Ernest’s Global, Eclectic Take On Elevated, Yet Approachable, Globally-Inspired California Cuisine

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Ernest is the first solo venture of Chef Brandon Rice, formerly of Rich Table and Coi, and for anyone who’s familiar with those restaurants, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a dining experience here is going to be not only memorable, but unique and captivating. Though Ernest is celebrating just its first year in business in San Francisco’s vibrant Mission District, it immediately made waves in the city’s culinary world thanks to Chef Rice’s playful, eclectic approach to elevated cuisine.

The menu is divided up in to four parts: raw bar; snacks; salads and vegetables; and meat & seafood. Each section is made up of dishes made to surprise and delight the palate in ways that you wouldn’t expect.

“Ernest’s menu features food that I like to eat myself,” explains Chef Rice in response to what the inspiration is behind the menu at Ernest. “It’s an expression of what I love about food with flavors of my upbringing, travel, and working around the world. The food has thought behind it. I want to present flavors that are elevated, while still feeling like the food is approachable and casual.”

A few examples on the ever-changing menu is the Keluga Caviar Tater Tots, which is presented in two bowls: one full of crispy tater tots and one filled with creme fraiche with chives, lemon zest and a nice dollop of caviar. Another stand out? The Sushi Rice which is a beautiful take on beef tartare served with bright orange ikura (salmon caviar), sushi rice and nori to create hand rolls with.

Other current menu highlights include the Uni Toast with jamon serrano and quail egg; Mexican Shrimp Coctel with avocado and saltines; Lo Mein Sea Urchin ‘Carbonara’ with Olivier’s bacon; Pork Tomahawk Tonkatsu; and the Duck Confit Fried Rice.

The menu offers diners a true culinary journey that ends with a selection of incredible, nostalgic desserts: the signature Ernest sundae with a vanilla hazelnut swirl, with hazelnut praline and a house made milk chocolate Magic Shell; the current shaved ice flavor, Strawberry Shortcake, with homemade strawberry jam and topped off with a yellow cake crumble and whipped cream; and finally a decadent basque cheesecake.

“We’re not a restaurant with boundaries – we’re cooking what we like and change the menu frequently. It’s about presenting seasonal flavors. In California, we have the best produce in the world, with seasons that are constantly changing what’s available to us at the farmers markets. Our goal is to create dishes that are new and exciting, yet comfortable.”

We chatted with Chef Brandon Rice on this past year in business; menu highlights; inspiration and more. Here’s what he had to say!

How has your previous experiences working at places that include Rich Table and Coi prepared you for your first solo project, Ernest?

To me, a restaurant is a sum of all the places you’ve ever worked. Everyone has their own cooking style, so each kitchen has a way of shaping you. I think about Coi and how incredible Daniel Patterson’s palette was — he taught me how to season food. Then with Rich Table, I had the opportunity to truly run a kitchen on my own and cook my own style of food.

Before these San Francisco experiences, I spent time in Boston with Ken Oringer. He really introduced me to the food I still love, to this day. Looking back, Ken’s kitchen is still one of the most exciting kitchens I’ve ever been in.

Talk about what this first year in business looked like for you, did the pandemic affect business?

Our first year in business was nothing like I ever expected, while also exceeding all expectations. It’s been incredible so far and I’m so grateful for the community and reception we’ve received from guests. We opened on March 17, 2021, in the middle of COVID.

Following SF city guidance, we were only allowed to have outdoor dining with just room for about 40 seats. It was nothing like what I imagined opening doors of my first restaurant would be like - I couldn’t even see the guests from the kitchen.

As restrictions were eased, we were able to grow from only outside to 50% inside, then 75%, then finally fully inside. Honestly, I look back and recognize that while it was incredibly challenging to run outdoor-only dining, this smaller number of guests helped our team. It allowed all of us to ease into the true pace of the restaurant. I look around our full dining room today and I’m incredibly proud of where we are just a year after opening our doors.

How would you categorize your cuisine? What do you hope guests take away from a dining experience here?

I would say ‘Modern California’ because it embodies everything — the best produce in the world, seafood, amazing butchers. I love to play with flavors and create dishes that are unexpectedly nostalgic but might be wildly new for a guest, giving them an experience that surprises yet comforts them through flavors throughout the meal.

My hope with this is that our guests come, explore the menu and have a great time. There’s no greater feeling than when people are making reservations to come back before they’ve even left.

Talk about menu highlights and what gets you excited currently in the kitchen.

The Beef Tartare was one of the first dishes that I concepted when I was dreaming up Ernest. I loved the idea of playing with the classic beef tartare and flavors of sushi rice – it’s one of my favorite things to eat on my days off. I think there’s both a newness and a familiarity to the dish that excites guests.

Our Uni Toast has become a mainstay – it’s decadent, soft and textural. And we just added Crab Rangoon Dip to the menu. It’s been floating around the back of my head for a while now, and I love how it embraces the freshness of summer stone fruit from one of our favorite farms, Kashiwase Farms.

I get really excited by what cooking in the Bay Area offers, like all the beautiful oysters from Hog Island and seeing the summer produce at the farm stands. We really load up our market carts this time of year. Even more, seeing the team around me grow with the restaurant has been an incredible thing to lead and be a part of.

We’ve created this daily ritual where one of our kitchen team members will give a short pre-shift speech to start service. Seeing how this kitchen is coming together and inspiring each other, cheering each other on each night, is incredible.

The strawberry shortcake shaved ice is one of my favorite desserts ever. How do you come up with these seasonal flavors? How did you make this particular creation?

I really love classic Americana desserts. Growing up, I ate strawberry shortcake in the summer and Ioved the Good Humor Shortcake bars that you could buy from the ice cream truck. I thought the shaved ice was a perfect opportunity to create something playful and take you back to those flavors from your childhood.

We always feature a shaved ice on the menu, updating the flavor seasonally and always playing on classic desserts. We’ve had fun with these recreating peach and apple pies; a black sesame tiramisu; pineapple upside-down cake; and a classic rainbow shaved ice. Being in California, we get beautiful fruit 12 months out of the year and strawberry season has a lengthy stay in the Bay Area, so we’re able to really make this one the star of summer.

This same nostalgia drove the thinking behind the Ernest Sundae and cheesecake as well. They’re elevated versions of the desserts I’ve loved my entire life.

Do you also make the other desserts? The desserts were as equally a highlight as the savory dishes!

Yes, we do! Our cheesecakes are baked every morning from scratch, and we also craft all of the sundae elements in house. We make our own soft serve base; we toast the hazelnuts and cook sugar to a deep amber letting it set then mixing with hazelnut oil to make our own praline and crafting our own ‘magic shell’ chocolate shell that we pour table-side. It’s a fun moment seeing guests light up as that chocolate is poured.

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