For the past couple of years, we’ve been reading and hearing about the buttermilk fried chicken served at the Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco. The restaurant is owned by Food Network celebrity chef-cookbook author Tyler Florence of Mill Valley. He opened it in 2010, and food critics have praised it as a destination for “American comfort food.”
We happened to be in the city recently, and found the tavern on the far reaches of Sacramento Street, on the edge of the Financial District. The restaurant, housed in a gorgeous four-story vintage building, has been variously described as “masculine,” “elegant” and “clubby.” Lots of brick, dark wood and metal, wilteh an inviting bar and chairs that are actually comfortable. It’s a showplace, really, with menu prices reflecting that status. Sure, it’s an upscale place with a clientele of monied regulars, but those aren’t reasons for the chill the greeter showed to two parties of excited first-timers.
At the table, an impeccably mannered server delivered airy popovers and glasses of iced tea laced with light pomegranate syrup. As good as the popovers were, they take second place to those at the Rotunda inside Neiman Marcus on nearby Union Square, served with strawberry-infused butter.
We scanned the relatively brief menu and decided to save the Petaluma Farms deviled eggs ($14), baked mac ‘n’ cheese ($9) and Tavern burger ($20) for another lunch. We went with the disjointed half of a buttermilk-brined fried chicken ($25 a la carte) and “whipped” potatoes with chives and California-sourced extra-virgin olive oil ($9).
The fragrant chicken arrived with a heap of flash-fried fresh rosemary on top, and a bulb of roasted garlic and a lemon wedge on the plate. It was aromatic and tender, meaty and juicy, surprisingly pale in color, but with a fine crunch and forward tastes of .... what were those herbs? Not rosemary ... Maybe some tarragon and lemon thyme? Any sage in there? Our untrained palates surrendered and we turned our attention to stripping the chicken to its bones, a very pleasant task.
Our server told us the chicken recipe is a “family secret,” but we think the basic preparation is a sous-vide treatment followed by a soak in seasoned buttermilk, then a roll in seasoned flour, finished with a few minutes in the frying pan.
The chicken was very good, but not great. Conclusion: After hearing so much buzz about the dish, we were suprised we weren’t wowed. We certainly recommend it, but once was enough for us. Scratch off another entry from our culinary bucket list.
Find it at 588 Sacramento St., San Francisco; (415) 772-9060, www.wayfaretavern.com.