Scott Howard: success with small plates

Scott Howard, like its Jackson Square neighbor Myth, is a dressy restaurant that likes going casual. It opened fancier two years ago, but chef Howard realized that San Franciscans, like his laid back patrons at Fork in San Anselmo, preferred small plates, not formal dinner service. About six months ago, he simplified his menu by only offering small dishes, none of which cost more than $16. The dining room has been full ever since.

Though the menu may be breezier, his cooking remains complex — California-inflected French with Asian accents — with luxurious ingredients such as foie gras, sweetbreads, wild mushrooms, game and butter. Howard makes real sauces from stocks and reductions and puts out finished, artfully composed plates. A sommelier advises on wines and can customize a 3-ounce pour for each dish. Meals start with a basket of warm, flaky cheese biscuits, each about two glorious bites.

Personally, I like to order from the bottom half of the menu because Howard has a way with meat. The natural sweetness of a thick hunk of foie gras ($16), seductively charred so that the burnt bits add just the right edge, was set off by an exquisite ripe peach. Howard glazes firm, defatted pork belly ($12) with a Korean-style chile sauce and pairs it with napa cabbage and brightred carrots — a deconstructed clay-pot dish.

Sous vide short ribs ($15) cook super long and slow sealed in a plastic pouch submerged in hot water, resulting in stunningly tender meat that doesn’t fall apart and maintains its intense flavor. The natural gravy, infused with the smokiness of shiitake mushrooms, makes the meal all the more scrumptious.

These dishes are easily shared. Each person gets a nice big hunk.

Yes, some lighter dishes can be thrown into the mix, like elegant house-made linguine ($10) swirled around big, meaty chanterelles — it’s the season now — and moistened with a clean, fresh, tomato-inflected juice.

One night, when the short ribs weren’t on the menu, I had a succulent roast quail ($14) stuffed with chorizo and maitake mushrooms, bathed in warm bacon vinaigrette. A fragrant endive and herb salad played counterpoint. Each bite had a story to tell.

Desserts ($8) from Ericson Tan Ngo balance wit and style with stunning flavor and texture. He sprinkles an ethereal buttermilk pannacotta with aromatic olive oil and French sea salt — a thrilling combination. A refreshing, tart, poached peach with creamy vanilla ice cream and a pebbly crumble of biscotti completely satisfies the mouth — and the sweet tooth.

In a wonderful ice cream sandwich, of which I am a true connoisseur, a chocolate cookie shatters over that exceptional vanilla ice cream, the two united by buttery caramel sauce.

One large, noisy, multilevel room has been done in natural materials and earth tones — wood floor, wood tables, woven place mats, comfy chairs with wooden backs and upholstered seats, thin glassware and heavy cutlery. The servers, bistro casual in dress and demeanor, call on support from a sommelier who actually knows how to describe the character of a wine effectively.

The whole package works. A diner can feast or nibble, drink or sip, come in cocktail dress orjeans. The bottom line depends on how much you order, but Scott Howard gives everyone the opportunity to eat upscale without a major financial commitment, a way to taste around to find out what you really love.

Scott Howard

Location: 500 Jackson St., S.F.

Contact: (415) 956-7040; www.scotthowardsf.com

Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

Price range: Small plates from $7 to $16

Recommended dishes: Foie gras; short ribs; roasted quail; linguine with wild mushrooms; pork belly; all desserts

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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