It wasn't so long ago that Duncan Holmes would ride his bike home from Bella Vista High School, stopping along the way to wash dishes at his mom's catering business, before immersing himself in his studies.
The catering business grew up to become Karen's Bakery Cafe, a beloved eatery in Folsom, and the baker's son grew up to be, at just 26, a Michelin-starred chef in San Francisco.
Armed with talent and focus and the determination to endure 15-hour work days, Duncan Holmes has climbed from anonymous line cook to become one of the young culinary stars in one of the nation's greatest restaurant cities.
So we went to Sons & Daughters, a tiny restaurant within walking distance of Union Square, to encounter his food, which is presented in two prix-fixe menus: a seasonal offering with meat and seafood ($92), and a separate vegetarian menu ($86). Both include eight small courses.
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Dinner is a two-hour experience in excellent service, perfect pacing, and subtle, refined and yet sometimes bold eating – small bites with big payoffs.
This isn't Duncan Holmes' restaurant – his title is chef de cuisine. But the food presents his vision, his appreciation for and access to unlikely ingredients, his execution of modern and classic techniques and, more than anything, his command of flavors.
We noticed the latter within moments. The first course on the seasonal menu features a buttermilk chip (more on that in a minute) with dill and a serving of brilliant red- orange trout roe. It was a simple bite or two, but I didn't want it to end, savoring the crunch, the creamy coating in my mouth, the pop of the trout eggs one after another, their gentle brininess set off by the dill.
These buttermilk chips or crackers are themselves a tour de force – so easy to overlook, so complicated to create. Holmes' kitchen mixes tapioca with buttermilk and xanthan gum to make a dough, puts the dough in a vacuum bag and rolls it very thin; then they boil it, cool it and allow the dough to rest in the bag for a day before it is cut into rectangles and placed in a dehydrator; finally, the pieces are fried, at which time they puff up and are seasoned with green onion salt.
These are the kinds of things that happen backstage at a restaurant good enough to earn a coveted Michelin star in San Francisco. Lots and lots of work and loads of planning and thinking for a moment or two.
Second up was a course I'll call "cold and colder" – chilled kampachi topped with a dab of glistening copper-colored frozen ponzu sauce, which touches your tongue, promptly melts and coats it with flavor. Another wonderful eating moment – with taste, texture and, in this case, temperature, making a star turn. The corresponding course on the vegetable tasting menu was a vivid plating of tender beets with grainy mustard. Excellent in a different way.
On and on it goes. The timing here is perfect, including the wine pairings. We eat, we savor, we chat, we pause. We had the optional wine pairings ($69) with one dinner. The splashes of seven wines amounted to about 2 1/2 glasses and added significantly to the experience. At our prompting, our excellent waiter gave his thoughts on each wine and explained why they were selected for the specific course.
It would be difficult to say which component or course we enjoyed most. The sixth course, for instance, may have been the best squab I've ever eaten, a 3-ounce portion of tender breast meat cooked sous vide (in a vacuum sealed bag in a circulating water bath) then sautéed to order in a very hot pan, making the skin perfectly crisp and delicious.
The cooking here showed precision – squab can be overdone in a flash; this was plated with an unusual purée of Marcona almonds. Holmes tells me they toast the nuts in the oven, blend them and re-blend them, add orange, garlic and olive oil, then place the puree into beakers, freeze it, spin it in a Pacojet (a high-tech device popular in modernist cooking circles), spin it again, and freeze it once more. It's a two or three-day process for what amounts to a dollop and a swish we may remember for years. Also on the plate are pickled fennel, tangelos and a sprinkling of raw Marcona almonds.
It was a tremendous dish – but not necessarily the best one. That would be a toss-up between the third (marigold greens in a chilled soup) and fourth course (quail consommé with asparagus). You've got color, texture, flow and flavors galore here.
The marigold greens, a native plant that grows in bunches, come from a special garden to which the restaurant has access. The flavors are an intense lemon and/or a bright fruitiness. The greens are blanched with dill and mint, then blended with olive oil and shallots into a brilliant green. This purée is mixed with juice from green tomatoes, heated in an arcane blender called a Thermomix (the Wall Street Journal calls it the "go-to appliance of master chefs"), combined with a gelling agent, then poured out to set into firm Jell-O-like blocks. Then it's put back into the blender and liquefied.
Holmes and his kitchen come by these flavors with a mix of time-honored methods, modern techniques and a bit of hocus-pocus.
The asparagus and quail course is only slightly less complex, though the experience was equally captivating.
Throughout the meal, the food was seriously good, but it can be playful, too. Some of our favorite moments were the deliveries of individual-size breads – a buckwheat toast (amazing), a mini sourdough (cute) and a little boule of pretzel bread (dark and delicious) that served as bookmarks in a thoroughly modern, intense storyline.
Holmes learned to love food from his mother, who continues to share this talent with her loyal customers in Folsom and beyond. And through her son, she is sharing something even greater – food so beautiful it rises to the level of art – without ever letting us forget that flavor must always take top billing.
Sons & Daughters
708 Bush St., San Francisco
Hours: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 5:30-10:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.
Beverages: Wine and beer.
Vegetarian friendly: Very.
Noise level: Moderate.
Overall Four Stars (excellent)
Conceived by co-owners and friends Matt McNamara and Teague Moriarity, this tiny 29-seat restaurant is easy to overlook. But the food is something special – artistic, thoughtful and executed to perfection – with service to match.
Food Four Stars (excellent)
There are two eight-course options for dinner: the regular seasonal tasting menu or the vegetable tasting menu. Chef de cuisine Duncan Holmes shows a deft touch and a wide range of techniques. The menu unfolds like a story in a progression of colors, textures and flavors you won't soon forget. Highlights include a chilled soup of marigold greens, seared squab with a Marcona almond purée, lentils cooked in red wine and then wrapped in a dough to resemble an egg roll. The restaurant has its own garden in Los Gatos.
Service Four Stars (excellent)
Timing, attention to detail, tasting notes on the wines, details about complex cooking techniques, the waiters showed great command. They were so knowledgeable we regret we didn't ask them to explain what a Higgs boson is.
Ambience Three Stars (good)
The setting is intimate and casual, and we were so caught up in the food and service we barely noticed the view: a gay strip joint across the street.
Value Three Stars (good)
The seasonal tasting menu (includes meat) is $92. The vegetable menu is $86. Optional wine pairings are $69. If you're looking for large, hearty portions, this place is not for you. But the quality of the cooking, the thoughtfulness of the wine list and originality of the menu have plenty of value for a special meal.