Restaurant review: Forget Iron Chef. Try Titanium Chef – behind the scenes at St. Anthony’s

Restaurant reviewer? Who, ME? The whole restaurant “evaluation” (yes, I did in fact just make air quotes with my fingers) is overwhelming to me – the analyzing, assessing, comparing, deciphering flavors, and parsing panache – that’s way outside my job description. Heck, I can scan a lab report faster than a menu. In fact, the only thing I do really really well in restaurants is, well…eat. Beneath this genetically-skinny frame beats the stomach of a rural Southerner who first heard of bagels only after reaching the legal drinking age. But then, once introduced to the world of food-exotica (like, um, for instance, sauteed mushrooms) I’ve had the passion of the converted. Let’s just say I knew Boulevard back when it was merely the name of a street. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve spent the last thirty years making up for the lack of food adventure in my first twenty. It’s not as though I don’t know what’s good – it’s more like I can’t even begin to review it. So, when faced with the daunting task of reviewing THE single most popular restaurant in all of San Francisco, I did what any sane person would do. I plagiarized, oops, I mean I “wrote an homage” (air quotes again) in the style of the wildly talented Michael Bauer. In fact, here is my article, looking somewhat shockingly like HIS article titled Healdsburg’s Barndiva Matures into a Destination. But it’s not the same article, really it’s not, in fact, as a demonstration of just how different it is, for the first few paragraphs, I put Michael Bauer’s words in regular type and mine in bold. See? Not the same at all. So presented here, for your entertainment, is the first ever Holiday Warm Meal Restaurant Review:

Since it opened sixty years ago, St. Anthony’s has gone through several menu styles and chefs. From visit to visit you never quite knew what you were going to get.

Located off the Plaza in Civic Center, the restaurant’s impressive barnlike structure has an artistically styled dining room and expansive line of hungry people. A separate medical facility next door has made the restaurant popular for even the differently-abled, even though it sometimes felt as if more mobile diners were served after those needing assistance.

When I updated St. Anthony’s last (when was it? Never? Yes, I think it was never), I remarked that it seemed more like somebody’s expensive hobby than a real restaurant.* However, I returned recently to find that everything had changed for the better. The location has matured into a destination site for the Tenderloin. And isn’t Tenderloin such an evocative neighborhood name with regards to culinary excellence? Genius. Pure marketing genius.

Doc Gurley:

Doc Gurley: “The dining is divine at St. Anthony’s”

The St. Anthony’s space is still exciting, with wire sculptures on the walls and garden roses on each table that help soften the dining room’s hard warehouse lines. Yet the real change is Michael Kearney, who has managed the service with a collegial relationship with Glide (a similar-format post-modern establishment which one might think would be intensely competitive. But no.). Then, most recently, Michael and his kitchen staff were even the beneficiaries of donated coverage of the Christmas staff party AND the dining room’s Christmas dinner from Emam Tom Saber and his volunteers from the Noor Islam Mosque (located in a distant area known as Down The Block). With these ties to local culinary excellence, Michael has rejected all the experimental menu formats for a simple, straightforward approach. The formula? Expect upwards of 2,600 people each meal, give or take several hundred. Have no clue what exact amounts and/or types of fresh produce and/or donations you might have to work with until mere hours beforehand, then pull off that culinary miracle each and every day [forget Iron Chef – can you say Titanium Chef?]. The menu might be pared down, but his creations are stylish and complex.

So how was this jazz riff of a joyous improv masterpiece? You can almost taste the terroir in the spring greens salad (free) served with a hearty entree of Thai shredded chicken stew, in a fluffy bed of forked rice (free). The mix is accented by the distinctive earthy-sweet nuances of an entire heirloom apple (free).

Even the mixed berry pie (free) is far from plebeian. The crust is cut into a wedge about four inches wide at the base, which serves as a raft for cherries, as well as a soupcon of apple pectin in a delicately balanced tart-like arrangement. Crusty sourdough bread, with a titillating pat of creamy butter, complete the tray’s compartments.

At this time of year, Michael’s chef flour-dredges beef medallions (free), sautees them to a mahogany hue and serves them nestled in a hearty vegetable stew. Pork is also the base of a vibrant kelly-green posole verde (free), splattered like a Pollock painting onto a serving tray. But then wiped up and re-served more neatly.

The half-dozen main courses – all, like the starters, focused on local, fresh ingredients – include beans (sometimes fava) or other nutrient ingredients with various preparations, and chicken dishes such as Thai Peanut Chicken (free) lightly boned and simmered with lemon grass and chilies, or billowy Mediterranean Orzo (free) – another chicken dish lightened with piquant caper and lemon.

My server moved with alacrity, and all the servers’ distinctive burgundy aprons performed the dual function of fashion statement as well as volunteer-identification. There was a trend toward excessive smiling and kindness, and a somewhat disturbing lack of cool haughty reserve. Friendliness is, after all, so last year.

My overall recommendation is 4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars. I deducted one-half star after I waited and waited in vain for the check, even signaling the maitre d’ on several occasions. But he only gave a friendly wave back and even eventually sent a social worker over to ask if I was okay. Despite all my efforts, no one brought me my bill. For the first time in my life, I must confess, I have done a runner.

Price: Obscenely affordable. Even the gratuity is gratuitous.
Sound level: 4 out of 5 hearing aids
Service: Friendly. Kind. Courteous. Good God, what are they thinking?
Ambiance: Despite the ponderous wait in line, I feel a strange urge to return tomorrow…

*I have, of course, heard the rumors. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. There are those who claim to know for a fact that the numbers of meals served at St. Anthony’s are heavily padded by the faux poor. I’ve been told there are hundreds, nay, thousands of people who don’t need any food at all, but who hike on down to the roughest section of the Tenderloin and stand in line for upwards of two hours in bone-chilling cold and rain, all because a tasty entree is free. Plus you get a piece of fruit. We should be outraged. We should refuse to donate. These faux poor and their fake hunger are ripping off gullible donors for a plate of tuna tetrazzini.

Well, let me tell you something. It’s even worse than you might think. These impostors are so devious, they’re, they’re…(well, there’s no other word for it) they’re invisible. The entire time I was there, even with my expert clinical acumen honed by brain-breaking years of mental labor at HMS, still I (even I, Doc Gurley!) could not spot a single one of them. To the naked eye, there were only vast numbers of people waiting in line: Every. Single. One. of them expertly masquerading as a person who desperately needs and appreciates a hot meal. Now that’s sneaky.

Are you inspired to pick up a hungry person’s check for a warm meal by donating a wee bit of cash? Do you feel the urge to drop off a food donation? Don’t resist! Go to Altruism is good for your health.

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