Chef Sean Baker and two other associates opened Verbena last December promising an artisan approach to food through a broad reach of ingredients, techniques and sources. Press about the new restaurant describes an inviting warm atmosphere, ambitious menu serving locally sourced vegetables, and an interesting cocktail and wine list. We recently visited the Russian Hill neighborhood and dined at the new establishment to gauge how much truth was in the media hype. Below is a summary of our review.
Exterior, Interior and Ambiance
[maxgallery id=”4308″]A glowing cyan colored sign along Russian Hill’s Polk Street marks the restaurant’s nighttime front entrance. The entryway resembles an old English Pub with its large wood antique doors and vintage black framed window panes. The theme carries into the interior where stained wood floors, tables and shelves reflect the soft yellow glow of Edison bulbs hovering above. Stairs along the back wall lead to a private events room and allow bird’s eye view of the main dining area. The interior is rich, warm, and thoughtful but not necessarily unique as we’ve seen similar decor from newly opened restaurants Alta CA and The Coachman.
Noble Bay Cocktail (Rye, Apple Brandy, Vermouth, Bay Laurels, Bitters)
[maxgallery id=”4314″]Earthy complex cocktails based on aged distilled liquors and bitters are gaining popularity as many contemporary restaurants have added these style drinks to their menu. Verbena is no exception as their cocktail menu contains a multitude of brandy, whiskey and bourbon based drinks paired with bitters and other herbal flavorings. The combination of rye, whisky, brandy and bitters in our chosen drink, The Noble Bay, produced a woody, sweet, and spicy concoction with citrus and floral undertones. The drink paired well with the sausage and meatball dishes.
Meatballs Braised in Black Mole (Chard, Hominy, Whey)
[maxgallery id=”4316″]Like crude oil, the lustrous black mole sauce visually dominated the dish while concealing the meatballs and hominy below. The sauce’s flavor, however, was mild and allowed the other ingredients characteristics to shine through. The chicken and pork meatballs were moist, light and proportionately seasoned and the cooked hominy was airy in texture and provided a good starch base. The mole sauce could have benefited from a richer chocolate flavor as it would have lent the dish more character. Overall, we appreciated the entree’s balance, thoughtfulness and lightness.
Pork Sausage (Peas and Fava Leaves, Nettle Broth, Lardo)
[maxgallery id=”4318″]The creative dish featured two plump short sausage links half submerged in a shallow well of nettle broth and finished with a sliver of lardo. The nettle broth soaked into the cut pork sausage and allowed the meat’s smokey and salty qualities to mix with the nettle flavors. The sausage casing was somewhat tough to cut but it did not distract from the taste experience. The floating fresh peas helped balance the dish and emphasized the importance of fresh vegetables noticeable in many of the dishes.
Swordfish (Nasturtium and Fermented Lime Curry, English Peas, Clams)
[maxgallery id=”4320″]The thoughtfully laid out swordfish entree was as much about the fish as it was a celebration of fresh high-quality vegetables. The dish was arranged with two fish portions placed around clusters of plump peas, baby heirloom potatoes, tender clams, and watercress sprigs. A peppery nasturtium curry sauce was drizzled over the ingredients and tied the dish together. The sauce helped moisten the slightly overcooked swordfish and gave an interesting tang to the entree.
Molasses Ginger Cake (Carrot Sorbet, IPA Caramel)
[maxgallery id=”4322″]The Ginger Cake dessert was artistically presented with two long narrow slices of ginger bread flanked by candied rolled carrot slivers, sweet citrus slices, and crushed walnut crumble. In the center laid an orange colored carrot sorbet topped with cookie wafers. The ginger bread slices were light, airy and paired well with the carrot sorbet. The sweetness of the candied carrots and citrus slices contrasted well with the ginger bread’s spiciness while the walnut crumble and wafer topping added a crunch texture.
Verbena has a good thing going. Each entree seemed inspired from the notion that food should be celebrated for its singularity, freshness and healthiness. There was a noticeable lack of heavy oils, fried dishes, rice or other unhealthy ingredients that are commonly found at restaurants in the same price points. $106 for our two person dining experience might seem unreasonably expensive, but given the quality of food, the cost was justified. It takes a lot of energy and thoughtfulness to maintain an ambitious seasonal menu presented by Verbena. The question remains whether they can keep up such standards. We’ll come back in an year to find out.