Why Alta CA Is the Zuni Café of Right Now

This is an essay about why I love bistros, disguised as a piece about a restaurant in San Francisco. You should pronounce the name of Alta CA like I do, by saying just the first part, Alta, no cah or California, or if you're a stickler, you can verbally spell out the last part when you say it, Alta see-A. I mention this because Alta’s owner is Daniel Patterson, a chef I like a lot. Half of why I admire Patterson is that, after eating his food at Coi, I can say he is a man who thinks a lot about the details. A name with a silent ending is a frame for the quietness, the peculiar immanence of the experience here, a restaurant with an understanding of both history and place, but where you can just get a burger at 1 a.m. and not have to think about much if you don’t want to.

Although thought is the other reason I admire Patterson. He thinks a lot about place: this place, San Francisco, and that place across the bay, Oakland, where his restaurants Plum and Haven are. Because San Francisco is the city that refined the notion of the modern American bistro, it’s fitting that Alta should be here, on its hard-paved, treeless stretch of Market Street, a five-minute walk from Zuni Café, the restaurant that gave America its bistro model a generation ago, to replicate in Caesar salads and roast chickens, in carefully modulated burgers and braised meats sprinkled with gremolata.

Alta CA is a place that readjusts what Zuni is for our time while unobtrusively cataloging the past. There are thrift-store paintings, and a scrim wall of open shelving separating front of house from back, lined with wines and liquors, drained trophy bottles of 50-year-old premier crus, cookbooks, and random volumes on Byzantine painting and the works of Shakespeare. It’s like a physical rendering of some cultural memory-cache of Borges’s "Funes the Memorious," if Funes had been a foodie.

Why it has resonance, is that this is a critical moment of transition in San Francisco (the archly art deco Twitter building, a symbol of tech’s ascendance here, is half a block away). Alta both offers comfort and embraces change in the cooking of its chef, Yoni Levy (that's him up top).

Levy is inked and gangly, introverted in a way that makes you believe he’s never not thinking about food, even when I’m asking him questions at 3 on a Wednesday. Levy grew up in San Jose, worked in Chicago for Paul Kahan at Blackbird, and returned to cook at Flora in Oakland. He makes beautiful food with an alien edge that never seems to challenge, and often surprises. One day I ordered a salad of beets and little gem lettuce, but instead of the soft hunks of goat cheese—the bistro cliché—it had boiled, halved potatoes that performed the same function, texturally. If I’d never looked down at the bowl, never thought about what I was eating, I probably wouldn’t have noticed that Levy redrew a boundary line. And where herbs or citrus would be, Chef picked caraway to be the aromatic catalyst, but only enough to make you strain to taste it. He’s the quietest revolutionary.

Ever since the first pissaladières slid from the oven of Café Chez Panisse, American bistros have drawn from French and Italian cookbooks in the chef’s office, but Levy’s embracing Eastern Europe, where he has family roots. Patterson describes the profile as smoke, fermented things, and flavors that are “demonstrative.”

Levy’s smoked pork trotter salad (above) sits demonstratively on a browned, chunky pork mosaic, like scrapple with invisible binding, heaped with frisée, Brussels sprouts, and a joggy sous-vide egg. It’s sweet and smoky like good bacon is, the funky-in-a-good-way sprouts sautéed with chile flakes so you think Korean for a flash. It’s salade Lyonnaise with resonance for 21st-century California.

The warm root vegetable salad (above) looks like some beautiful rendering of the compost bowl on the kitchen counter you use for tossing carrot peels and parsnip tops before taking them out to the bin. It has acidity and a rippling umber shadow from mint and fermented fish sauce. Not enough to make you think fishy, but enough to ground it, in an almost literal sense of the word.

Chickpea and oxtail fritters (above) is the chef at his most self-conscious—it’s less relaxed, more mannered than Levy’s other dishes.

But that burger, the one I mentioned at the top, that you could sit and eat at 1 in the morning, without even thinking that a chef’s behind it, or that a great chef thought about the details here: The sear from the cranked-up flattop tastes enough like coffee-shop burgers that you don’t have to think too much. The bun they make here is exactly right but doesn’t quite scream house-made bun! And you can look outside at the people on Market Street like you can at Zuni, noting if they’re cute or not, homeless or struggling or returning to their condos after a night, and let the excellence of the burger just fade into ambiance, the way that CA at the end of Alta's name does.

Photos by Chris Rochelle