 to $16
Credit cards: All major