Food: Sophisticated Continental 1950s fare at Thermidor 

Mint Plaza, a hidden pocket of redevelopment behind the Old Mint at Fifth and Mission streets, steadily has attracted some benchmark operations: Blue Bottle Cafe, the molto Italiano 54 Mint, and now a Wednesday farmers’ market, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The latest to open is Thermidor, a witty, moderne cocktail bar and dining room from the owners of Spork, the retro diner in the Mission.

At the more upscale Thermidor, chef Bruce Binn resuscitates classic Continental fare, so popular with American sophisticates in the 1950s and ’60s.

Of course he gives it a turn or two. Thermidor’s nostalgic decor of swiveling Eames chairs, pine paneling, a curved dining alcove demarcated by long drapes, pointy stainless steel chandeliers and white tablecloths, is superimposed on a warehouse space with cement walls, structural pillars and industrial metal. The frisson of raw surfaces and smooth finishes sets the stage for the playful dining drama ahead.

Thermidor’s look almost compels a martini, the iconic cocktail of the ’50s, or a contemporary version of it, supplied by an up-to-the-minute bar. The small menu provides appropriate, finger-friendly cocktail food ($6 a plate).

Buttery baguette toasts rubbed with a little garlic serve as platforms for a pile of rich shredded short rib dabbed with horseradish cream.

Equally stunning are crisp warm potato chips topped with cream fraiche, smoked trout and steelhead caviar, a combination that will never go out of style in my mouth.

No one leaves Thermidor without a plate of pommes Dauphine, creamy potato croquettes, nice and salty, with a roasted red pepper dipping sauce.

Local Kumamotos on the half shell ($14 for six), a fine summer oyster, partner naturally with an icy martini.

Binn draws out the natural sweetness and succulent toothsomeness of Maine lobster in two signature dishes. The namesake lobster Thermidor ($32) comes in the shell, meat conveniently extracted and returned, slathered with bechamel, and finished under the broiler. The result is an opulent lobster gratin with a golden crust. A small baked russet potato half, its flesh creamy with sour cream, its roasted skin crisp, echoes the lobster but plays counterpoint.

A mini-lobster roll on a soft brioche roll ($14) is balanced with just enough meat, lubricant and bun so that each bite is complete.

Scallops Newburg ($12), a small dollop of cheesy, salty, creamy gratin studded with scallop pieces, looks smart served in an elegant shell.

Binn improves upon one of my all-time favorites, chicken Kiev ($21), by stuffing it with hot red pepper butter, which seasons the moist breast encased in golden fried bread crumbs. Mashed potatoes and French beans vinaigrette support the star on the plate.

Highly constructed trompe l’oeil desserts ($8) don’t quite seem in keeping with the rest of the menu, but they are exciting. My favorite, and least composed, is caramelized poppy seed cake, warm and moist, on a dollop of yogurt swirled with strawberry syrup, topped with thyme scented ice cream and a cascade of little strawberries.

One night, soon after Thermidor opened, I was sure I spotted Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy in “Mad Men,” that ode to the mid-20th century. How appropriate! But how did she find Mint Plaza? I guess in the 21st century, word travels fast.

Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.


Thermidor

Location: 8 Mint Plaza, S.F.

Contact: (415) 896-6500; www.thermidorsf.com

Hours: Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner from 6 p.m. to close Monday through Saturday

Price range: $6 to $32

Recommended dishes: Lobster Thermidor, short rib crostinos, pommes Dauphine, chicken Kiev, mini lobster roll

Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express

Reservations: Accepted

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Patricia Unterman

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