San Francisco's Flavorful New Restaurants
Published Sep 2015
Walk into Huxley on any night and don’t be surprised to be seated by the owner Kris Esqueda; he will unassumingly greet you and lead you to one of the 25 coveted seats in the restaurant. Tucked between Larkin and Hyde on Geary, this “new American casual cuisine” restaurant is not, admittedly, in the most glamourous of neighborhoods. However, it’s located exactly where it should be. Esqueda deemed the surrounding area as “gritty” but stated that Huxley was “not a destination place.” Flanking the eatery is a posh looking wine bar named Tender, and the bread that Huxley serves is baked just a block away at the quaint bakery, Jane’s. While the restaurant is clearly in the Tenderloin, the “loin is becoming more, well, tender.” When Huxley was just a growl in the owners’ stomachs, initial thoughts were that it would open in Hayes Valley. Esqueda rightly pointed out that the vibe would have been completely different there, and he is excited to be on the forefront of the inevitable change this neighborhood will see in the coming years. Stopping in on an uncharacteristically warm San Franciscan night and bellying up to one of the 10 walk-ins-welcome bar stools, I began my Huxley experience. Rose in hand, at first blush Huxley is cozy and charming, like your grandmother’s home but with a hip edge and less dust. The bar stools overlook the kitchen, where Sara Hauman was in plain sight to the diners; when we arrived she was standing calmly against the stove waiting, unfazed, for the nightly rush, looking completely in her element. At any restaurant, the bar stools are usually the best spots. Not only do you get to interact with the staff on a more intimate level, but you feel more connected to the food or drinks as you watch each dish or cocktail being prepared. The entire menu is understandable, and we began with the appetizers of Jane’s bread and homemade butter and smoked and whipped lard. The boquerones were maybe the most unknown of dishes, but the menu helpfully points out that they are house cured white anchovies, lest they get overlooked for mild obscurity. The combination of all of the above was the perfect opening act to what became a beautiful symphony of simple flavors whose combinations were much greater than the sum of their parts. While the bread and butter could easily have stood alone against hunger, the house cured anchovies and lard really took our palates to new places. All of the appetizers, minus the bread and headcheese, are made in house by Hauman; the all inclusive “breads and spreads plate” includes all of the appetizer choices plus bread including, but not limited to, tomato jams, homemade mustard relish, corned beef tongue, and more. For the salad course we chose the Heirloom Tomato Salad, consisting of basil, squash, tomatoes, and fennel with an unexpected dash of the Mediterranean sea, bottarga, on top. Nothing too unusual, but the combination of the freshest ingredients continues to be haunting—not often do I fight my dinner partner for the last bite of salad. Hauman understands the importance of ingredients. She prides herself on sourcing farm fresh produce and proudly proclaimed that she often spends more of her budget on produce than she does on fish or meat for the week. The main courses all reasonably priced from $25-$35 dollars, with the most expensive dish being the whole cooked chilli pepper rock cod. Sara proclaimed that “cooking the fish whole is the only way to cook it,” and that it was her favorite dish to make and eat; the skin gets the right amount of crisp while protecting the meat of the fish, a delicate feat that creates a work of art each time. The portions are big here, and that is purposeful. Sara’s menu garners inspiration from the time she spent in Spain, but in more ways than just her choice of Mediterranean ingredients and flavors. It’s evident in her whole approach to cooking—minimal with simple fresh staples, cooked to perfection, with portions fit to share. The idea is to foster a place where the goal is to gather around great food and wine with friends to just enjoy yourself. While Huxley might be undergoing a name change in the next few months due to a silly lawsuit with a Vegas style nightclub in D.C., do not let this place fall off your radar. Esqueda has constructed the perfect dining experience because he loves food as much as you do. There is no pretension to the meal or approach with a staff of three; Hauman cooking, one server Daniel, and Esqueda, who often ends “up playing host, busser, server, and sometimes dishwasher almost every shift.” While the menu is constantly changing with the seasons, one dish Hauman says she can’t take off the menu for fear of revolt is the avocado toast with sea urchin. I wasn’t brave enough to try it this time, but really I was just looking for a reason to come back.