When Lissa Doumani, co-owner of the new Urchin Bistrot, and host-extraordinaire, came to our table and said, “You aren’t getting the gougères you ordered,” I was taken aback. “They taste good, but they came out flat. I told the kitchen staff that gougères aren’t pancakes!” Such is the perfectionism and care for her customers Doumani embodies, and so began our evening at Valencia Corridor’s hottest new restaurant, on day three of its existence. So, we made do with two other gorgeous appetizers, a deviled egg with caviar and sea urchin, and duck hearts with a sauce of yogurt and berbere spice, which turned out to be an idyllic combination— the creamy, salty egg, whose deviled yolk was draped with sea urchin, and the little roasted hearts, shaped like a child’s spinning top, with their firm meatiness. Both paired well with a “flask” (a little more than a half-bottle in volume) of the Langlois Brut Rosé from the Loire Valley.
When Doumani and her husband, chef Hiro Sone (who also own Ame in the St. Regis and Terra in St. Helena), decided to put a French place in Charles Phan’s former Wo Hing General Store, it occurred to many of their long-time customers that the Mission doesn’t really have a great French restaurant. That made them nervous. Because, of course, the duo has never been inclined to embrace tradition for its sake, alone. Still, they put steak frites and lamb cassoulet on the menu, which will please those seeking classic cooking. The rest of the menu is French-original, starting with basically French concepts, and then riffing off local ingredients that obviously delight Sone.
The space has been transformed from its previous incarnation. What was light and bright at Wo Hing is now dark and sexy. The main feature of the dining room, besides the bold orange wooden booths painted (as was the entire restaurant) by Doumani’s brother, is a giant mural by the chef himself, representing the intersection of France and San Francisco’s Mission District.
For first courses, we ordered ocean trout fumé and steak tartare with fried oysters, each decadent in opposite ways. The translucent raw fish had the lightest possible smoke, and was served with coarse sea salt and capers.
The tartare was more like a carne crudo of the kind you’d find in Italy’s Piemonte, roughly chopped and mixed with olive oil, plated with two fried oysters and set on remoulade. Interestingly, they both matched up with the 2011 Domaine Barat “Le Padabu” Petit Chablis, perhaps because of the lush fattiness of each.
Next, I ordered the irresistible Hiro Sandwich, Sone’s namesake deconstruction of the genre, which is two big marrow bones on a base of French fries, with meatballs topped with jalapeños, and an upside-down slice of toasted Tartine baguette with aioli.
A 2009 Domaine Guillaume Gros Syrah blend was the big, ripe wine this dish needed. My wife chose the spaghettini with sea urchin, an exercise in deceptive simplicity, much like a carbonara, with egg yolk and cream. And while the Sancerre would’ve gone well, she chose an equally compelling Gamay Noir from Bouchard Pere & Fils (2012), a direct, fruity, and slightly earthy wine.
While we had no business ordering dessert, we were led down the path of baba au rhum, served here in characteristic simplicity: a light yeast cake designed to be sliced open, doused with the accompanying rum, and smeared with this whipped cream.
Even though Urchin Bistrot is just getting its feet wet, service was flawless—gracious, accommodating, and welcoming. Staff seamlessly switch roles, as when the sommelier took our food order because she happened to be there. Dining here is a lovely experience, through and through, and I predict that this will only deepen over time.
584 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-10:30; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-11
Price Range: $$$-$$$$