I’m writing this almost three months into San Francisco’s stay at home orders that closed all in-person dining at restaurants and bars to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This obviously devastated the industry. Even as outdoor dining in the Bay Area is slowly returning, it’s clear that restaurants can’t return to normal anytime soon.
It’s been incredible to see how places have adapted in order to stay afloat. Fine dining restaurants in particular had to do a hard pivot from their service-focused and intricate experiences. I listened to an interview with Nick Kokonas of The Alinea Group and Tock where he mentioned Alinea was able to surpass their pre-covid revenue with a daily takeout menu at under $50 (for comparison, their seated tasting menu is $200-$400+).
Another upside is that the lower price point makes fine dining accessible to a wider audience. While one could argue that it’s not a “real” fine dining experience, it is exposing more diners to new ingredients and techniques, and that’s wonderful.
In the Bay Area, I’ve been lucky to experience excellent takeout menus and at a frequency that would be not realistic if these were at the restaurant (time and cost). I was initially hesitant to blog about my shelter-in-place dining for a number of reasons – guilt at indulging when others have lost their jobs, “taking advantage” of the cheaper prices, inappropriate timing with so much world suffering.
However, it’s clear this isn’t a passing event. By blogging, I hope I can help diners who are researching the “new normal” of fine dining and maybe help drive a more traffic to restaurants.
The first restaurant I’m featuring is Birdsong’s Birdbox concept. They started with an à la carte fried chicken takeout and added more intricate weekend tasting menus. I ordered a lamb-focused four-course menu back in May that was a reasonable $50 pre-tax and tip.
Like other similar takeout concepts, you must pre-order and chose a time slot to pick up. At pickup, you are given a bag with lots of carefully packaged items. The environmental impact of all this takeout packaging is concerning, but that is a larger discussion.
There is some assembly required at home. The level of effort for Birdsong’s menu was in the middle of the tasting menus I’ve experienced – not the simplest, but definitely not the most intricate by far. The printed menu directions were easy to follow.
The first course of wedge salad was visually lovely. I enjoyed plating the assorted flowers and herbs. There were layers of lamb “prosciutto” that were quite gamey – far too much for my admittedly low tolerance to eat. Too bad.
The toasted grains soup also had lamb, but the lamb belly was mild in taste and added the right amount of depth to a comforting and pleasantly tangy soup.
Next was the main course of grilled lamb rack wrapped in cedar and served alongside cardoons and carrots. I heated it for 10 minutes in the oven as directed, and the cedar gave off such a nice smokey smell while I prepped the rest of the menu. The aged lamb was tender with a delicate amount of grassiness, and the olive condiment added brightness. The braised cardoons (similar in taste to artichoke) were solid.
I thought that the BBQ carrots stole the show. The process intensive preparation, involving multiple days of reducing the plant over heat, resulted in an unrecognizable carrot texture similar to meat. The concentrated texture and taste made the carrots such a joy to eat! Birdsong’s carrots hold a special place in my food heart next to Saison’s beet.
Closing the meal was a strawberry mille-feuille with tonka and vanilla beans. The fresh strawberries were packaged separately to preserve the flaky layers.
I enjoyed Birdsong’s Lamb box. I thought the presentation, complexity of flavors, and textures traveled very well. The courses, while elevated, were easy enough to assemble at home without too much effort. I definitely want to try the fried chicken next time!