To this day, my brother references Heart and Souls, a Robert Downey Jr. and Elisabeth Shue film we saw the summer of 1993, as the ‘best movie experience of all time.’ And it’s not because the movie was ‘all that and a bag of chips’ either. It’s been over 20 years since we saw it, but I remember it being cute, the kind of flick that made him laugh and me cry, because I’m a sucker for wide-angle shots and perfectly timed scores that crescendo into a final goodbye or true-love’s embrace. Me and every other middle-aged woman, right? In fact, Heart and Souls is probably where I first developed my crush on Robert Downey Jr., but that’s another story for another post.
Regardless, the reason my brother liked the film so much is because it was a surprise to him. He took a gamble and went to a movie he knew nothing about and entered that theater to let the experience unfold with the opening credits and first few scenes. He hadn’t read a review, or asked me, and my movie buff friends, to sum up the characters and storyline. Back then; he was studying with his fellow overachieving classmates until 3 AM most nights, so he had no time to watch TV and hadn’t seen the film’s trailer, which I find is usually just the premature ejaculate of any memorable dialogue and laugh-out-loud jokes, which in essence renders a film to lackluster status by the time you see it in theaters anyways. It was a simpler time back then, and the Internet would have been little help at all. Without being “prepped,” the handful of memorable moments and inspirational one-liners were all a genuine surprise. And with the open mind of a virgin moviegoer, he consumed the film, and all its early 90’s Robert Downey Jr. glory, as it was intended by the director.
The reason I’m telling you this, is because I feel like we can have that same childlike experience today; and that’s by trying new restaurants without all the due diligence.
These days it’s a rare occasion when I go to a restaurant I know nothing about. And sometimes, I think that mars the purpose of dining-out in the first place—to explore and discover for the sake of the unknown.
Usually, before we go to a new restaurant, I’ve read some local food and travel blog, or at least skimmed through an overly critical San Francisco Chronicle critique of a venue’s signature dishes and acoustic inadequacies. I do all this beforehand, and develop my own opinions, which, again, are built atop some embryonic foundation germinated at the whim of some social media marketeer or publicity guru. With foodie communities and consumer generated review sites, we’re constantly polling various populations for insight into where we should eat next, or what we should order when we get there. And I’m wondering if this is taking away from the authenticity, and awesomeness of the experience itself. The experience that comes with the element of surprise? Is the reason we dine anywhere new, because at some point, someone, or something, has methodically impregnated us with some false sense of intrigue?
Whether our cravings are stirred by a glossy Bon Appetite feature, brimming with finger-licking food-pornography, or we feel obligated to keep up with the foodie-Joneses Yelping about some secret menu; it’s nearly impossible to dine without some preconceived notion of what the food is supposed to be like, how it’s supposed to be prepared, who’s supposed to be preparing it, and why we’re supposed to appreciate or dislike it– before we even try it ourselves. And if by some chance, all the social media digitally bombarding us with screams of praise or hate is nonexistent, there’s still the opinion of my cuddly, four o’clock-shadowed Zagat of a boyfriend, who will usually give me a clue as to what we’re in store for when heading to a new restaurant.
But I got lucky recently, and like a virgin, well…you know what I mean, I ate at a restaurant I knew nothing about. Just like my brother in 93, I was a tabula rasa. Aside from the name of the restaurant, 1601 Bar & Kitchen, I’d heard nothing about it. I wasn’t even sure what type of cuisine they served. Based on the name alone, which is more of an address than anything else, I guessed they served beverages and food. Other than that, I had no clue. And since I tune Jonathan out completely (sometimes), every time he said something about the restaurant, it went in one ear and out the other.
The excitement and suspense of going to a restaurant essentially blind-folded is a rush I hope to feel more often. Because once we entered this contemporary restaurant on a quiet corner in the SOMA district, and been handed a menu of Sri Lankan tapas; I realized what kind of epicurean excursion we were about to embark on, and I was giddy!
1601 Bar & Kitchen
Executive Chef Brian Fernando has created a wonderful menu that is the personification of his culinary career and heritage. His work in Granada, Spain, has inspired his love of a warmer, more casual, dining experience where patrons socialize into the wee hours of the night as they share a variety of well-executed small plates focused on delicious ingredients and flavors paired to accompany their drinks. Then he moved to the Bay Area and was trained in fine dining restaurants influenced by French cuisines and techniques (Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Le Papillon in San Jose). Now, in his own space in San Francisco, he’s marrying his cooking experiences with his Sri Lankan heritage. This mé·nage à trois of style, technique, and taste is a delight, and even though I’ve now been here once, I hope to go back again and again, pretending like it’s my inaugural experience… all over again.
House-smoked salmon, burnt onion crème fraiche, turmeric gel.
Local halibut “ceviche”, compressed cucumber, coconut milk, Serrano chilies.
Seared scallops over ground toasted coconut meat and kale salad.
Mulligatawny soup, chicken confit, pickled black mustard seeds.
Traditional hopper, soft-cooked jidori egg, sambols.
Browned cauliflower, sweet cumin, lime pickle emulsion.
Fried heirloom potatoes, chile-fenugreek vinegar, Maldive fish
Lamb and pork meatballs, cinnamon, green chickpea relish, Straus yogurt.
Seared bavette steak, coriander, seeni jus, roasted cipollini onions.
For dessert, we decided it would be best to do something healthy; so naturally we picked desserts with real fruit.
The banana fritters, coconut nectar, yogurt, treacle.
Ginger shortbread, compressed strawberries, spiced crème Chantilly.