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Sep 8, 2007 11:57 PM

Tinderbox (Cortland, SF); any reports?

Just back from a bit more than a week diving and away from the internet, and on our drive home we passed the old Aura location on Cortland, see that it has opened and is now apparently a restaurant called Tinderbox. Strange name, I think, but I am curious if anyone has tried it yet?

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  1. Not yet, but Omar White, the former sommelier from Pizzaiolo, is involved, so I'm sure the wine list is adventurous.

    14 Replies
      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        Trying again:

        Tinderbox Restaurant (CLOSED)
        803 Cortland Ave, San Francisco, CA 94110

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          That link takes me to a website that has no info at all about their menu or prices. I hope it's just because they're starting out and haven't finished their site yet.

          1. re: oakjoan

            The best description online right now is one from tablehopper. (scroll down)


          2. re: Robert Lauriston

            well, after reading that I was intrigued, and hubby and I wanted a place in the neighborhood for dinner tonight after a week on the West End of Catalina diving and eating boy scout camp food (diving and good food seem to be mutually exclusive on that end of Catalina), so we decided to give it a try. Besides, the name (which I still think is strange, though hubby thinks it refers to the size and shape of the miniscule back room) attracted me: I mean, who would name a restaurant that unless they had a lot of confidence? (Granted, I may be a bit sensitive, having had one house I lived in completely burn down and another come close.,,,,)

            But I here is my report:

            We were promptly seated after making a reservation on Open Table, The place is tiny and was busy, and the techno music grated a bit, though it quieted down later in the evening. Although our server was perhaps a bit nervous or just plain clumsy (at one point he dropped a used knife in my lap, as well as the pen from a neighboring table's bill) he had a helpful, friendly manner, and certainly the service seemed seamless in a way that I wouldn't have necessarily expected from a place that has only been open perhaps a week...Everything seemed to run very smoothly.

            The menu says their only water is "Hetch Hetchy"; still or sparkling, and free in either case, though we were not offered a choice. Our tap water was just fine, and glasses were kept refilled....

            While we checked out the menu and wine list, we were brought (in lieu of bread)
            a basket of popcorn with grated parmesan. I think it was supposed to be fun or hip, but I would have preferred bread, and the bits of parmesan got all over my black shirt, creating an unfortunate impression. Maybe I am just too old for that type of hip...

            The wine list, brought with the food menu on a clipboard, isn't that long, but it is indeed adventurous. Very few California choices, and it is literally all over the map, with selections from Croatia, Greece, Italy, France, South Africa, Hungary, and even, IIRC, Mexico, just to name a few...Many are offered by the glass, However, in the end, our server didn't seem that knowledgeable (though granted, we didn't question him much) and we decided we weren't feeling that adventurous, and went with the only wine on the list we knew: a Navarro 2005 Mendocino Pinot. At $40 a bottle, markup was a bit more than double, which I guess isn't too awful. I think it turned out to be a good choice with our food and I was happy, though it does seem a shame not to explore a bit given some of the unusual options,,,

            Later in the evening, we realized as we got to chatting with the host that he was in fact Omar White, when, noticing we were checking out the list for future reference, he quietly said he was the wine guy....when hubby expressed interest in a Greek white, he happily brought a taste (on the house).....

            anyway, as for the food: the menu is somewhat limited, not a bad thing in a small place. All providers are listed, and they note with pride that ingredients are sourced locally (very locally in some cases: from providers within Bernal Heights when possible) Unfortunately, of only five entrees, one had bananas in its composition, and thus was out of consideration for me (I never eat bananas), Given one was vegetarian and I wanted meat, I felt a bit restricted. Menu descriptions are not that clear and a bit too cute... But, as with the popcorn, perhaps I am just too old and not hip enough to appreciate it.

            Anyway, we ordered:

            peach salad with walnut basil pesto and heirloom tomatos: this was the best sounding of the appetizers (except for possibly a hamachi crudo, but I wasn't feeling up to spending $12 for my appetizer) and hubby and I each ordered one. It was very tasty, with an excellent vinagrette and a bit of pesto along with geometrically and attractively arranged slices of peach and tomato. The peaches were delicious and very sweet, and overall this dish was a hit overall, though the tomatoes were a bit of a disappointment (or perhaps just overpowered by the peach). However, it cried out for a bit of bread!

