If the second half of the 1990s stands to be remembered as an era of golden bubble baths in San Francisco, the decade's quite different first half (less opulence, more calamities) might be remembered as a magical era of neighborhood restaurants. With the Great Freeway Shift that followed the 1989 earthquake demolitions, re-routings, rethinkings the city's relationship with its suburbs changed forever; suburban diners could not be counted on as before to fill city restaurants, and young chefs migrated into the neighborhoods to start their own places in what amounted to a culinary diaspora.
Among the earliest of these pioneers was Kirk Webber, who opened his Café Kati in the borderland between the Fillmore and Japantown in 1990. Webber brought a high pedigree to the venture; he had been trained at the California Culinary Academy and had worked at Silks (in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel), among other places, before opening Kati. The restaurant, nonetheless, was a neighborhood restaurant, snug and warm, with a handful of tables and a sense that each dish was being carefully handmade in the small kitchen behind the dining room.
And so it remains. From the rustic, wood-cut-style street signage (reminiscent, for me, of Chez Panisse's) to the intimacy of the dining room (which seats no more than 20 or so) to the wall art that resembles the famous cave paintings at Lascaux, France, Café Kati feels personal. It has been shaped by human hands and reflects a steady, guiding sensibility. Even the slightly retro black track lighting on the ceiling reinforces our sense that Café Kati has evolved and accreted has earned its look over the years rather than having been sculpted all at once by a hired-gun designer who then was hired elsewhere and moved on, never to revisit.
Webber is one of the first, and remains one of the purest, of the so-called fusion chefs, the people who brought Asian touches to classic French cooking. A central goal for Webber was to cut down on the fattiness and richness of the traditional dishes without having them deflate altogether, and in this sense his food shares a root with nouvelle cuisine. Even after nearly two decades, it retains an element of invention and wonder without becoming contorted or attention-seeking.
The appetizers are the main, most overtly Asian dishes on the menu. One of Kati's longtime customer favorites, in fact the dragon roll ($18.95) is as good a sushi-style roll as I've had in any Japanese restaurant. The roll includes avocado, cucumber, and wonderful crisp-fried shrimp, with flaps of smoked salmon laid like tarpaulins over the top of each rice round. And instead of serving the wasabi and soy sauce separately, Webber mixes them into a glossy sauce that shows signs of being thickened and softened with a bit of honey.
In another signature dish, Vietnamese-style spring rolls ($8.95) the sweetness of mango is modulated with plenty of cilantro, Thai basil (a little sharper than the Italian kinds), and, above all, mint. Webber doesn't stint on plate decoration, either, having a particular fancy for complex coilings of ruby-red beet and for colorful heaps of cut carrots and microgreens. Plates can look like dioramas of a flower shop.
Main courses open out from Asian influences without forsaking them entirely. Hanger steak (at $29.95, the priciest item on the menu) gets a slightly sweet marinade of soy sauce and sesame oil before being grilled, cut into slices, and served with Blue Lake beans and sautéed spinach.