It’s a Michelin-starred darling worthy of our time and attention
When Michelin-starred State Bird Provisions opened in December 2012, I reviewed it in my weekly reviews at the SF Bay Guardian early 2012, saying, “Jazz is the soundtrack of the streets of Lower Fillmore. From its storied days as the ‘Harlem of the West,’ to the current seat of Yoshi’s SF, Boom Boom Room, Sheba Piano Lounge, Rasselas, and other blues/jazz venues, the subtly gritty streets echo with its soulful past. I would venture to say Fillmore newcomer State Bird Provisions is an ideal jazz companion. There’s no musical connection. But the spirit of jazz is present in their playful, dim sum-style presentation… and in the way, former Rubicon chef duo (also husband and wife), Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, evolve the menu daily… Plates flow out on carts or trays like an experimental jazz riff, but never feel rootless.”
10 years (and a few months) later, jazz fanatic that I am, still thinking those improvisational chops, even as the team has evolved. SF natives Brioza (who was one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs in America in 2003) and Krasinski went on to open The Progress in 2014, which also earned a Michelin star, and Anchovy Bar in 2020. But State Bird (SBP) paved the way. The restaurant was named #1 in the US in 2012 by Bon Appetit and won James Beard’s Best New Restaurant in America in 2013. State Bird has earned a Michelin star every year since 2014, despite its casual nature. The couple won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: West in 2015, publishing their consummate cookbook in 2017, State Bird Provisions: A Cookbook.
Needless to say, with all these accolades, they’re not just one of San Francisco’s (many) very best, but have been a game-changing, leading restaurant in the nation for a decade. Yes, they turned 10 in December 2021, their lush parklet having evolved over the pandemic to become a coveted space to dine, while their iconic dim sum cart service didn’t return until late May 2022.
State Bird’s playful spirit, tight wine list (natural, small producers and beyond since day one), sake and service have always been a draw in a dining room that evolved from pegboard walls to 80s-tinged whimsy. But it’s the food that has always pushed SBP to the upper echelons of my top restaurants and one of a short list I recommend to diners when they ask that impossible question: “What is the best restaurant in SF?” (I have to repeat over and over that my “best of the best” list is a few hundred alone, and for god’s sake, please pick a genre to narrow it down!)
There are those few chefs whose perspective you can actually taste on the plate, where their mashup of global flavors comes together in a way that is uniquely “them.” Many excel at technique, classics, even creative vision. But it’s a much shorter list of chefs that evoke a certain spirit, even voice, on the plate.
We’re blessed with a disproportionate number of such visionary chefs in SF compared to most cities, and Brioza has long been one such chef. Mexico and Asia play seamlessly in his dishes, then the Germanic or Eastern European strains peek through, interplaying with native American elements like fry bread. It’s a viewpoint that surprises, delights and comforts — and I can taste it at The Progress, too.
Likewise Krasinski is such a voice in pastry, making them both the powerhouse duo they’ve long been. Her iconic World Peace peanut muscovado milk is confirmation: pure, nutty, silky perfection since SBP opened. From jasmine-poached fruits to cocoa custard, there is a purity that meets mature depth in Nicole’s desserts. Last year, even a seemingly straightforward stone fruit-huckleberry sorbet tasted like the glory of summer with figs, lemon verbena cream and coconut crunch.
Promoted from sous chef to executive chef since joining in 2015, Gaby Maeda has moved State Bird forward into its latest evolution, named one of Food & Wine‘s 10 best new US chefs in 2021, as Brioza was nearly 20 years ago, and a James Beard finalist in 2020. Maeda hails from my beloved Honolulu (catch my new Honolulu food guide here), working in restaurants since she was 14. When I first tasted her savory mochi, it was a revelation. A summer version of corn mochi in goat gouda, fresno chiles and cilantro, the dumpling chew was Japanese perfection, the vibrant flavors of Cal-Mexico. It’s a dish that stays with you and I’ve enjoyed it in three different versions.
With her recipe recently featured in Food & Wine, Maeda’s unique technique and dish are being copied as I’ve already seen in other cities. She evolves the recipe seasonally, like Spring carrot mochi with pickled carrots, pistachio dukkah, and roasted carrots, or dreamy pockets of beet mochi dotted with pistachio, ricotta salata and Seville orange.
I’ve recommended and brought countless industry friends — and beyond — to State Bird (and all of Stuart and Nicole’s restaurants) over the years. Most fall in love. Recently a couple from other countries said they felt the experience was uneven, while they had a more memorable meal around the corner at Anchovy Bar. Trying to surmise their take without having been there that visit, I realized carts weren’t back in play yet and like everywhere, they’ve had to train up less experienced staff.
