A Lust for Twenty Five Lusk
by Monique Burns
Diners should know at least three things about Twenty Five Lusk. The first is that the five-year-old restaurant is one of San Francisco’s finest and trendiest. The second is that its stylish bar and lounge offer some of the best craft cocktails in town—not to mention an encyclopedic list of red, white, rosé and sparkling wines, plus single-malt Scotch whiskies, Italian grappas, French cognacs and other imported spirits. The third is that Twenty Five Lusk is a little off the beaten path.
Visitors who pull out their maps and decide the restaurant is too far from downtown to book would be making a major mistake. In compact San Francisco, Twenty Five Lusk—on the eastern edge of SOMA, the hip neighborhood south of Market Street—is a mere 15-minute taxi ride from Union Square. If you’re driving, there’s plenty of parking space—unless, of course, it’s Game Day at nearby AT&T Park, bayside home of the 2014 World Series champion San Francisco Giants. In which case, use the restaurant’s valet parking service.
Steps from the Caltrain station—whisking commuters to southerly stations like Palo Alto, home of Stanford University—Twenty Five Lusk is easy to find, though it’s tucked in a quiet alley. The restored 1917 warehouse is a secluded setting for a romantic tryst or a warm family celebration. A separate dining room with seating for 30-35 provides even more privacy. Dinner is served nightly, and Sunday brunch is also popular. Superb dining and a chic atmosphere attract serious foodies and those seeking a fancy night out. Dinner for two costs about $80-$100 without drinks. With cocktails and wine, a couple will pay $150-$200.
Entering the first floor of this contemporary bi-level restaurant, you’ll pass the sleek but cozy downstairs bar and lounge with two brushed stainless-steel fireplaces. A few stairs brings you to the second level and the spacious dining room. Alongside the upstairs bar, the dining room has wood-beamed ceilings, heavy beamed columns, exposed brick, and black-leather seats and banquettes. The look is upscale yet casual.
Twenty Five Lusk specializes in international fusion cuisine though it’s usually billed as a New American restaurant. Chef Matthew Dolan uses many fine local ingredients from California and the West, and a menu note points out that the restaurant “supports organic and sustainable fishing, ranching and agricultural practices.” Dishes are about as diverse as residents of these United States, with accents of Northern, Western, Eastern Europe and the Baltics as well as the Americas, the Middle East and Asia.
After graduating from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Chef Dolan cooked his way across Europe, from France to Finland. Before hanging up his toque in San Francisco, he worked at the oh-so-European Café des Artistes in New York and at Emeril’s New Orleans. In San Francisco, Dolan worked with top local chefs Mark Franz, former Executive Chef at Stars and now Head Chef at Farallon, and Bradley Ogden, who first gained renown at the Campton Place Hotel restaurant. Highly educated and experienced in his craft, young Dolan melds experimental flair with solid culinary knowledge.
Like world-class artists, singers, writers and musicians, the finest chefs have distinct styles. Dolan’s tones are rich, dark and brooding. There’s little that’s light-hearted or froufrou about his creations, which, while innovative, are classical, even baroque, in style. That’s not to say that you won’t find salads and other light dishes. But Dolan shines when working with dense foodstuffs, complex sauces and multiple layers of flavors.
Dressed in muted gray and black, servers at Twenty Five Lusk are cheerful, efficient and seem to genuinely love fine food. Sensing a fellow foodie in me, my server was delighted to ply me with various delicacies and point out their grace notes. For starters, he brought me an amuse-bouche of three caviars—salmon, trout, and sturgeon from the Sacramento River Delta—with whole-wheat blinis, and red onion, dill and crème fraiche. Transported to Eastern Europe’s steppes, I almost took the very fine menu recommendation of ice-cold Beluga Gold Line Russian vodka from Siberia. Instead, I followed my server’s lead, pairing my caviar with a flute of refreshing Delamotte brut champagne from France.
Twenty Five Lusk also has an intriguing craft-cocktail menu, including Dark and Stormy (with Gosling’s Black Seal Bermuda rum and England’s Fever-Tree ginger ale), Little Ava (with apple-scented calvados, orange-infused Combier triple-sec and a spritz of verbena absinthe) and Carnival en Oaxaca (with habanero-infused mescal, Portuguese sugarcane liquor called cachaça and hot hellfire bitters). Non-alcoholic cocktails include sparkling blackberry cooler, and Hurry Up with red bell pepper and maple gum syrup.
