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The Smoking Goat

3408 30th Street, North Park

The small sign on the restaurant’s front door, displaying the charming logo of a clever-looking billy enjoying a pipe, is hard to spot when you’re driving by. You have to know where to look: the restaurant, just north of Upas on the west side of the block, is next to a corner bar with a sizeable front patio well populated by smoking primates. The Goat has a patio, too, but it’s tiny, with only two tables. When we went there on a Tuesday around 7:15 p.m., the interior was nearly standing room only, and customers were still coming in when we left at 9:30. It looks as if we have a new neighborhood favorite here, in a hungry area (southern North Park) that’s starting to develop a Restaurant Row centered around Upas Street. Upas has always been super-cool in some elusive way, and it’s even better since America’s Finest City finally got around to properly paving the roadway five or six years ago, so that you could finally drive on it without breaking an axle in the potholes.

The left side of the room holds a short bar occupied that evening by one couple and changing configurations of dude-groups. Some were eating burgers, but at least one solo had an arugula salad. Farther inside, there’s an open kitchen, occupied by two chefs, including the owner on the night of our visit. The right side of the room has tables (mainly four-tops) and numbingly hard, flat-seated wooden chairs. No carpeting or soundproofing. Eclectic rock and jazz plays loudly but not clearly — the muddy sound adds to the general din of people shouting to hear each other talk. “It seems to be a first-date scene,” said one of my tablemates. “Not a lot of conversation required, or possible.”

The draw is the food as well as the scene: this is the first restaurant in the area to offer what you might call serious contemporary cuisine. French-trained chef-owner Frederick Piehl is a graduate of Cordon Bleu in Paris and formerly worked at Avenue 5 and 9-10. The brief and changing menu is printed on a single narrow sheet of heavy tan paper: seven soups, salads, appetizers, and entrées. The wine list is on ivory paper of the same size, with four whites and six reds, with interesting bottles from Italy, France, and California.

Following the minimalist aesthetic of the room, some of the simplest starters are the best. Our table favorite was panzanella — not the traditional Italian riotous bread-and-veg salad but a caprese with a few croutons. Thickly sliced local heirloom tomatoes were sweet and ripe, mingling with tender burrata mozzarella and a few little hunks of toasted baguette in a light balsamic dressing. By late June, everybody with a mouth is craving the taste of summer tomatoes; this slakes that desperate thirst. And the Gascon specialty of duck-fat truffled fries are bound to be another favorite — duck fat has so much more flavor than, say, canola oil. Or even good oils.

But the cooking can also be surprisingly elaborate, with explosions of unexpected ingredients on the plate. One of our choices was a veal sweetbreads appetizer garnished within an inch of its life. Sweetbreads are the thymus gland of the calf, but don’t let that scare you — this is normally a delicate, slightly porous meat. Here, though, the bites of meat were substantial, swamped in a thick crumb coating and cooked a bit too long, until they tasted nearly like veal muscle-meat. They came coated with fresh corn, served over grilled scallions, carrots, maitake mushrooms, and a tragically miniature measure of scrumptious celery root purée. Far as I’m concerned, you could get rid of half this other stuff and just multiply the amount of the purée to make a cushy full-size bed for the meat. Its flavor speaks more directly to the sweetbreads than anything else here does.

Celeriac, always welcome on any plate of mine, reappears raw and shredded as a remoulade to accompany a crumb-crusted, burger-size crab cake, with baby arugula, citrus, and avocado. Ripe tomatoes and thin slices of radish tamed by the dressing appear as well. The well-seasoned cake is amended with red pepper and scallions, and no starchy filler that I could detect; all the starch is in the heavy crumb coating. The garnishes are delights. The problem is something that seems to be endemic recently in local restaurants: the crab has very little sweet crab flavor. Obviously, affordable restaurants can’t afford Dungeness or Maryland blue crab, but whatever else everybody’s been using doesn’t satisfy the crab jones. It’d be fine in a California roll but is too bland to take center stage. (It’s not just at this restaurant, it’s been true of the last two or three places where I ate crab in any guise, and also the one I’m likely to review next week.) Can this be a result of the Gulf oil spill? (Louisiana was a major, unsung source of blue crab before this.)

Wine prices considerably exceed food prices here, not unusual, but this is a neighborhood restaurant, not a temple of cuisine. For our starters, we enjoyed an interesting Quincy (Sauvignon Blanc) from the Loire Valley ($35), unoaked and very straightforward, sort of in-your-face in a nice way. For the entrées, we tried a pleasing, velvety Nebbiolo ($45), which suited our pork dish and went well with the chicken, too. But I wish that there were more than just three choices for $30 and under.