            Mains: I had the summer steak, ordered rare, with marrow bone butter, a fennel potato gratin and creamed corn. The plate appearance was somewhat muddled and messy, and the gratin wasn't that tasty, but the steak was very good and properly cooked, served sliced. The creamed corn was nice.... Hubby had oil-steamed black cod, advertised as being served with caviar, corn, fried squash blossom and saw leaf. Well, the fish itself was just a tiny bit overcooked, and as boring as I can remember a piece of fish being in recent memory. I couldn't taste any corn nor caviar, though hubby said he detected a trace of the latter..... The flavors didn't come together at all. A miss. Both main portions were small to average in size (not necessarily a negative, but it may be a value issue to some).

            All of the desserts sounded good (no bananas on the dessert menu, thank goodness!) and we ended up sharing an order of blackberry beignets. These were served with a tea for dipping. Whimsical and fun, and for dessert it worked: the beignets were delicious and I loved the savory touch of the tea.

            Total cost with a bottle of wine, one glass of dessert wine, two apps, two mains and one dessert, and tax and tip was about $140. Frankly, given the casual atmosphere of the place and the Cortland location, both hubby and I thought that was somewhat overpriced for the quality of the food. After all, for that price you could have better food in more comfortable surroundings, with bigger portions, at somewhere like Range (which is more similar in style) or Aziza (different style, but much better cooking if our entrees were indicative)...

            So, I probably wouldn't be in a hurry to return, except that a few of the desserts we didn't try intriqued (ie I think I recall a chocolate cake stuffed with gorgonzola) ...But OTOH hubby (who is sort of the antithesis of hip, and who I figured would really dislike it) surprised me by pointing out that it was walking distance, which Range is not, and sometimes one just doesn't want to drive but wants an upscale meal.....I guess he wants to spend some more time checking out the wine list!

            Bottom line: either the food would need to improve, or prices would need to come down, or both, for me to make Tinderbox a regular spot on my neighborhood list, especially with places like La Ciccia for nearby competition.....(I live almost exactly half way between those two)......Still, there is some potential there for those who can overlook the terminal hipness, and I do look forward to hearing more reports and to what others think...

            1. re: susancinsf

              a rather interesting article about the opening in the SFGate today:


              (though personally these days I think a peach salad isn't any more novel than a beet salad. That said, there were some definitely unusual menu items. For example, the pasta was handmade parpadelle...well, lots of places have that these days, but on the Tinderbox menu it was served with okra or chicken tikki masala. Unusual enough that I didn't want to order it...)

              1. re: susancinsf

                As someone associated with the Boy Scouts, you ought to know that a tinderbox is a box containing kindling and a flint and steel for firestarting :)

                1. re: chocolatetartguy

                  I have no association with the Boy Scouts whatsoever, I just happen to belong to a group that rents a small part of their camp on Catalina off season for diving.

                  But isn't the expression, 'go up like a Tinderbox'? Which was my point (I do know what a tinderbox is...just find it odd name given that well, kitchens do catch fire sometimes...)

                  nevermind, I am sure they had their reasons...

                2. re: susancinsf

                  Gorgonzola chocolate cake ... I am enticed and repulsed all at once.

                  Thank you for that most detailed and excellent report!

                  1. re: susancinsf

                    A trio of friends and I checked out Tinderbox last night. It was a very strange experience, but one dish was so remarkably good that I have high hopes that the kitchen will find its groove.

                    I found the menu a bit twee but although the menu is brief, we all found something interesting, and enjoyed the popcorn while we made our decision. Between this popcorn and Piqueos' addictive garbanzos, Cortland does well in the pre-dinner nibbles category (and since there were four of us, and it was late, it never got cold enough to seem greasy per the SF Weekly review).

