Solid New American dining at Baker & Banker 

Once an apothecary, the Pacific Heights Victorian at the corner of Octavia and Bush streets more recently has been home to a number of high-profile restaurants: Robert, The Meetinghouse, Quince and now Baker & Banker, an inviting small dinner house that reflects the personalities of its dedicated new owners, Jeff Banker and Lori Baker.

A chef and a pastry chef, the couple set their sights on the spot when Banker worked in that very kitchen during The Meetinghouse residency.

With the help of designer Michael Brennan, they transformed the space with dark wood, leather banquettes, horizontal mirrors and lighting suspended from a grid of pipes on the ceiling, meant to evoke gaslights.

Their New American cooking, however, is right up-to-the-minute in its use of seasonal, local ingredients with an international pantry.

The couple have created a small, changing menu of gently imaginative dishes characterized by big, voluptuous flavor.

Every preparation is fully realized and brings pleasure, starting with a rustic soup of white beans, green garlic and pancetta ($8.75). I could eat bowls of it.

Whole heads of Little Gem lettuce — a small, curly romaine sometimes called limestone lettuce — are split lengthwise and grilled, then showered with shaved sun chokes and Parmesan, and drizzled with toasty brown butter and hazelnuts ($9): a cold weather salad.

Perfectly executed mixed vegetable tempura ($10) stars pungent, battered and deep fried shiso leaves.

Brightness also characterizes a salad of oro blanco (a grapefruit and pomelo hybrid with sweet, dense flesh), smoky grilled calamari, arugula and crisp fried chickpeas ($13).

Some starters are so rich and generous, they can work as a light main course, such as a big, soft celery root and potato pancake, heaped with house-smoked trout, shaved fennel and horseradish crème fraîche, ornamented with a red necklace of pickled beets ($12).

As colorful and appealing as the starters are, main courses are equally fun to eat. A quail plumped to tennis ball dimensions is filled with moist cornbread stuffing studded with pecans and bitter greens ($26). With a mulled wine cranberry sauce on the side, it tastes like the Thanksgiving plate you always dream of.

Banker draws on Pacific Rim flavors — soy and mirin — for velvety black cod ($25.50) perched on shiitake-scented sticky rice, flanked by charred whole baby bok choy.

Rare, cool in the center hunks of Ahi tuna ($27) paired with Sardinian couscous (little balls of semolina) studded with pine nuts, Meyer lemon and tons of olive oil, makes this fish sensual.

One problem with licking your plate is that you won’t have room for Lori Baker’s versions of American desserts ($8), which are unabashedly sweet, buttery and usually topped with housemade ice cream. My favorite is a warm butternut squash cobbler — smooth pumpkin pie filling beneath warm, golden brown cake, topped with mace-scented vanilla ice cream and pumpkin-seed brittle.

Baker’s chocolate mousse comes in a glass mug with dollops of espresso ice cream and whipped cream, a tuile stuck in the top like a straw. It’s the only way I want to eat chocolate mousse, now — à la mode.

Both in their 30s, Baker and Banker have cooked in excellent restaurants here and abroad, headed other people’s kitchens and taught at the California Culinary Academy. Along the way, their own style evolved and they have the confidence to create within it. Everything works. It’s just plain fun to eat here.

Baker & Banker

Location: 1701 Octavia St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 351-2500; www.bakerandbanker.com
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closed Mondays
Price range: Starters $8.75 to $13; main courses $19 to $27
Recommended dishes: White bean and pancetta soup; calamari and oro blanco salad; soy and mirin braised black cod; cornbread stuffed quail; butternut squash cobbler
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Reservations: www.opentable.com only

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

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Patricia Unterman

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