Monk's Kettle

A craft-beer bar with food to match; ergo, a kind of hipster tavern
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

First, although it's early, let's hand out our first annual Best Restaurant Name Award. This year's winner is the Monk's Kettle, which is a witty, memorable, and — since the place in question is a craft-beer bar with food to match; ergo, a kind of hipster tavern — evocative phrase. Everyone loves a monk, and kettle is just fun to say, especially after a fancy beer or two.

The Monk's Kettle is not a brewpub. No beer brewing is done on the premises, which are probably too snug anyway. The deal instead is a wide offering of beers from around the world, in the manner of Toronado or Moe Ginsburg's; some are draught, many others are in bottles, but all are served in one of the stunning array of specialty glasses stacked behind the bar like crystals in some extraordinary ice formation.

Pardon is hereby issued to those who don't recognize the space as the recent home of a Thai restaurant, Rasha, and before that, of Kelly's Burgers. The footprint is the same — deep and narrow, with the sizable, mirror-backed bar and a semiopen kitchen along the right side and, on the left, booths snuggled against the windows — but the smell of old grease is gone, the color scheme is now one of muted earth tones, and the harsh lighting has given way to halogen pinpoints and, above the booths, glowing disks that look like the shells of some huge mollusk.

But the aesthetic makeover, though thorough and stylish, is dwarfed as a marker of change by the crush of people trying to get into the restaurant. A year ago Rasha seemed to be largely empty, despite good food at moderate cost, a bright red neon sign, and a prime location; the Monk's Kettle, at age two months, is already wall-to-wall crowds on weekend evenings, with even more people spilling out onto the sidewalk. And they're young, hipstery people.

If the wealth of craft beers is part of the Monk's Kettle's appeal to this social cohort, so too must be the food, which is a surprisingly vegetarian-friendly version of pub grub. Many of the most memorable dishes are meatless and would do credit to the kitchen at Greens. But hipsters like their burgers too, apparently; on a recent evening while eating at the bar, we were flanked by young burger eaters dressed à la mode, two and three to a side.

The burger ($10.50) is good. The meat is grass-fed Niman Ranch and is served on a dense, chewy bun from La Brea Bakery. A slice of cheese (various choices) adds $1.50, and the American-style fries are fine. But there's nothing exceptional here. As for the house-made veggie burger ($9.50): half a gold star for innovation, since the patty is falafel, laid out on the same La Brea bun instead of stuffed into a pita pocket with tahini sauce.

On the other hand, the Monk's Kettle does offer quite a few treats you won't regularly find on menus in the Mission or around town. There's a fresh pretzel ($6.50), for instance, twisty soft and served with whole-grain mustard and a cheddar-ale sauce for dipping and dunking. We also liked the lightly crisped black-bean cakes ($8.75), a pair of slim disks scattered with roasted-corn salsa and artily piped with chipotle crème fraîche. Bruschetta ($8.50) — toasted bread spears smeared with cannellini puree — were plated in an overgrown garden of mixed greens and resembled statuary half hidden amid unkempt tendrils, but the greens were enriched by sautéed mushrooms and chunks of white cheddar cheese, bringers of flavor, texture, and heft.

Butternut squash soup ($6.50) needs special handling to rise above its usual station as a cold-weather commonplace. Do pepitas, the little pumpkinseeds of Mexican cooking, answer the call? The Monk's Kettle kitchen installed them as a scattering across the surface of the soup, and they did their best, but the soup, while creamy, was a little too sweet and unfocused to satisfy, even with pepitas.

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