When I discovered that Jonathan Merritt had taken over the kitchen at Locavore, a six-month-old place at one end of the Mission just below Bernal Heights, I rushed over for dinner. Merritt previously cooked at Pok Pok, a Thai and Southeast Asian joint in Portland that happens to be one of my favorite restaurants in the world.
The farmhouse-goes-urban decor — concrete floors and low ceilings, recycled wood banquettes, wooden tables and straw seated chairs — sets a casual, homey tone. Diners get brown paper napkins but nice heavy silverware and good wine tumblers.
Locavore may revere the ecological values of the sustainable farm (those supplying the ingredients are listed on the menu), but that doesn’t preclude a certain level of urbanity.
Merritt fulfills Locavore’s menu-declared philosophy of using the whole animal in delightful ways, especially duck. Crispy fried duck wings ($10) have the soft, rich flesh that develops from being first cooked slowly in duck fat, a French process called confit. Topped with mint, scallions and fried onion strings, they are irresistible.
Duck trimmings and liver are turned into a moist duck pate ($11), served with pickled carrots and shallot jam. The duck breast ($22) is roasted to juicy pinkness that suggests steak, though this is better because of its crispy skin. A natural jus, sweetened delicately with honey and orange, draws the duck, smoky roasted red potatoes and escarole into complete togetherness.
Pureed summer squash soup ($7) gets depth from roasted garlic and lift from fresh herbs. Grilled chorizo sausages ($10), cut into shareable lengths, become a composed dish with dabs of tomatillo grits and a salsa of orange and mint. Bits of chicharon (pork cracklings), cilantro and pickled onions add dimension to a multi-tomato salad ($10).
But Locavore is one of the few places where the main courses are the standout dishes. I don’t think there is a better cheeseburger ($15) in town, dripping with juice, dressed with sweet, smoky house cured bacon, and grilled onions, accompanied with thick, golden french fries made with tasty potatoes.
A huge hunk of sirloin ($22), uncharacteristically tender and alive with flavor, decked out with basil whipped potatoes and a necklace of broccoli florets, is a great value.
Velvety beef meatballs ($18) seasoned with a whisper of rosemary, practically melt into creamy risotto with tomato broth and sauteed spinach.
One of my favorite dishes on Locavore’s menu is a tofu dish ($17), clean Hodo Soy tofu, fried golden and perched on a vibrant, aromatic ragout of napa cabbage, carrots and yuba (soy milk skin), with curry, green chiles and lemongrass. It was enormously satisfying yet light at the same time.
For dessert, look for housemade blackberry and lemon ice cream ($7) studded with whole berries. An ephemeral tower of paper-thin wafers, mortared with strawberries and airy pastry cream ($8) is also fun to demolish.
As one would guess, Locavore’s wines and beers, on tap and in bottle, are all local.
While taking the vow of fresh, local and seasonal in San Francisco doesn’t exactly set a place apart, having a chef with Merritt’s sensibility and ability to execute does. He brings energy, high standards and originality to a neighborhood restaurant that now deserves citywide attention.
Patricia Unterman is the author of many editions of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 3215 Mission St. (near Valencia Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 821-1918; www.locavoreca.com
Hours: Dinner from 6 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 6 to 11:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; brunch from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; closed Mondays
Price range: Small plates $7 to $11, large plates $15 to $22
Recommended dishes: Crispy duck wings, tomato salad, duck breast; beef meatballs with risotto, grilled sirloin steak, crispy tofu, cheeseburger
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa