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She's So Unusual

The Worldly Masterpieces of Johanna Ware

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LET US SAY the word "fusion" once, and then tuck all of its wide-eyed alchemy, look-what-I-did, and ambitiously placed peanuts connotations squarely away. Chef Johanna Ware's beautiful and sublime dishes draw from the world's pantry; her menu uses tamarind, plantains, and dashi the way a master perfumer combines sandalwood, ylang ylang, and neroli to create a scent that is of no other place or time. Her new restaurant Smallwares is quite possibly the most exciting new restaurant in the city.

At home along a calm and comfortable stretch of Alameda Ridge, the stylish, subtly Asiatic dining room—centered around a deep and accommodating bar—is an open and airy place to relax and enjoy these offerings. A drink menu, heavy on sake and complex beer, but not without pinpointed wines and unique house cocktails, is as curated as the food menu, and a pleasure to pair. (Slum it with Miller Lite and Sichuan-esque fried chicken lollipops, or church it up with a sweet-sour Duchesse de Bourgogne and silken scallop sashimi.) The friendly and educated staff are as integral to the quality of the Smallwares experience as the fare itself, on point and efficient in all phases of service.

Ware, formerly of such high-end kitchens as Momofuku and Nostrana, creates dishes that are designed for sharing, and the menu is arranged into seafood, vegetable, poultry, and entrée categories, with the entrées sized for diners who want just one item. Two or three appetizers and two entrées is enough for a couple, and prices are fair for the quality of the ingredients, the ambience, and the expertise that brought them together. Restaurants with similar offerings typically ring in several dollars higher a plate, and often feature parking situations fraught with cigarette-bumming Kraken.

Ware has an unfailing instinct for gestalt, amplifying sturdy, distinctive meats with refreshing textures and subtle exotica. A soft, kombu-cured salmon starter—with labne (slightly sour strained yogurt), a crisp julienne of apple and red onion in olive oil and Meyer lemon juice, and a light dusting of nutty sesame seeds—is a fair introduction to Smallwares' balance and refinement. The aforementioned scallop sashimi is quiveringly fresh, with den miso-sauced scallop filets under a delicately spicy salad of radish sprouts and shallot. A tempura treatment of seasonal vegetables in a warm dressing of fish sauce, chopped mint, and smoky strips of glistening, candied bacon is a fragrant and salty snack that begs for a frosty pilsner.

A superb banh mi has been worked into the mix of otherwise plated items, and deserves special attention. The filling is a tender, crépinette-like crumbling patty of ground pork, seared and placed with traditional fillings on a slightly charred, Kewpie-and-Sriracha dressed roll. A mince of chicken liver has been worked into the pork to enhance its caramelized meatiness. It is—listen, man—really, really fucking good. It's once-in-a-career-expletive good.

To think that I was saving myself for a Frenchman. Oh well.

Back to the elegant stuff. Rounding out the poultry category (where the banh mi lives, as a nod to the liver, I suppose) is a plump, juicy roast quail. The crisp, rendered skin is lacquered with creamy preserved rhubarb (which there could have been more of, without complaint), alongside bitter mustard greens and warm crème fraîche, which makes for a succulent and complete large appetizer.

Entrées are respectably sized, but hardly gluttonous. A bowl of chili paste-dressed somen noodles with fried egg and chewy hijiki is gently spiced, creamy with yolk, and filling, but the menu's most gratifying and robust dish has been, for me, the oxtail curry. Flavored with sweet coconut, dressed with crisp plantain chips, and served with a ramekin of fruity, fiery habanero puree, the dark, braised meat with its thick brown gravy makes an explosively good, sweet-and-savory stew. Adding the whole serving of habanero and a one-dollar cup of rice made this a satisfying single-dish meal, the well-used heat playing psychotropically with my already favorably disposed mind.

Opening soon in Smallwares' back space will be Barwares, a large late-night lounge featuring many dishes from the kitchen, an expanded cocktail program, and, in the warmer months, outdoor seating. An early tour reveals the makings of a sexy, sophisticated space with another full bar, large communal tables, and fireplace.

This is a consistent restaurant, born steady, and deserving of multiple visits, either for a relaxing solo meal or polished night out with friends. Stop in and enjoy world-class food, away from the stress of downtown, at one of the city's most promising new gems.

Open Tuesday-Friday 11:30 am-10 pm, Saturday-Sunday 5-10 pm. Spacious dining room, open kitchen, and conversational ambience. Small plates average $10, entrées $15.

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