Thursday, March 13, 2008

Brenda's French Soul Food

My friend Mark, who knows about everything before I do, has been wanting to go to Brenda's French Soul Food for months. He planned to take some people to brunch there a few Sundays ago. It was, however, closed. They don't do Sunday brunch. Who can blame them? Unless drag queens are somehow involved, the thought of Sunday brunch makes me cringe. The two of us hoped to have dinner at Brenda's last week. The only glitch in that little plan was this: Brenda's doesn't serve dinner. Rather than being miffed, I found that news heartwarming.

When I was a young and foolish California Culinary Academy student, one of my courses called for creating a restaurant business plan. My teammates and I decided that a breakfast and lunch-only venue would suit our tastes just fine, since you can really mark up egg dishes. We'd be doing what we loved-- serving up great food, but we'd have our evenings free-- enabling us to have a relatively normal social life. We could have our pancake, as it were, and eat it, too.

Brenda's, then, is a place after my own heart. It's exactly what I'd want to do if I were crazy enough to run a restaurant.

Located at 652 Polk Street between Eddy and Turk, Brenda's shares a stretch of road with two other food venues. On its right is Kentucky Fried Chicken-- a place of no culinary pretensions whatsoever. To its left and across the street is the California Culinary Academy-- a sad, musty diploma mill that churns out nothing but culinary pretension every few weeks. Hovering somewhere pleasantly in the middle, Brenda's has not disturbed that delicate balance of the block in the least. What it has done, thankfully, is bring great food to the neighborhood.

When I arrived at Brenda's on Wednesday morning, I was told I might sit wherever I liked by a tall, thin gentleman with a scruffy beard who was, it would seem, the sole server on the floor. I took a small table near the door, where I could have a clear view of the customers around me.

The restaurant is small. Two white-clothed tables for four in the center of the room, one small table in the window, and five small tables along the left wall.Counter stools populate the right wall, just below a bank of mirrors which runs the entire length of the place.

I ordered a coffee and dug into my portable Sherlock Holmes, which I placed on top of my little notebook. To my left was a man about my age with a scruffy beard, also reading, but near the end of his meal. Looking at my notebook and camera, he asked me if I was going to do a write up on the place. I cringed at my obviousness. That and the fact that every man in the place, including myself, was wearing a scruffy beard. I lied to him and took another sip of coffee.

There were two men sitting in the window. One was a handsome fifty-something Frenchman . His non-French breakfast companion was rattling on loudly about Napa wineries, San Francisco restaurants and who he knew just about everywhere else. Fortunately, he made his great show of saying goodbye to Brenda before I started eating.

I asked my server which beignets he thought were best. He suggested I try the beignet flight ($8.00) and decide for myself. I did.

From fore-to-background in the photo above: plain, Granny Smith apple with cinnamon honey butter, molten Ghiradelli chocolate, and crawfish with cayenne, scallions, and cheddar. It is the order in which I ate them. My server stated that people normally consumed the crawfish first. I am delighted that I didn't, because it was by far my favorite-- the chewy sweetness of the crawfish popping every so often through the ooze of the cheese, the heat of the cayenne, and the sharpness of the scallion. I am already planning my return to have a full meal of them.

They were all quite good, really. The apple beignets weren't overly sweet. They had a subtle saltiness to them I found appealing. I'm not an expert on these pastries, per se, and I've heard some people (Yelpers) whine that beignets in New Orleans are normally much bigger and cheaper. I would hardly call the portions here small. Or over priced. In fact, nothing at Brenda's is more than $10.00.

Wondering what to order next, I asked my server's opinion on the matter. Mentioning that I was intrigued by the Pineapple Upside Down Pancakes with Vanilla Bean Cream and Ginger Butter, he said that, while they were great, I might not want them after so much beignet. He was right, of course. When I asked about the Hangtown Fry special I noticed written in white grease pen on the mirror across the way, he smiled. That's all I needed. It doesn't take much arm-twisting to get me to order a Hangtown Fry. "Grits or potatoes?" he asked. "I'm kind of a potato guy," I said. I saw his smile fade a little. "But, I suppose I'd better have the grits, right?" His face brightened. I was grateful for my ability to read social cues. I told him I'd keep the menu, in case I wanted to order anything more.

