Gifted wife-and-husband duo bring a seasonal and eclectic menu to an impeccable Victorian space
"Banker" might not be the most auspicious word to attach to yourself in these parlous times — people used to rob banks; now it seems to be the other way around — but what if it's your surname? In a series of small ironies and convolutions, you're a chef not a banker — a chef named Banker, Jeffrey Banker — and you're married to a baker named Baker (Lori Baker), and you open a restaurant. The restaurant is called Baker & Banker, which sounds formidably institutional. Your patronage might expect a building with fluted marble columns and an ATM-like machine that dispenses pastry to holders of valid cards.
But no. Baker & Banker (which opened in early December) actually occupies the space, once an apothecary shop, that used to house the Meetinghouse (where Banker worked as a cook), and later Quince, before its move to the Financial District. The building, at the corner of Bush and Octavia streets, is authentically Victorian, right down (or up) to its flat roof; it looks like the sort of structure that would carry a small brass plaque saying Mark Twain once slept there. But of the old apothecary shop there is no longer, alas, any sign. The wallsful of small drawers that gave the Meetinghouse such a distinctive cast have been removed. The dining room is sleeker than it used to be, and also slightly roomier, although it's still on the snug side. Wall banquettes upholstered in dark brown leather, plenty of dark wood, and a caramel paint scheme lend the room an urban warmth, maybe a little like that of an exclusive steakhouse on the Upper East Side.
One new design wrinkle involves placing chalkboards on the windowless walls. The chalkboards announce various specials, from cheese plates to beers and wines by the glass. The wine list, and indeed the menu as a whole, has a more Teutonic flavor than one is accustomed to finding on what is basically a California-cuisine menu. How about, for instance, a glass of German red wine, a spätburgunder from Georg Breuer ($13) — a pinot noir, in other words, as pale and delicately balanced as a young ballerina on her tiptoes, with a pronounced presence of cherry?
Actual cherry turned up, as a reduced juice, to sauce a plate of bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin ($24.50). The meat, which appeared as a pair of upright cylinders with beveled tops, was roasted medium-rare to a lovely rose color and accompanied by shreds of savoy cabbage dotted with spätzle, to continue our Teutonic theme. But I am getting ahead of myself.
As we might expect at a place where one of the principals is a baker named Baker, the baked goods are superlative, beginning with the basket of still-warm items — slices from a honey-wheat loaf, a pair of honey-rosemary buns — that reach your table not long after you do. Desserts are comparably fine ... but again, I leap ahead.
The core of Banker's menu is seasonal and eclectic — more like that of the Meetinghouse than Quince. You might start with a rather Italianish white-bean soup ($8.75) deepened by bits of pancetta, shreds of kale, and a creamy green-garlic sofrito. From there you could move on to a filet of seared black bass ($25.50), a pad of flaky white flesh plated atop a Thai-style shellfish risotto ringed with crispy shallots. Banker's is a world without borders.
Or — since one of the less-advertised pleasures of winter is salad — a beautifully composed winter salad ($13) of Monterey calamari à la plancha, arugula, frisee, fried chickpeas, and sections of mild, juicy Oro Blanco grapefruit. Citrus, for all its sunniness, is largely a winter crop.