Lance Dean Velasquez is the master of the sneaky tweak. This month, the chef of Bendean, Solano Avenue's newest restaurant, punk'd me with apples.
Reading the terse "brick-pressed fulton valley chicken, cheddar cheese polenta, mutsu apples," I thought I would be eating apple sauce or a sweet apple compote over the poultry. I should have known better. The chicken (a spice-rubbed breast that was pressed with a heavy weight while it was fried so that a uniformly crisp crust formed before the juices fled the meat) was topped with a small stack of julienned raw apples. The crisp shards worked like a squirt of lemon juice, a tart flash that illuminated just how savory the meat was. Cream, and lots of it, transformed the polenta beneath the bird into a golden cloud.
Similarly, the mound of curried apples in the center of a bowl of French lentils -- another suspicious combo -- wasn't a garish ornament but the keystone of the dish. The earthy flavor of the Puy lentils was swaddled in a rust-colored broth with roasted gypsy peppers and an understated blend of North African spices. Dollops of a tart cucumber-flecked yogurt hit the tongue like a smack. The high contrast between the comforting and the bracing was bridged by the aromatic masala coating the stewed apples. Their hint of sweetness tasted like a small gift.
Confession time: I've been a fan of Velasquez' food for years. Back in the mid-'90s, the Moose's vet was jumping from restaurant to restaurant so quickly that critics began to complain about how often they had to review him. But five years ago he settled in at JohnFrank in the Castro, which after the dot-com crash morphed into Home, my favorite budget bistro in San Francisco. He stayed there until June this year, when he and co-owner John Hurley decided to sell their shares and move on. Bendean, whose name combines Velasquez' son's name with his own middle name, opened quietly a couple of months ago.
Here's what I like about Velasquez, a real cook's cook. His solid, classic technique produces few flaws. His simple food, which pulls from dozens of cultures without blaspheming any of them, is smart and soulful and above all, tasty. With his light touch, Velasquez demonstrates time after time that he knows how to conjure up the big flavors but doesn't have to. I always walk out of his restaurants shocked at how full I am.
All of those qualities are in evidence at Bendean. It's by no means a perfect restaurant yet, but I'm glad he's jumped the bay.
For one, Bendean continues Velasquez' penchant for high-design interiors. (You should have seen Neo, the all-white restaurant that looked like a Peter Greenaway remake of Sleeper. ) Radically revamped by Robert McGillis, the room feels as if it should have its own DJ. The designers have created a casual atmosphere by simply refusing to finish the edges. Small lights over each table seemingly hang from wood beams and plumbing pipes, and the drywall stops about two feet from the ceiling, leaving the building's raw concrete musculature exposed. Light reflects off sheets of corrugated tin, tall mirrors, and zinc tables. A brick-red wall at the back works like a visual space heater, however, chasing away the chill of the industrial chic.
The downside of the room is its tiny sweet spot -- about six or eight tables near the back. As winter approaches, the front tables regularly get washed with cold air from the front door, and though the four-foot-high tables and stools along the left wall are surprisingly comfortable, when you sit at them you feel like second-string diners watching the game from the benches.
A couple of Velasquez standards show up on Bendean's ever-rotating menu: the bavette steak with red-wine butter and fries, for example, or the pork chile rojo, all costing a couple of dollars more than they once did in the big city. The most welcome import, Home's "how do they do that?" early-bird prix fixe, has been renamed "Ben's Supper." From 5:00 to 6:00, $12 gets you a simple salad, an entrée (one night it was curried chicken and heirloom peppers), and a dessert.
Freed from the last restaurant's bargain-basement price range and high volumes, however, Velasquez has been able to move back into sophisticated fare. His roast quail was a miniature masterpiece, the tiny, juicy bird complemented with stewed figs and a swirl of lemon goat-cheese cream. He rubbed coriander -- but not too much -- into a fillet of wild salmon, set the roasted fish over massive white beans, then united the two with aioli and a gemlike salsa of juicy cherry tomatoes and mint. Ethereal scallops were brought to earth with braised kale, carrots, and onions in a chicken-stock broth, the subtlest surf-and-turf around. A "fried ranch hill pork cutlet" turned out to be crusted in panko, the crisp, golden plank of meat set on a meaty reduction sauce sharpened by capers. You didn't realize you were ordering Wiener schnitzel, but gosh, doesn't it taste good. Punk'd again!
Without the surprise factor, the chef's food plateaus at good. When my friends and I picked through the mountain of aioli-drizzled french fries to get to the mussels below, for example, we found them floating in an Al Gore of a broth, earnest but not compelling. A bowl of fluffy potato gnocchi actually tasted of potatoes, the sauce of fresh thyme and melted parmigiano reggiano. But the ingredients that were supposed to stand out, sautéed mushrooms, slipped into the background because they weren't cooked quite long enough to concentrate their flavors. Sumptuous shards of braised lamb and tender cubes of carrots, celery, and onions floated in a clear broth whose depth of flavor came as a surprise. I would have melted into the dish if Velasquez had substituted a fresh pasta like pappardelle -- something that would have soaked up more of the sauce -- in place of the big, bland rigatoni tossed with the meat and vegetables.
Though the staff hasn't quite choreographed its movements as a team -- the night I sat on the side, my friends and I experienced odd lapses in the dance of busers, water-pourers, and waiters -- it's probably a matter of time before meals flow smoothly. All the servers speak with the polish of experience, demonstrating that they've been schooled in the food and the short, eclectic wine list. They also know when to join in your fun and when not to, a sense of discretion I enjoy more and more as I get older.
Velasquez' passion is clearly for savory dishes, and desserts sometimes get short shrift. The vanilla cheesecake had been baked a few minutes too long, passing by the perfect balance between firm and creamy. Devil's food cake: Dry. But the apple-almond tart was made with the most ephemeral of pastries, so it evaporated in the mouth leaving only a welcome slick of butter. The sliced apples and almond paste thinly layered overtop were calibrated so that neither overpowered the other.
Bendean's understated charm seduces rather than awes. Velasquez' food doesn't intoxicate you with luxury, blast you with spice, or educate you with its pedigree. But after a visit or two, you may find yourself stopping to read over the menu every time you pass by, wondering what delicious twists it hides.
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