Maven on Haight (old RNM space) -- Great cocktails, fantastic fries
Last night we stopped into Maven, a new cocktail and bites restaurant in the Lower Haight (the old RNM space). Compared to the other spots in this neighborhood, they're going for something more refined and high-end, perhaps matching the gentrification that has crept up from Upper Mission and Hayes Valley.
Menu is mostly focused on drinks, with a short list of food: http://www.maven-sf.com/MavenMenu.pdf
The cocktails were the most appealing part of the menu, with playful twists on recognizable classics and interesting combinations I've not seen before. I'm not sure if Neyah White (whose work at Nopa I admired very much) consulted on the cocktail list, but he was sitting at the bar. I liked the tart Global Warming, made with aged gin, sake, Riesling and spoonful of absinthe sorbet.
French fries were fantastic. I think I've had a lot of awful fries lately, and these were just right--perfectly crisp, potatoey without being gummy starch fingers, not too thick or thin. We also liked the Lucky Dog Ranch skirt steak that we split. Most of the customers I noticed were drinking, a few sharing plates, so it'll be interesting to see if their entrees like arctic char and agnolotti remain on the menu or they'll have to narrow the focus.
Space is huge, with communal tables and the bar downstairs, and high-tops upstairs in a small balcony-like section. Pretty lighting. Service was strange--there didn't seem to be servers assigned to specific tables, so a revolving cast stopped by to ask us if we'd ordered, wanted refills, or wanted to look at the dessert menu not knowing we'd been asked the same question 90 seconds before by another counterpart. I got about a quarter cup of rice vinegar spilled on me by a waitress who didn't notice; it wasn't a big deal, but I think there's something about their serving system that feels too loose and disjointed for the quality of experience they're after (and charging for).
The bill was $90, which I guess makes sense but felt steep because the experience was more like dining at a bar than sharing a meal at a fine restaurant. The place was packed while we were there, so hopefully the drink tabs will be enough to cover their rent.
Went back and found much the same--the cocktails are awesome, much better than anything else in this neighborhood, and the fries a marvel, but none of the bigger dishes made an impact that seemed worth the price. We tried a broccoli agnolotti that was unevenly cooked and an asparagus dish that was pretty good but required no sorcery on the grill nor conjured much on the palate.
Cocktail-wise, we tried:
Three Little Birds (pisco, pineapple, rosemary, egg white, lime)
Whisper Cocktail (lillet, orgeat, spring vermouth, chili, smoke)
Both were well conceived and prepared, but I especially give the thumb's up to the Whisper for the lurking smoke and chili undertones.
Service was knowledgable and friendly. I saw a bottle of unfamiliar gin (Small's brand) and asked after it. The very busy bartender gave me the background on it (Oregonian, from Local Wine Company) and let me try it--it smelled and tasted of raspberry leaves. Not my thing, but I was grateful that he took the time out of his busy shaking and stirring to educate.
I know, huh? Maybe if we just stare meaningfully and unblinkingly in their direction we can make that happen.
It may be the case that they're busy enough and don't want to double their cocktail business while losing out on the food side. Both times I've been there it's been packed. But give me a ring if you two do stop by.
Went there last night with three other people. At 8PM on a Wednesday, the place was packed. They don't take reservations, so you should expect a wait. It took about 10 minutes for our name to get put on the seating list.
The space is large and modern with communal tables. It certainly wasn't quiet, but not as loud as I would have expected. They seem to have a ventilation problem--- there was either smoke or spice in the air that caused several of us to cough throughout the evening.
The menu is arranged with a central column of food. Each item has a suggested cocktail pairing to its left, and a suggested wine/beer pairing to its right.
The food has potential, but most of the foods were poorly prepared. The two people in the open kitchen looked very rushed, so I could imagine this changing if they got more staff.
The Braised Fennel & Watercress came with grilled bread & burrata. They list "tomato jam" on the menu, but I remember eating a greenish puree with a pleasant flavor I couldn't identify. For a vegetable starter, this was exactly as described and light.
The Chinatown Duck Sliders with shitake, bitter greens, & bacon were small but worth the $9 for two. The sweetness of the roll, the saltiness of the bacon & sauce, the bitterness of the greens, and the savoriness of the duck and mushrooms formed an exceptional dish.
Butternut Squash Agnolotti were served with brussels sprouts, pomegranate, parmesan, and diced squash. Kudos for seasonality, but I really didn't get what they were trying to achieve with this dish. This was a very busy preparation, and the sides distracted from the agnolotti. The agnolotti filling was smooth and rich, but the wrapper was too thick overall, and dry and raw where the pieces sealed. Plus, four agnolotti for $17 was really steep.
A long time after we placed our order, we were told they ran out of the arctic char. We got the skirt steak as a replacement. Slices of steak were served over a beautiful stack of thinly sliced garnet yams, pieced together so that it almost looked like pork belly. The steak was pretty chewy. The yams had an unidentifiable bitterness to them, but were a good side.
I'd be interested to have the burger again. Our medium rare order came out medium to medium-well, so it was difficult to evaluate. I liked the bun and accompaniments. The fries were excellent, and were served with a juniper salt, lemon, & olive aioli. The aioli was fantastic, and had an almost seafood-like flavor.
The cost with tax and tip was $180 for 4 people (6 cocktails, one beer), and I was still hungry afterwards. Overall, if I were passing by and they weren't busy, I'd return for the fries and duck sliders, maybe the burger.
Nice detailed report, hyperbowler. Sounds like your experience was much like ours.
There's something that's off about the pricing, especially in a non-FiDi expense account location. That same week I had the chef's tasting menu at SPQR for about the same amount I paid to split a non-exceptional entree, app, and fries (plus drink) at Maven...and in only one of those instances did I feel hungry afterward and resent the bill.
Did you notice if other people around you were eating or just having cocktails?
Yeah, I agree that the pricing is off. They also need to have more low priced nibbles on the menu. Right now, they only have olives, almonds, and fries for under $10. The Point Reyes blue (the dessert) also seemed high, at least in terms of its listed accompaniments. It's a great local cheese, but you can get it for less than $11/lb at Costco and it's available throughout the country (I bought some at Publix in semi-rural Georgia a few weeks back).
Thanks for the tips about the fries, BTW--- we wouldn't have gotten it otherwise!
Most people around us seemed to be drinking cocktails and having only a plate or two. That could be a function of the time--- one of our party was ridiculously late, so we didn't get seated until our party was all there at about 9PM. The party next to us had the calamari, which looked good, and another large party didn't finish their dessert-- ice cream with what looked like a chocolate brownie.
The closest things I can think of is Alembic in the Upper Haight. They have a good selection of nibbles, their specials can be hit or miss, and their standard dishes are consistently good and inventive. I'm always full there, and unless I got the hot dog, probably spend a bit more than we did at Maven. Alembic's service is good, and the wait's never been horrible, but YMMV--- I always go on the late side with one other person and get seated immediately.