But as I returned recently with a group of friends from DC, New York, Iowa, Colorado, Virginia, we had the sweetest server who clearly was on the newer side. Her graciousness extended to marking every single gluten dish on the menu by hand for my intolerant friend, to saying she wasn’t sure but would refer to the experts on staff when I asked questions about the wine bottles I’d narrowed down to. Even here, my service experience over 10 years of dining each year at State Bird has been good to exceptional.
The drink side — overseen these days by beverage director Adam Robins — keeps step, only enhanced by the growing number of sake on the menu (appropriately served in wine glasses). This is the kind of place where I might sip a ripe, two year-aged Junmai Ginjo Uonuma Noujun, move over to local standout Massican’s enchanting, elegant Annia Tocai Friulano/Ribolla Gialla from Napa, veer truly low ABV (3.8%) with Cellador Ales Famille Small Oat Saison from LA or hit the natural splendor of a 2020 Grenache Blanc azul y garanza naturelza salvaje from Navarra, Spain. Drink options are savvy, neither typical nor elite, approachable but interesting.
Last year, Maeda’s mochi made an unforgettable impression. I also was blown away by black sesame duck confit dumplings. Or how glorious a melon cucumber salad could be in ricotta salata, pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and vibrant plum ‘chamoy.’ Same goes for summer squash all fiery and fresh in pistachio sambal, fried shallots and mint.
As ever, the evolution of Brioza’s sourdough-sauerkraut-pecorino-ricotta pancakes or garlic fry bread (last summer in burrata, seven-pepper spice, tomatillo and peaches) show off savory, sweet, sour, umami and all the nuances in between, in a way that makes starchy menu items among State Bird’s biggest highlights.
A few weeks ago, my national group of friends dug into over 15 dishes. Many we raved about, none were “off” for any of the seven of us. Signature smoked trout and allium chips ‘n dip — which historically was always the first thing I’d point to start on the dim sum carts — were the hit they always are. Ditto Krasinski’s peanut milk shots.
The fabulously sour tang of those sourdough sauerkraut pancakes remain quintessential State Bird, while a green garlic pancake dotted with bay shrimp, fava beans and chile jam made a spirited case for a yang to the sourdough pancake yin.
Cumin lamb dumplings evoked the spirit of Chinese Islamic cuisine, first with the use of lamb vs. pork in the dumplings, then with umami layers from aged tamari and ginger. Charred cauliflower went East-West spicy with both Calabrian chiles from Italy and numbing Sichuan pepper from Chengdu, China. Peanuts and scallions imparted crunchy contrast.
Local squid grilled with cucumber, almonds and fried chickpeas exudes warm comfort, cooled by an ajo blanco sauce (bread, crushed almonds, garlic, water, olive oil, salt, vinegar), inspired by classic Spanish cold soup. As expected, dissolve-in-the-mouth potato kimchi croquettes killed it, but an accompanying side of shaved beef tongue, radishes and mung bean sprouts threatened to steal the spotlight. When my friends who hadn’t had beef tongue before likewise were hooked, I knew the dish was a winner.
One of my go-to State Bird entrees (which I ordered the last couple visits) is red trout, silky and meaty, contrasted by toasted hazelnuts in mandarin garum vinaigrette. Many of us were particularly smitten by an off-menu special of halibut tail in tamari sauce. It sings of Asia and California with local halibut tail exuding sweet, salty, caramelized goodness.
Dessert made us all happy, even those like me with less of a sweet tooth. Fluffy poppy seed angel food cake gained vegetal, sweet, creamy elements from Thai basil, mascarpone and blueberries. Rhubarb lilikoi granita already featured one of my most beloved vegetables I anticipate every summer: rhubarb. Over fennel seed tapioca with blood oranges, an ideal companion of fennel’s licorice-anise hit sent it up into the dessert stratosphere. Signature State Bird pastry, which now includes executive pastry chef Kathleen Kwuan with pastry sous Lisa Chan.
A decade later, whether I come with the Renaissance Man (my husband Dan) or friends, State Bird dishes touch every side of my tastebuds. Delicious comfort reigns but rarely in a typical or expected way. From Brioza’s sourdough pancakes to Krasinski’s peanut milk to Maeda’s mochi, State Bird Provisions is a place that sets trends, does not follow them. Yes, I’d still dub it pure, flowing jazz. And, just as it was when it opened over 10 years ago, it’s one to watch.
// 1529 Fillmore Street, https://statebirdsf.com/home