It is obvious from the above photo where I placed the most of my gustatory enthusiasm. The grits. Buttery, lightly peppery, and just salty enough. The pat of butter I was given may have been intended for the biscuit, but mine ended up on the grits. I did not ask for instructions.

I never knew I liked grits. In fact, my two or three previous experiences with the dish had left me rather bored. In my thoughts, grits were an unseen province of salty, beehived situation comedy diner waitresses and they were meant to be kissed in some kind of submissive fashion. Well, I kissed Brenda's grits, and I'll kiss them again, happily.

While I was tucking into the fry, a man and woman dressed in chef whites wandered into Brenda's from the Culinary Academy. I thought how sad it was that they couldn't find anything worth eating over there. The man, I noticed, had one bright blue eye and one of milky hazel. I got caught looking, so I initiated a brief conversation with them about the school. I admitted my status as an alumnus and warned them to keep a wary eye out for people who do not understand the etiquette involved in walking around a busy kitchen with 10" chef knives. Their reaction to the pitying look on my face when I was told that tuition at the school had nearly trebled since my graduation eleven years ago indicated to me that our little interview should end as quickly as possible. I went back to reading The Adventure of the Copper Beeches and stuffing my face.

As I sat eating and reading, another man of my approximate age and scruffiness sat at the table beside mine. I really must shave. Unlike his predecessor, he seemed uneasy in his status as a single diner. He tapped is fingers and wagged his foot as though it had fallen asleep within the first ninety seconds of his being in a seated position. When his eyes weren't darting about the place, they were fixed upon his iPhone. I didn't know whether to laugh (on the inside) or cry. Few people seem really at ease with dining alone. It made me mildly depressed, but it did give me an idea for another blog post, which made me mildly cheerful.

The Hangtown fry itself was good, loaded as it was with salty, smoked bacon and fresh, fried oysters. But my delicate, hummingbird frame was challenged by the enormous portions of both dishes tried. Delicate, too, was the biscuit-- the flavor of fresh butter melted in my mouth as is the way with the good ones and it had a flakiness that, had the biscuit taken a human form, might be diagnosed as Brittle Bone Disease by medical students. I mean that in a good way.

I was unable to finish my meal, being as well-stuffed as one of those beignets from earlier in the meal. I took my remaining victuals home and had them for lunch. The grits were good even then, served cold.

My server returned, looked at the menu still placed on the table, and said, smiling, "Are you still planning on ordering more?" My brain said yes, but my stomach disagreed. I looked out the window at the Eastern Park Apartments, a retirement home that is neither in the East nor anywhere near a park. I thought to myself that, if I kept eating like this, I might not live to an age which might necessitate my inhabiting such a place. I sided with my stomach and asked, instead, for the check.

Now, I do not know Brenda Buenviaje, namesake of the restaurant. I chose not to introduce myself nor ask questions during my first visit. My photo-taking and journal entries made me look idiotic enough. When I took a closer look at Brenda's website, I read her profile and had a better clue as to why the food made me happy-- she is a former head chef of Sumi (the only good restaurant in the Castro, as far as I'm concerned) and of Cafe Claude (my I'm- hungry-and-tired-of-watching-other-people-shop/ I-need-a-drink place of choice). She looks like someone I might like to sit down with over a glass of wine. I only hope, should that occur, that I can stifle my desire to blurt out grits-kissing remarks.

I'll be back to Brenda's, and soon. There's a lot there that I still need to try, like the Grillades and Grits, the Egg and Bacon Tartine, and those Pineapple Upside Down Pancakes. But really, it's that crawdaddy beignet. Second only to relieving my bladder, it was the first thing I thought about this morning. Really, I swear.

Brenda's French Soul Food is located at:

652 Polk Street (at Eddy)
San Francisco, CA 94102

Telephone: (415) 345-8100

Hours of Operation:

Breakfast is served Monday through Friday from 8 am to 3 pm.
Lunch is served Monday through Friday from 11(ish) to 3 pm.
Brunch is served on Saturdays from 8 am to 3 pm.
Closed, for now, on Sundays.

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