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The Mission Beach Café

The Tide is High -- and Dry

I’ve often wondered how restaurants that serve three different menus a day manage not to go manic. How can one be an expert baker in the morning, and then a genius with a quiche come noon, and then follow it all up with a full roster of dinner entrees just a few hours later? This challenge is rarely, if ever, executed well, but I always admire the goals these eateries set for themselves -- and often wish for simpler fare.

This little neighborhood café conjures imagery of Miami’s sleek South Beach club culture, but don’t show up in your string bikini expecting fruity cocktails. However, this sleepy corner of the neighborhood, eager to get in on the great food caravan (or is that freight train?) of recent years, does share some traits in common with its coastal namesake: linger too long, and you could get burned. (In fact, if you sit too long at a window table during the day, you truly can contract a case of sunburn!)

The service could not be sweeter; kind and hospitable to the core, though perhaps not as knowledgeable about the food as they could be. The coffee is Blue Bottle, and pastries ranging from okay-minus to wonderful are served all day. The wines, a dozen each of local reds and whites, are just as casual and easy to swig, all available by the glass, with many around $7. Right there one has a winning formula for a place worth walking a block or two to get to. Wrap it all in the stylish, ivory décor, stop in for a glass of anything, and you won’t be disappointed.

The food, however, strives from this recipe for simplicity, and the results ebb and flow and, all too often, wipe out completely. Friends have reported pleasant lunches of fancy tuna salad on coarse wheat bread, although sandwich fillings were closer to paltry than plentiful. Two recent visits yielded wildly different results.

Our first tasting, shortly after the place opened, was pretty good. We nibbled some house-made gnocchi with a good chew and lots of oil, a tiny burger with fries that was the perfect wine-sized bite, and some raw tuna with a schmear of sweet potato that was better than expected. What captured our hearts, though, and that which demanded further examination of the place, was a heavenly slice of strawberry rhubarb pie, sweet and tart and bursting with seasonal freshness in a good crust.

But a return visit to get to the bottom of that pie (and the rest of the menu as well) wasn’t the nostalgic day at the beach that I’d remembered. For one, the crispy spring rolls ($7) were soggy and underseasoned. The Fritto misto ($9) was better, a bold fry-up of artichokes, Brussels sprouts, and though it was just the top of spring, zucchini and eggplant, that was salty and tempura-crisp. The flax-encrusted tilapia ($12) was cooked well, but it did little to rid itself of the slimy texture of its coat of seeds.

The tiny poussin ($14) stuffed with chervil and lemon, was fairly bland and, even more disturbing, not as hot as it could have been. Even its strawberry and kumquat compote (though the menu promised rhubarb) could not add depth or character.

Amidst the savories, the venison chops ($25) were probably the best, venison being a delicious meat seen on menus far too rarely. Though they plated well, with the beauty of cross-hatched grill marks, they were meant to be rare but, sadly, were served raw, deeming parts of the dish inedible -- a perfect foil for the gummy, undercooked (but housemade) pasta. Almost everything we ate suffered from doing too much and trying too hard. The kitchen could greatly benefit from…oh, I don't know…the proverbial day at the beach?

We had thought this would be another eatery lost at sea. But the room was packed with happy wine drinkers who didn’t notice that dinner was dreck. The flotation device that saved the meal was the selection of housemade pies for dessert. And we dove, fork first, into many luscious specimens of crust and hand-whipped cream.

The strawberry rhubarb (all $5) still sang as I’d remembered. And the chocolate pecan was a dense beauty of quality ingredients that will be revisited -- sweet, but not cloyingly so, nutty, dark, and earthen. The apple-cranberry was fruit forward and bursting from its top crust, an elegant exercise in satisfying homemade baking. They all kept good company in the display case, amidst flaky croissants, deadly tortes, fluffy cakes, and brazen caramelized pot du crèmes -- all perfectly baked and tanned.

Pastries, Sandwiches, Café, Small plates, California
Mission District

Reservations essential? No.