From the eight “First Courses,” I chose the smoky grilled octopus, a long arm curling around drops of labneh, a dense Middle Eastern yogurt-cheese, with local peas, mint and a pleasantly tart squid-ink vinaigrette. Several other dishes tempted me, namely the roasted-fennel bisque with garlic scapes and crisp lollipop kale, and the pork belly Benedict with a quail egg, fried soft-shell crawfish and béarnaise sauce. But the rich, flavorful octopus was delightful paired with a 2013 Saloman Undhof Hochterrassen Grüner Veltliner, a crisp dry white wine from Austria’s Kremstal Valley, about 40 miles west of Vienna.
Expect filling fare at Twenty Five Lusk. Portions tend to be large, and various accompaniments can inflate even the smallest dishes. After the caviar and blinis, and the meaty octopus opener, this trencherwoman was well-nigh sated. Accordingly, from the list of nine “Mains,” I considered lighter fare like sturgeon schnitzel with blue lake beans and almonds, and grilled gulf prawns with carrot coulis, horseradish vinaigrette and Japanese-inflected togarishi grits.
But egged on by my darkly bearded server, who had become something of a culinary Rasputin to me, and my own predilection for the rich and intense, I ordered the Muscovy Duck Confit. With a conspiratorial wink, my server asked if I’d also like a little foie gras. Naturally, I winked right back, and said, “Why not?”
Soon two plump duck legs, afloat in dark rich bing-cherry sauce with asparagus, porcini-mushroom ravioli and slightly bitter frisée greens, arrived in a large shallow white bowl. Atop the duck lay a slab of foie gras as big as a steak. Why that dish could have fed three people! But dining alone, I had no choice but to dig in by my lonesome. It was Dolan at his best. For those who use amorous metaphors to describe dining, this was love—and a whole lot more. It was lust. It was temptation. It was obsession. It was totally over the top. I confess that I lingered over every bite—or at least almost every bite. For this was a rare time when I could not finish a dish—though every fiber of my being longed to. Poised on that searing edge between satiety and frustration, I was thrilled. Simply put, the duck was exquisite.
After the main course, I took a brief hiatus, savoring a spicy 2011 Pinot Noir—which I had almost ignored during the main event—from Alysian Wines by Gary Farrell of California’s Russian River Valley. To have dessert or not, that was the question. And, after some pondering, the answer from myself (and my server) was a unanimous and resounding “yes!” Eager to taste all that Twenty Five Lusk offered, I chose the dessert tasting plate with a salted-caramel brownie, cloud-like lime posset and a trio of sorbets. Bypassing Portuguese ports and madeiras, Bordeaux sauternes and Spanish sherries, I went with my server’s recommendation: the delicately sweet Dr. Loosen late-harvest riesling from Germany’s Moselle River Valley.
Was there room for an after-dinner drink? Unfortunately, no. Not even for a thimbleful of espresso—never mind an after-dinner cocktail like the Espresso Martini with Bora Bora vanilla-infused vodka, hazelnut syrup and coffee liqueur.
My evening at Twenty Five Lusk was a true bacchanalia. But I realized that there was a whole lot more. There was the Bar Menu, with meaty kusshi oysters in a lobster-and-green tomato mignonette, Bavarian-style soft pretzels with sharp-cheddar fondue, Ahi tuna tartare with pineapples and avocado mousse on a rice crisp. There were Happy Hour “bar bites” like octopus tacos with cabbage, pineapple and black garlic, and short-rib sliders with creamy burrata cheese and pickled fennel. There were Brunch Menu specialties like organic strawberry pancakes, lobster Benedict, and fried chicken with bacon-and-potato hash, a sunny-side up egg and maple gravy. As for the Dinner Menu, it offered myriad temptations beyond those I’d already succumbed to.
As soon as I felt that dark and stormy lust for superb, sometimes over-the-top, cuisine well up in my soul, I’d be back. Or perhaps I’d just drop in for a cocktail, and a slightly less dramatic Black Angus burger with bacon, cheddar, green tomato salsa and duck-fat potatoes.
Twenty Five Lusk. 25 Lusk St., San Francisco, CA 94107; 415-495-5875. www.25lusk.com. The restaurant is open daily for dinner; Chef’s Tasting Menu available Monday-Thursday. Sunday brunch is 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Happy Hour, with drink discounts, is Monday-Saturday, 5-7 p.m.