Raising the bar
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If Cheers had served good food instead of cheap beer and persiflage, Dr. Frasier Crane might never have fled to Seattle to start anew. Also, the place might have come to resemble the Alembic, a smallish installation along upper Haight that has been distilled from that nearby citadel of suds, Magnolia Pub and Brewery, now an institution. Unlike Cheers, the Alembic isn't in a basement; it occupies a storefront that was most recently home to Maroc. But, like its distant sitcom relation, it does have a bar scene that radiates human energy, not to mention a bar that looks the way a bar should: busy and used.
The bar is a spectacle, but it isn't there for show. The bottles arranged on the high wall shelves aren't all perfectly turned so the label faces outward, and they're not all in immaculate rows. This is because the bartenders are constantly reaching for them, then reaching for measuring cups, strainers, napkins, and glasses for the whipping up of various libations, from simple to complex. (There's wine too, and if you're a fat guy named Norm, you can even get a beer.) The action is blurring but precise, and Sam Malone probably wouldn't last five minutes under the strain. Like so many other food industry jobs, bartending is a game for the young.
Speaking of the young: there are tons of them at the Alembic, and not just behind the bar. The clientele has a modern Mission District look, yet the Mission, for all its cultural variety, has no street to match Haight Street, no comparable collection of goofballs, edge-dwellers, hustlers, dropouts, and misfits prowling the sidewalks, or just sitting on them. But that's outside, and inside ... well, out is out and in is in, as Kipling might have put it, and never (or at least hardly ever) the twain shall meet. Getting to the Alembic can be an excellent adventure, but once you're inside, you might as well be at 16th and Valencia streets.
Because the front of the small space is dominated by the shrine-like bar, it's possible to overlook the dining area toward the rear. Here people are eating food, and it's surprisingly sophisticated food sophisticated for a bar, sophisticated for the Haight, which despite or because of its international reputation is a little short on interesting places to eat.
Let's say you were interested in a dish with truffles, for instance, and you could only look on Haight Street. You might try RNM, which is probably the best restaurant on either Lower or Upper Haight. But the Alembic has truffled dishes; one is the macaroni and cheese ($9), which carries the definite black-earth perfume of truffles as relayed through infused oil. The mac and cheese is also made with Gruyère (another discreet flash of toniness) and, we thought, a bit of bacon or pancetta for some meatiness. If the truffle is an incitement to class warfare, how clever to put its essence in dish that's the very picture of Middle American modesty.
Truffling the gnocchi ($9) might be riskier the word is harder to pronounce, for one thing. But the truffle infusion goes nicely with the hedgehog mushrooms nestled next to the gnocchi pillows themselves, while splintered asparagus stalks bring some green and speak of spring.
The menu is notably vegetarian-friendly, even beyond the gnocchi. The kitchen performs discreet wonders with that revolting winter beauty, the beet, by turning both red and yellow examples into carpaccio ($6) and topping each slender, glistening, geutf8ous coin with a dab of goat cheese and sprig of watercress. And let's give some extra credit for the presentation, which is on a slightly concave porcelain rectangle like those used for serving sushi rolls. (All the plates and platters are handsome, incidentally. Very unbarlike.)
Then there are the little snacks, or nibbles, among them slightly sweet nuts roasted with sage ($3) and a cone of excellent herbed frites ($5) spiked with lemongrass and accompanied by with a small tub of chipotle aioli. We found the nuts underpowered; they could have used some salt and maybe some chili heat to balance the sweetness. But the fries were svelte, crisp, and sublime.
They also went nicely with one of the menu's handful of meaty dishes: Moroccan-style sliders ($10), halves of a beautifully juicy, medium-rare lamb burger served on toast points, with harissa aioli, roasted peppers, and tapenade. The burger doesn't come with the fries, but you might think about having them together, in part because burgers cry out for fries, and if you're interested in a burger you're probably pretty hungry, and this burger isn't that big. A man in full dinner mode could easily eat three, and that would put the tab at a Manhattan-ish $30.
If that seems a little(or a lot) steep, you could go to Plan B: dessert. No one would ever mistake the Alembic for Sweet Inspiration, but the kitchen does manage to turn out some respectable confections. A strawberry beignet ($7), for example, turns out to be an actual freshly fried doughnut, complete with a tight hole in the middle, but the strawberry refers only to the pat of strawberry ice cream on top, which was a pretty pink but too sweet. Better balanced are the troika of s'mores ($7), with homemade marshmallow, lengths of fresh banana on top, and a chocolate hazelnut sauce slithering around the plate. The sauce is tasty but difficult to eat, since the s'mores themselves aren't very absorbent and have a way of disappearing in a single, gratifying bite. A smaller s'more need not be a lesser s'more.
Dinner: nightly, 5 p.m.midnight
Lunch: Fri.Sun., noon5 p.m.
1725 Haight, SF