Darwin Café: Tiny Spot, Big Flavors

21 May

If you don’t work in SOMA (and you have a regular day job elsewhere), it’s nearly impossible to try the great restaurants the neighborhood has to offer, because most are only open for weekday lunch. One exception is Darwin Café, a great spot tucked in an alley off of Bryant St. (near South Park), whose creative menu and great flavors definitely warrant a dinner visit.

I stopped in at 6pm on a Wednesday for a quick bite, and the cozy, clean and well-decorated café was empty except for 2 people enjoying a cheese plate at the bar. The menu, which changes daily and for each meal, was written on an almost floor-to-ceiling-length piece of paper hanging on the wall.

Many of the options looked delicious—a salad of kale, radicchio, garlic, lemon, parmesan, prosciutto and aged balsamic, for example, or pork rillettes made with slow-cooked pork shoulder, Dijon grilled sourdough and house-made pickles—but I went for the Bristol Bay scallop ceviche with avocado, lime, cilantro, sweet onion, radish and tortilla chips.

When I ordered, she asked me, “bread, olive oil, olives?” and, guessing I was only supposed to pick one or two of the above but choosing to disregard that, I said, “yes.”

When I asked about nuts, they said that nothing on the menu that night (including my dish) had nuts, but that it was not a completely nut-free kitchen. I asked if they could just clean the knives and cutting boards and anything that might have touched nuts, and they happily agreed. I got the feeling it was more of a liability response than an honest concern about cross-contamination, since they weren’t preparing anything with nuts that night, but I appreciated the honesty. (Those with an extremely sensitive anaphylaxis might want to avoid taking the chance, or at least call ahead to see if the menu that day has nuts (or whatever you’re allergic to) so you can decide beforehand if it’s worth going.) I didn’t experience any allergic or cross-contamination symptoms afterward.

Very soon after ordering, they gave me a four-piece hunk of Acme sourdough bread, a dipping bowl of wonderful olive oil (really fresh, crisp and bright, reminded me of Frog Hollow olive oil—get some if you haven’t had it yet!), and a bowl of four or five green olives. As it was just me dining, it was more of a side dish than a starter, but you don’t hear me complaining.

The ceviche arrived in less than 10 minutes after I ordered, and was delicious. The flavors were bright and bold—it tasted like a really fresh, deconstructed guacamole, with the creamy avocados and tangy lime contrasting nicely and the radishes adding some great texture. The tortilla chips seemed to be just straight-up Tostitos, which was fine with me because the saltiness balanced perfectly with the rest of the flavors. My only complaint would be the scallops—since they were raw (which I knew I was getting, it being ceviche and all), they were pretty bland and didn’t really add much to the meal, in either texture or flavor. They weren’t off-putting in any way, they just kind of disappeared into the dish. Maybe another fish would have been a more interesting choice.

With the ceviche, the heaping (free) appetizer and a glass of Chardonnay, my bill was just $19—most of the dishes seemed to be between $8 and $10, which is extremely affordable but somewhat deceiving because the dishes are relatively small (I’ve sometimes seen Darwin categorized as “small plates”-style dining). But when you add in the bread and olives, I left perfectly satisfied.

Definitely recommended for non-allergics, and also for allergics but with the caveats mentioned above.

Note: I’ve been told they are known for their great lunch, so if you do work in SOMA and haven’t tried it yet, head on over! Apparently they even have a deli slicer to make each sandwich super fresh. However, the lunch rush may not be a great place to get a server’s undivided attention about an allergy, so take that into consideration.

RATINGS

  • Food: 8
  • Presentation: 6.5
  • Menu: 8
  • Service: 9
  • Ambiance: 7
  • Allergy-friendliness: 7
  • Cost: $

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

THE DEETS

212 Ritch St (at Bryant)
San Francisco, CA 94107
415-800-8668

Also see this review from UrbanDaddy

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2 Responses to “Darwin Café: Tiny Spot, Big Flavors”

  1. Eftychia May 23, 2011 at 9:03 AM #

    Interesting information. Thanks!

  2. janice weiner May 23, 2011 at 12:38 PM #

    A fabulous description of this spot – no imagination needed to envision the food and the surroundings.

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