                    One of us ordered the fig and beet salad, which arrived looking like something from Cyrus, and she loved it. Three of us ordered the onion soup. A "donut" of toasted bread spread with softened cheddar cheese is placed in a very deep bowl over some carmelized onions. A server brought each of us a sake server filled with beef broth, which they poured around the bread. I tasted the broth, and was surprised to find an un-beefy watery broth that completely lacked the comforting richness one expects in onion soup. As the bread absorbed the broth, it became less tasty, and the pearl onions were still firm, so added little additional carmelized flavor to the combination. We thought this fell very flat, and asked the waitress if the broth were supposed to be so light. She affirmed that it should be light but that watery wasn't their goal, and never got back to us on her promise to check with the kitchen. We felt a little dismissed, as though we didn't "get" their concept.

                    I ordered the fried game hen with plantain crust. The hen was perfectly cooked and succulent, but the dish lacked cohesion, the plantain breading was a bit mushy and bland, and the banana chile sambal offered a bitter, flat heat, but no more.

                    Another ordered the kuri squash curry gnocchi, in spite of the waitress giving her some attitude about ordering it as a main. She enjoyed it and found it filling enough after the soup.

                    Two others ordered the Pork Love, with a quick-cooked loin and slow cooked shoulder, and pronounced it delicious.

                    For dessert we shared the raspberry beignets and the basil panna cotta. The beignets were a disaster, with a greasy, doughy batter that we suspected was fried in the same oil as the chicken, and a concentrated raspberry filling that was oddly lacking in concentrated flavor. I took one bite and left the rest, but thoroughly enjoyed the vanilla citrus Yunnan tea, a brightly flavored concoction that served as an excellent palate cleanser after the fried dough.

                    The night finished on a high note with the basil panna cotta, which was absolutely outstanding. The texture was perfect, the use of basil inspired, it wasn't too sweet or too savory, too heavy or too stiff, we all agreed it was perfection. It made me feel that the kitchen might achieve the cleverness to which it clearly aspires given enough time.

                    Robert Lauriston mentioned the wine list influence, and although that may a boon at the higher end, at the lower end the menu tends towards gouging, with the Altos Hormigas Malbec (available for $12 at the grocery down the street) going for $32 per bottle and a glass of non-vineyard designated Joseph Leitz riesling kabinett offered for $11. So that's another area for improvement.

                    The restaurant was comfortably full when we arrived and we were the last to leave at 11 pm. We had the opportunity to enjoy the renovation of what was once the very neighborhoody Barking Basset Cafe, the cork on the walls is lovely and the back room is now a warm, intimate urban destination. The DJ was spinning when we arrived, but the music was a positive addition to the ambience, not at all loud or jarring on our visit.

                    While our experience was too uneven to bring me back soon, I hope to read of improvements as time progresses, as it could be a wonderful addition to the neighborhood.

                    1. re: susancinsf

                      The menu says their only water is "Hetch Hetchy"; still or sparkling

                      Har! They must be expecting tourist trade....

                      1. re: Waterboy

                        No, that's what Incanto's menu says, which started offering sparkling filtered water for free years ago. I think the point is to appeal to locals.

                        1. re: Windy

                          Yup, I think Windy's right. I appreciate that they use local tap water rather than offering bottled water.

                          Now if I could just figure out where to get my SIGG bottle filled throughout the day - I need a water fountain wiki more than I need a toilet wiki!

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                        1. Below, I link to a post from Yelp about an experience at Tinderbox this past Saturday. I didn't write the post, but I can vouch for its accuracy because I was there. It's the 11/19/07 post from Jennifer H. A $100 penalty for a four-person shortfall on a reservation for 12 seemed mighty steep, especially when it didn't seem like the shortfall actually cost the restaurant four patrons. It also seemed a little short-sighted for a relatively new restaurant that is still trying to earn a neighborhood's goodwill. I had the Yankee Onion soup and the plantain-encrusted fried game hen, both of which looked really good but lacked intensity of flavor. I had tastes of the grilled avocado and the cotija and avocado cream filled risotto cake. Those were good. I won't be returning here, though.


                          1 Reply
                          1. re: vinchar

                            regardless of whether the penalty was appropriate or not, or short-sighted or not, IMO Tinderbox is probably too small to be taking a reservation for 12, unless 12 persons could squeeze into the back room (I doubt that room will fit 12 but didn't take a close enough look on my one visit to be sure).