There’s a certain class of restaurants that I am slowly gravitating towards as my favorite places to eat in San Francisco. They are not the classy Zagat top 10 like Gary Danko and Boulevard, nor are they the dirty hole in the wall favorites like Shalimar or La Taqueria. More often they are the small 4-12 table restaurants which have inventive, high quality food at medium to upper-medium prices. You’re not going to have to wear a clean shirt, and you’re not going to get a lovely work of art on your plate like you would at the places that employ artist-chefs, but what you are going to get is an excellent meal for between $30 and $50 per person that will delight the taste buds and a wine list that will make you happy.
I call these San Francisco’s “boutique” restaurants. Firecracker is a wonderful example of the things I like about this style of eatery. It breaks away from the refined elegance in decor, service, and food artistry that you expect in ‘fine dining’ and instead treats you to a more stylish (stylized?) dining experience, which is attempting to be equally as engaging.
Your entry to the restaurant is through a dense velvet curtain which serves as a barrier to the cold of SF nights, and as a transition into the warm orange and umber tones of the dining room lit by red candlelight. Red beaded chandeliers and the face shaped stencil-cut sconces high on the wall ensure that the room isn’t overly dark. The kitchen is separated from the 15 some odd tables by a bar which can seat individual diners, or those who come without a reservation on a busy night. Ruth didn’t like the red skirts around the bar stools with their hidden light bulbs, but I thought they were funny, and a sign that this restaurant doesn’t take itself too seriously.
One thing they are serious about, however, is flavor. The menu is best described as nuvo-Chinese, with some Thai, Indonesian, and other influences. On our most recent trip there, Ruth and I had the Hu Fun Noodles with Scallops and Squid in red pepper sauce and the Phoenix (chicken) and Dragon (prawn) with spicy plum sauce. Each was distinct and well flavored, the chicken tender, the scallops, fresh.
The service is attentive and warm without being annoying, which is a danger in a small restaurant like this. You get what you need, when you need it, and the rest of the time you are left to enjoy your, food, the decor, and the trendy deep house music that plays softly from hidden speakers.
Why is this better than normal chinese food (or, “why should I pay $30 for chinese food when I can get it down the street for $7”)? Because if you’re like me, while you enjoy a good chinese meal, after finishing your General’s Chicken you rarely say, “wow, that was a great meal.” The spices and the combinations of flavors that Firecracker uses are surprising and refreshing in their ingenuity, and they invite repeated exploration of their menu. Finally, the wine list is short but features well selected bottles and glasses which actually complement the food (German Riesling, Viognier, Pinot Noir, etc).
How much?: An appetizer, two entrees with 2 glasses of wine ran me $47 recently.
1007 Valencia Street (@ 21st)
San Francisco, CA 94110