I’ve never considered Columbus Avenue exciting for locals. The street is part of San Francisco’s tourist quadrant, far from where anybody I know lives, and it bears the eternal hepcat cross of North Beach.
“Well, for every Comstock Saloon or Tosca, there’s still a Café Macaroni or a Stinking Rose,” I used to think. But now there’s Trestle — and no longer a need to rationalize North Beach.
Although technically on Jackson Street, Trestle is a trapezoidal New American restaurant that all but fronts onto Columbus. The restaurant tucks its ambition into a very simple premise: $35 gets you three courses, each with two choices, with an optional $10 add-on pasta course. This is all the more remarkable given that $35 has become an acceptable price for a standalone entree (the Niman Ranch rib-eye at Barrel Room, for instance, is $38).
But if you’re expecting HVAC-filled ambiance lit by a lone Edison bulb, deposit your cynicism at coat check. Over the course of two visits, I was impressed with virtually everything, from the plating of the roast quail to the bouquet in the oversized vase in the center of the room.
Whereas a chef’s tasting menu starts with an amuse-bouche or two, Trestle’s isn’t a tasting menu. It’s a prix fixe, and the appetizers are sized like real things that real people would eat. The heirloom tomato salad (with herbed ricotta, crispy lavash, and a basil pesto vinaigrette) looked like a deconstructed gyro and tasted like a distillation of high summer. Sweet corn soup, poured onto a corn fritter at the table, was a study in creaminess.
For the pasta course — which I’d call “mandatory” rather than “optional” — I loved the mushroom risotto, which sidestepped gimmicky truffle oil in favor of parmesan and two shavings of king trumpet ‘shroom. An even simpler dish, the garganelli Bolognese, was the real winner. (When “cracked black pepper” shows up as an ingredient, you know a restaurant is sticking to basics.) Granted, there’s a blob of burrata on top of this otherwise spartan basil-and-red-sauce preparation, but it’s a kiss of opulence.
Seen from one angle, the pan-roasted day boat scallops (with hummus, calamari salad, and salsa verde) could have been something in a Dutch Old Master’s still life. On a visual basis alone, the scallops were lovely, but more importantly, they were delicious: a mesh of textures and temperatures, with the scallops expertly seared. Capping off the savory part of the meal was a sausage-stuffed roast quail, which sounds much heavier than it was. Whether lightened by the grilled peaches’ acid or offset by the kale and farro underneath, this state bird wasn’t the least bit overdone.
I had a sharp eye out for dessert, which I figured would have to be Trestle’s Achilles’ heel, but nothing looked defrosted or farmed-out. If anything, dessert is probably the hardest leg of the prix fixe to put together at scale. The brown butter financier with lemon curd, blackberry compote, and vanilla ice cream was best eaten at top speed, yet pulled off a certain hominess that the superior chocolate pot de crème (with bourbon whipped cream, orange-almond streusel, and cocoa nibs) didn’t even attempt. The former was very sweet, the latter almost not sweet enough; no other course begged for such sharing.
In short, Trestle is a wow. My only complaint would be that if you visit more than once, you might eat the same meal. (In my case, only the salad course was different.) Presumably, that’s one way they keep the restaurant’s costs low, but it doesn’t help in cultivating regulars. Maybe that’s why the brains behind it chose Columbus Avenue, with its constant stream of out-of-towners. If so, well played.
The rest of the method isn’t alchemy. No need to consult the philosopher’s stone when Trestle likely earns its profits from the wine list, as many places do. I don’t know for a fact that the food side of the equation is an intentional loss leader, but just as EDM concerts allegedly infuse more cash into Vegas casinos than gambling does, it may be that savvy restaurateurs can now capitalize on changing tastes, and a city full of fat wallets is willing to shell out on wine if people think the food is a steal.
This isn’t to say Trestle is a den of cold calculations with pretty art on the walls. Along with the check, diners are presented a little guestbook in which they can write a bland congratulatory note — the equivalent of having a camcorder thrust in your face and being told to say something funny — or maybe just draw a stegosaurus and a smiley face. It’s cute.
Less-than-exorbitant tasting menus seem to be a legitimate spinoff of the small-plates, sharing-everything ethos. Witness Commonwealth’s $75 six-course menu; Aster’s $59 four-course menu; and Mr. Pollo’s $20 four-course menu. I doubt this trend can arrest the irresistible force of plate inflation, which is now normal — does anyone gawk at $11 cocktails anymore? — but if it shames even a couple of chefs into following this model, we’ll be better off.