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Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Mason Pacific just might have the chops to turn a tweener district into a destination.

Octopus with soppressata and shaved fennel salad
(1 of 5)

Dinner commences under Mason Pacific's heat lamps
(2 of 5)

Potato skins with parmesan
(3 of 5)

Chef Sean McTiernan
(4 of 5)

Smoked cod brandade
(5 of 5)

The corner bistro, as we’ve come to see it, is at once a restaurant and a romantic notion—it’s a location, sure, but also a sweet conceit. It satisfies our craving for sharp, unpretentious cooking even as it feeds our need for something deeper. At a corner bistro, you can get a glass of wine poured by a barman who knows your leanings and a well-made burger delivered by a server who just might know your name. You come as you are and leave feeling better, having found a tasteful refuge for your inner Norm and Cliff.

If that is what you’re hankering for, Mason Pacific, which opened this summer, fits the bill. A fine corner bistro in an undefined slice of San Francisco with few other spots to turn to, it sits in a tweener district that’s touched by North Beach, Chinatown, and Nob Hill, yet magically removed from the tourist bustle of the first two and free of the latter’s old-world, tweedy must.

Mason Pacific is owned by Jay Thomson, a local businessman, and his wife, Shannon McTiernan Thomson. Its chef is Shannon’s brother, Sean McTiernan, a veteran of Delfina and Rose Pistola. The space, the former home of Lalola Bar de Tapas, is split into two parts. On the left, in the lounge, are bare wooden tables, a thick white marble bar, and a chalkboard for the daily special. Turn right into the dining room, and the lounge’s Sputnik chandeliers give way to glass globe fixtures, the tables acquire cloths, and the stools become banquettes.

They’re distinctive settings with very different moods, one stripped down and upbeat, the other formal. But there’s plenty on the menu that works in both.

The chef’s cooking is laid-back, but to call it casual is to undersell its precision and creative twists. Take potato skins, which are generally cast as Monday Night Football fodder, leaden and lowbrow. In McTiernan’s hands, they’re delicate, near-elegant—all crackling skin and little greasy starch, dusted with herb salt and piled high with shaved parmesan. One puff, and they’d blow away like autumn leaves.

Like several other items on the menu (beet salad, beef tartare, New York steak), smoked cod brandade is a bistro staple. But McTiernan’s version isn’t standard issue. Churned in an ice cream maker for a leavening effect, the potato-and-fish medley is almost airy. It’s dense enough to cling to the crostini it comes with, but the added cream is countered with yogurt, keeping the dish light enough to reveal its subtleties. The classic has been Californianized, and for the better. But the octopus appetizer might be the kitchen’s best move. Smoked and braised, then seared to add texture, the tentacles stretch out to touch a tangle of shaved fennel salad with soppressata and pineapple. The crisp, cured octopus tastes like briny bacon. It’s hard to beat the combo, a refreshing three-way of smoky, salty, and sweet.

McTiernan divides his menu into three courses, with a choice of hearty pastas in the middle (a lush pappardelle with lamb-and-olive sugo is highlighted by huge hunks of braised meat). But not all of his dishes belong where they’ve been grouped. Buttermilk fried chicken, served with sauce rémoulade and green Tabasco, is moist and delicious but too sizable to really be a starter. It could easily stand in for the poached chicken salad, a daintily dressed gathering of greens and shredded poultry that’s light and bright but miscast as an entrée. It seems more like a nod to the hyper–health conscious, or the first thing you’d eat to ease into things after coming off a fast.

You would never say the same about the burger. A generous patty garnished with smoked tomato, pickled onions, and white cheddar, it rests on a pretzel bun that absorbs the fatty runoff without falling apart. An extra three bucks gets you bacon, a fried egg, or mushroom confit, creating a stunner that you’ll want to share with your online followers even as you hide it from your cardiologist.

I had the burger at the bar (which is where I’d sit next time because, well, it’s just more fun) with a glass of grenache, the pairing posted as the chalkboard special. Wines are a point of pride at Mason Pacific, and the eclectic collection, which includes 16 wines by the glass, also offers labels from the owners’ private stash. The choices are impressive—from small-production pinots to a quirky Corsican white—but expensive, given the bistro context, which may persuade you to forgo a bottle for a glass.

Beside me at the bar were several Nob Hill residents who described themselves as regulars despite the restaurant’s newbie status. As dessert arrived, I eavesdropped on their banter with the barman about kids heading off to college and favorite vacation spots in Spain. It was intimate and amiable, all that anyone could ask for from a spot just down the street, and the charms of the evening were still with me as I stepped outside. One of the locals walked out just behind me, and I watched him amble off toward his hilltop apartment, envying him—and anyone else who lives close enough to just drop by.

The Ticket
A recommended dinner for two people (before tax and tip) at Mason Pacific.
Potato skins .............................................................$5
Smoked cod brandade..............................................$12
Octopus with shaved fennel salad ..............................$16
Pappardelle with lamb sugo...................................... $14
Hamburger with egg, bacon, or mushroom confit ........$17
Crème fraîche ice cream ........................................... $6
Two glasses of grenache...........................................$28
Total .....................................................................$98

Mason Pacific
1358 Mason St. (at Pacific Ave.)
415-374-7185
Two and a Half stars

 

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of San Francisco

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