Palmetto Restaurant and Lounge

House of glass
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

Let us now parse famous streets — in particular, Chestnut and Union streets, those parallel avenues and venues of Marina culture, so near to yet far from each other. As someone who cannot be said to be a habitué of either promenade, I speak with the authority of the outworlder, the sporadic visitor whose perceptions are freshened by infrequency. Therefore: Chestnut Street seems to me to be peopled by post-collegiate sorts in their 20s, while Union Street, a few blocks up the hill, strikes me as more thirtysomething country. There the upland air, while still smelling strongly of youth, acquires a crisp note of adultness. One notices better shoes, and certainly fewer chain and fast-food restaurants, than in the nearby bottomlands. Union Street, in fact, is a pretty good place to eat; Betelnut is still there and well into its second decade of life, while just a block or so away we now find Palmetto Restaurant and Lounge, which opened over the summer in a unique space long occupied by Café de Paris L'Entrecote. (And, for Tales of the City nostalgists, the lights of Perry's are still a-twinkle.)

Palmetto's street persona is that of a glassy cottage that's begun to sink decorously into the pavement. You make your entrance by taking a few counterintuitive steps downward, and you find yourself at the edge of an airy, open, well-lit solarium with, behind the host's station, a bar that could easily be a sports bar. The clientele is fearsomely athletic-looking, as if everyone is a model awaiting an imminent photo shoot for Power Bars. But the restaurant's ruling muse turns out to be elegance, not brawn. The interior was redesigned by the noted architect Cass Calder Smith, and the idea, as in a certain sort of cooking, is to let the space speak in its own voice. The overall effect is one of warm minimalism — an apparent paradox, yet one is bewitched by the scale of the rear dining room (which is far larger than the glassy little house on the street implies) and the easy fluidity of human movement. There is even, in a throwback, an exhibition kitchen at the restaurant's very rear — a discreet nod to the culinary voyeurs who still lurk among us.

Chef Andy Kitko (a Gary Danko alumnus) has picked up the script left behind by the departure, some years ago, of 42 Degrees — as in 42 degrees of latitude, as in, more or less, a line running near the coasts of southern Europe and northern Africa, through Italy and the Balkans and on to the Black Sea, whose south shore consists mostly of Turkey. The word the restaurant uses to describe Kitko's panoramic menu is "contemporary Mediterranean," and although "Mediterranean" has lately become a squishy term, here its big-tent roominess seems right. "Contemporary," of course, is code for "California," meaning, more or less, we'll try anything once.

The food tilts toward small plates, along with soups, salads, and pastas available by the half-size. These last are not inconsiderable. Maccaronis amatriciana ($8) featured the classic Roman sauce of pancetta, onion, chili, and tomato — pleasantly spicy, with a hint of smoke — spooned over a healthy portion of house-made pasta, like stubby straws that had been slit open.

The bigger plates, interestingly, are on the not-huge side. The burger ($12) was just right, about a third of a pound of Meyers Ranch beef — and it was also fabulously juicy and full of flavor, a best-in-show contender. It would have been satisfying even if it hadn't come with a cone of crisp, well-salted frites and their sidekick trio of sauces: ketchup, tomato, and cumin aioli, with its breath of the Maghreb. King salmon ($24), meanwhile, was given a yogurt marinade and served atop a tabbouleh paste with peas and cumin carrots; it felt vaguely Turkish to us.

But, as is so often the case, the kitchen saves its best work for the smaller jewels.

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