I’m always excited by the opening of a new restaurant in our neighborhood. Although Noe Valley has a not insubstantial number of restaurants, comparatively few are really worth writing home (or a blog) about, so I’m always optimistic at the sight of a new eatery. Unfortunately, I am also often disappointed.
Bistro 1689 drew a fair amount of buzz well before it opened, one of a small cluster of changes in the Baja Noe stretch of Church Street, some of which are still afoot. Formerly a nondescript Chinese restaurant, I figured it could only be an improvement. Then again, I’m not crazy about most Chinese food, so the bar was low there.
We popped in last Friday, having made a clearly unnecessary (yet still point-building) 6:30 pm reservation on OpenTable. Let the games begin.
I had perused the menu on their site, and found it buzzwordy yet coherent, though right off the bat the price range seemed a tad daunting for a neighborhood joint. Granted, they’re a scant two blocks from Incanto, but I was a tad surprised to see such aggressive pricing on a new spot.
The space is as perfectly and typically San Franciscan as you can get. Inverted bay entrance, long narrow space, tables along the walls and down the center, bar with heavy curtain at the front, ostensibly to break the frigid wind from entering diners (more on that later). Jewel-toned sponge job on the walls with quirky yet not uninteresting art. Tightly packed tables; abundant hard surfaces. It could be any restaurant in San Francisco.
We were seated at one of the tables along the south wall, nearly halfway down. There were two other tables seated along that stretch, and there was a comfortable space between us.
Unfortunately, the front door is wheelchair-accessible, which means that if you so much as touch it, it opens fully, hesitates, then closes inexorably. That means that every time someone enters the restaurant, 1) the entire place is flooded with frigid summer wind, and 2) every single person fights with the door as it executes its mindless agenda. Guests would first push against the resistance of the door, then pull to try to prevent it from swinging so far ajar, then tug relentlessly to close it. Sometimes, if another set of guests came closely behind, the door would unceremoniously shove them out of the restaurant. That door will cause more disabilities than it will assist.
By the time we had gotten water, we had been blasted with arctic gusts enough times to raise the hair on our arms and make menu reading difficult, so we asked whether they could pull the heavy brocade curtain that was so plainly tied back to either side of the door. Our assumption was that it was there expressly for that purpose — to block the bone-chilling San Francisco summer breeze so people could enter and leave the restaurant without massive disruption to the climate in the restaurant. Our server (who was perfectly lovely and accommodating) returned to say that the manager didn’t want to pull the curtain, as he was afraid it would blow out into the restaurant and hit people. So, why the thing is there except for misguided aesthetics is still beyond me. Luckily, it got us reseated at a four-top in the front window, a more sheltered position that afforded us an expansive view of the restaurant.
For the first course, DPaul had goat cheese-stuffed fried squash blossoms, and I had an heirloom tomato salad with grilled peaches, opal basil, balsamic and EVOO. The squash blossoms were crispy yet slightly greasy, and the goat cheese they selected was exceedingly mild, leaving little flavor to the dish as a whole. My tomatoes and peaches both were underripe, crunchy.
For the entrees, DPaul had the Niman Ranch short ribs, and I had the roasted duck breast with figs and (I think) mustard greens. In both cases, the verdict was the same: The flavors were quite good indeed, but the presentation was uninspired and — more criminally — the plates had not been heated, so the food showed up edging on tepid.
We ordered a bottle of Bouchard Pere et Fils Bourgogne, but selecting a wine was like throwing darts on the wall. It’s clear some thought went into the selection of the wines, yet little information was presented beside label, vintage and, at best, broad provenance. All American wines were identified only by state, no appellation. California. Oregon. Ugh.
We lingered a while over the remainder of our wine, which long outlasted our dinner. Our server, bless her heart, enthusiastically popped by to ask about dessert a couple of times, to which we consistently said we were just finishing our wine and would select something shortly. Clearly they wanted that table freed up, yet no one went wanting for a table (the place was full but no line formed), and frankly it was not our fault we were seated there in the first place. Ultimately we chose the peach and blackberry shortcake with a lovely riesling eiswein, which was rather the highlight of the meal.
DPaul’s review was typically pithy: Everything is $3-5 overpriced. I find it hard to argue with that. For $20 I want my duck hot and for $8 I want ripe tomatoes and peaches — especially in late August. The chef may have some good concepts when it comes to building the flavors of his dishes, but he needs to see it through to the final product. And in a city like San Francisco, where astonishingly good food abounds at every turn, even the high end of mediocrity is sometimes not enough.
1689 Church Street (at 29th)