Kookez looks like a name from The Epic of Gilgamesh, or perhaps the name of some lost city in ancient Persia — near Shiraz? — but really it's a kind of phonetic or spoof spelling. Hint: Resist the urge, almost irresistible in this city, to see the word kook; remember that we deal in food and restaurants here and visualize ... cookies! (No, not whirled peas.) For Kookez Café is, indeed, in part about cookies; they are the pride of founder, owner, and baker Lynn Marie Presley, and a selection of them, along with other tempting baked goods, is on display in a glass case just inside the entryway.
But Kookez is about more than cookies. It is the successor to the long-running and successful Miss Millie's (recently decamped to the East Bay) and accordingly has inherited the pole position in Noe Valley's busy weekend brunch derby. It is also a cozy evening spot, serving "coast to coast" American comfort-food dishes — many with a decidedly Southern accent — in as appealingly old-fashioned a setting as you're likely to find around town. The look is that of some venerable, family-run café on a narrow lane in Paris or London: lots of warm wood, yellowish wall lamps, snug booths, and a small garden in the rear whose charms are, thus far in this indescribably dreary spring, hypothetical. Those with long memories will recall that the space, before becoming Miss Millie's, belonged to a coffeehouse named Meat Market, which took its name from the butcher shop that once occupied the premises.
An overhead rail for hanging split carcasses is still mounted from the ceiling just in front of the small exhibition kitchen, where the chef, Amir, goes about his business. When Miss Millie's opened, in the mid-1990s, the original menu was vegetarian, and the rail was left in place as an ironic reminder, a kind of memento mori for meat eaters, or maybe non–meat eaters. But Miss Millie's later expanded beyond meatless offerings as the neighborhood changed, and as Kookez picks up the baton, the neighborhood continues to change.
Noe Valley is known as the city's "baby belt," and really you can't go a block without encountering a baby stroller, a nanny, a pack of tots, or a young father carrying an infant in some kind of chest sling. The Kookez brain trust is on the case; in addition to the cookies, the restaurant offers a kids' menu (cupcakes included), the waitstaff seems unfazed by strollers zooming to and fro inside, and the cards of fare are laminated. I understand the precautionary nature of taking this last step, since children do have a way of spilling, scattering, smearing, and otherwise making messes with their food. At the same time, the menu card entombed in plastic does summon for some of us the ghosts of forgettable meals in chain restaurants near freeways at the outskirts of cookie-cutter cities in the heart of the heart of the country.
For the most part, Kookez pulls off its Comfort Food Nation conceit pretty nicely. The familiar stuff is the best: a bowl of New England clam chowder weighted with potatoes and bacon and heady with black pepper ($4.95); a chicken pot pie ($10.95) with a lovely golden pastry crust and a pea-rich stuffing; an excellent hamburger ($8.50), subtly swabbed with chipotle aioli and served with a stack of garlicky home fries in need of but a sprinkle of salt to come to attention; an herb-roasted half chicken ($12.50), tender and moist and plated with garlic mashed potatoes (under- and perhaps unsalted) and sautéed zucchini.
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