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Baker & Banker

A Meal You Can Bank On

The finest examples of San Francisco's dining scene are demonstrated less in its grand destination restaurants than in its neighborhood gems. Small, independent eateries pepper the city, often manned by up-and-coming chefs turning out the most innovative and appealing food. Baker & Banker, occupying a former apothecary on a quiet corner in Pacific Heights, is one such spot.

The space has long been home to exemplary restaurants. For years it held The Meetinghouse, whose biscuits still trigger Pavlovian salivation among locals when mentioned, and until quite recently it was the original location of the well-esteemed (and once Michelin-starred) Quince.

Perhaps the name has a certain power of suggestion, but the interior does have a sort of bankish elegance to it. Cream-colored walls are framed with dark trim, topped with weathered gilt cornices. Dark leather banquettes flank the walls, and mirrored panels lend a sense of depth. Incandescent lights hang from vintage conduit. Hand-written chalkboards announcing the daily wine and food specials bring a dash of casual warmth. Overall, the effect is that of an upscale bistro.

But the food is far from bistro fare. Chef Jeff Banker fuses global flavors with classic and refined technique. On our visit, we started with an amuse bouche of a Thai-spiced spring roll served in a Chinese soup spoon in a shallow pool of cara cara orange; the bright flavors were an appropriate way to wake up the palate and set the stage for the meal. Nextm vadouvan curry left a haunting note in a creamy, velvety cauliflower velouté ($9).

Flavor profiles in the main dishes transported us squarely back into Western territory. A perfect piece of sea bass perched atop a rich risotto with scallops and shrimp ($27). The risotto lent a sense of creaminess and richness without drowning the delicacy of the seafood. A roulade of braised stuffed lamb was complemented with a dollop of rich polenta finished with mascarpone and sage ($24), a halo of jus from the braise around the edges.

Banker's food is never bland, and his seasoning was on point. However, so delicate is the hand with spicing that occasionally the flavors fail to assert themselves to the forefront. The spring roll, for all its brightness, lacked any marked Thai flavors, and the soup's curry was almost not noticeable at first, leaving a subtle and lingering burn on the palate. It's refreshing not to be beaten over the head with big flavors, but sometimes they might err just a little too conservatively.

The aptly-named pastry chef Lori Baker (and the other half of the husband-and-wife team whose names grace the restaurant) produces top-notch sweets (all $8). A towering slice of triple dark chocolate cake combined three representations of everyone's favorite antioxidant delivery mechanism, yet retained a mousse-like lightness, never succumbing to fudgy ganache. A slice of nut bar was everything that’s good about pecan pie — crunchy, sweet, slightly salty atop a buttery shortbread crust — without the thick layer of syrupy goo.

Service is a highlight. Plates are presented with precise synchronicity, courses are described eloquently on presentation, and dishes are removed with the same coordinated timing, and at appropriate times. Chef Banker walks the floor periodically, checking in on diners and ensuring they're content with the offerings.

As has become de rigueur in new restaurants these days, Baker & Banker is focused on farm-to-table practices, with nearly all ingredients sourced from local farms. Consequently, the menu is highly seasonal and market-driven.

The wine program is tailored to be food-friendly. High-acidity whites and robust reds feature prominently. It would be nice to see more California wines to align with the locally sourced foods, but the list is thoughtful nonetheless.

Diners can opt for a five-course tasting menu for $55, with an optional $35 wine pairing. In fact, it's more like four courses plus two half-courses: an amuse bouche and a palate cleanser. It makes for a relatively affordable way to sample a variety of things on the menu, and the courses are sized so that you come away sated but not groaning.

Street parking in this corner of Pacific Heights can be challenging, so diners may find solace in their valet parking.

Baker & Banker has struck a fine balance of elegance and warmth in a cozy neighborhood setting. It would be as apt a spot for a romantic night out for two as to bring out-of-town guests to give them a true taste of San Francisco.

California cuisine
Pacific Heights
$$$
Reservations accepted