One of my tablemates had eaten here before and raved about the airline breast of Jidori chicken. “So moist, so perfect!” she said. I’ve grown skeptical about ordering this or any other chicken in restaurants. Even though this breed is known for its tenderness and flavor, it withers and dries up like any other clucker if overcooked, as it usually is. Well, finally a chef who treats it properly! It emerged moist and lively, accompanied by smoked tomatoes, corn relish, blue lake beans, and a queen-size bed of well-salted but drastically lean mashed potatoes (including several sizeable unmashed lumps), with natural jus. This seems to be the current fashionable version, as though chefs were competing to make them as austere and least like Grandma’s comfort food as possible. I hope that fad will soon expire. Bring back the dairy.

A “Duo of Duroc Pork” (a flavorful heritage breed) paired succulent glazed pork belly with crisply sizzled grilled tenderloin, served over enchanting polenta with a touch of house-made peach mustard on the side, plus bitterly challenging mustard greens for the veggie. I loved the crisp surface of the tenderloin but found the interior overcooked to pinky-brown. The glazed pork belly, deep-flavored and spoon-tender, was a dream, especially with the polenta underneath.

Grilled “local sea scallops” (presumably Callo de Hacha from the Ensenada area) were ultra-firm, verging on rubbery. This isn’t a function of the breed of scallops — some top local chefs such as Trey Foshee at George’s have picked up on them — but of overcooking. It may seem presumptuous to offer suggestions to a Paris-trained chef, but picking local chefs’ brains in interviews over the years, I’ve learned that these very thick scallops tend to be easier to do right if they’re halved horizontally before cooking. The diner gets more scallop on the plate, even if it’s the same net amount, and it’s easier to achieve the perfect opalescent doneness in each piece with brief cooking — typically a hot sauté on one side only, and then, if needed, a minute in the oven. In any case, we all enjoyed the accompanying sweet corn and pancetta risotto with lemon basil.

Overcooking also dogged our California sea bass, which, unlike other entrées, came on a plain plate dominated by a meadow of trendy farro (Italian whole wheat) salad. The fish is browned, the farro is brown; it’s not pretty despite a few vegetable sparks of color in the wheat field. Worse yet, the first bite, from the edge of the fish, was so sawdusty I couldn’t swallow it. It proved pinker inside but still as dull as halibut. The components putatively include a salsa verde, but it was invisible and untasteable. If anything on this menu needs the chef’s full-out baroque treatment, it’s this bass. (Farro? Fuhgettaboudit!) Of course the menu changes frequently; maybe next week he’ll have a better local bass, like corvina. (I only wish!)

We weren’t exactly starved for a dessert, but peach crisp was a temptation, and the four of us happily shared an order. It was an exuberant flash of peaches and crisp crumbs, topped with vanilla ice cream dripping with light caramel syrup. Zap, yum, gone! Alas, there’s no espresso, only regular coffee (which has more caffeine by far, so none of us wanted to risk it on a weeknight).

“So, whaddya think?” I asked my tablemates. The adjective that came up the most was “promising.” Currently, the kitchen’s performance is uneven, dish to dish and possibly night to night. Who knows whether the several overcooked dishes would still be overcooked on a quiet night, compared to our jam-packed evening, or what the effects might be of heavy weekend crowds more focused on drink and “scene” than food? But the chef has basic solid chops, culinary imagination, and a neighborhood that’s on his side. This could be — probably will be — the start of something big. ■

The Smoking Goat

★★½ (Good to Very Good)

3408 30th Street (at Upas), 619-955-5295; thesmokinggoatrestaurant.com
HOURS: Tuesday–Sunday, 5:00–10:00 p.m., possibly later if full.
PRICES: Soups, salads, starters, $7–$12; entrées, $14–$25; desserts, $7. Corkage, $20.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Changing seasonal menu of French-tilted California cuisine. Short but interesting international wine list, most bottles $35–$45 (up to $65), most wines available by the glass.
PICK HITS: Panzanella salad; duck-fat truffle fries; Jidori chicken; duo of Duroc pork.
NEED TO KNOW: Only 20-odd seats, including bar and patio, and no reservations. Hard chairs and near-extreme noise (conversation just barely possible). Casual date scene. Fine for lacto-vegetarians. Street parking.

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Founder July 14, 2010 @ 2:01 p.m.

Sounds Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad!


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