Palm House: Pricey tropical dining in a vacation-like setting 

click to enlarge Palm House
  • Fresh and delicate, Palm House’s Pacific tuna ceviche with taro root is a standout on a menu of flavors from Brazil, Hawaii and the Caribbean.
Empty birdcages hang in a cluster from the ceiling of Palm House. Whimsical accents spotlight the baseline illusion: that this leisurely daiquiri sanctum is something between a tropical getaway and a coastal retirement hideout — a warm idyll for the carefree self you wish you were, most of the time.

Palm House is in a good spot, on Union Street, where the uniform is starched and untucked, flip-flops pound the concrete, and retailers home in on the urge to splurge and pamper. The restaurant is Cow Hollow’s very own swim-up bar — only the pool is pavement and the drinks are a little bit nicer.

With sections like “Set Sail” and the “The Windward Sea,” the menu lingers on the fringe of kitsch. Predominating flavors are from warm places: Brazil, Hawaii and the Caribbean.

Not unexpectedly, the staples were good. The Jamaican jerk half roast chicken, dark and crisp, was flanked by a bed of crushed potatoes, mango chutney and an acidic Haitian lime sauce. Warmly spiced with specks of allspice and clove, the chicken was beautifully cooked, rounded out nicely by sweet chunks of mango, but ultimately oversalted.

More delicate dishes, such as the tuna ceviche, better exemplified a deft hand in the kitchen. The dish played a fresh and summery mound of fish and citrus against crisp, mandoline-thin slivers of pink-veined taro chips.

On a second visit, duck, which previously appeared on the menu in tacos, reemerged as part of a salad, pulled and mixed with yams, benign but indistinctly sweet. Best, maybe, was a side of baby back pork ribs — a small allotment, and supremely tender. Charred, sweet and balanced, they were good enough to order several (for hoarding).

The bar program, apparently an unpretentious riff on tropically-themed craft cocktails, was almost as good as the hybrid has potential to be.

The signature Palm Daiquiri was made in a mesmerizing slushie machine behind the bar. A smooth mix of rum, lime and sugar was the base to add-ons such as passion fruit, prickly pear and strawberry, which tasted pure and fresh. While pleasingly tart, the daiquiris freeze the palate too much, and don’t accompany gentle dishes like the ceviche very well.

In keeping with the theme, the other cocktails were more saccharine. The Merchant’s Mule — gin, ginger shrub, lime and ginger beer — tasted like a dosed up ginger chew (not all bad), but the Loose Cannon let cinnamon syrup overpower a lot of bourbon.

Like the food, the drinks tended to be overwrought, the culinary equivalent of turning up the bass. That isn’t necessarily a bad quality, but better experienced in moderation.

Palm House is the kind of place that can be grating: The food is expensive, its tone and theme are loud and transparent, and the cocktails cloying.

Then again, as I sit here under this skylight, nursing towering pink drinks while the game replays on the TV, nuance is not quite the point — vacation is. And since when is vacation an occasion for subtlety?

Palm House

Location: 2032 Union St., S.F.

Contact: (415) 400-4355,

Hours: 3 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays-Thursdays; 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays; 10:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays; 10:30 a.m. to midnight Sundays

Price range: $8 to $26

Recommended dishes: Baby back pork ribs ($12), Pacific tuna ceviche and taro root ($14), Jamaican jerk roast half chicken ($19)

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Recommended

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Molly Gore

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