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Not long ago, too many cornstalks growing in an urban backyard would raise the neighbors’ eyebrows. Now, thanks to Olav Peterson, we’ve got shiny red tomatoes thriving a short stroll from a stoplight.
Peterson, the chef—and avid gardener—behind Bittersweet, clearly recognizes how many urban diners have embraced the farm-to-table movement. He knows they can be found trolling the farmers’ markets adding ramps and heirloom okra to their reusable hemp bags. “Farm to table?” you can almost hear him say. “We’re gonna take it from the parking lot to the plate.” Which is exactly what Peterson, 34, does, thanks to the thigh-high, wooden planter boxes he’s installed next to Bittersweet along a heavily trafficked stretch of East Alameda Avenue. Peer inside on a summer afternoon, and you’ll find leafy chard, lanky tomato plants, feathery dill, and loads of other still-earth-bound produce.
Produce purists in the vein of Northern California’s Alice Waters often lean toward a clean, soft-spoken cooking style, but Peterson takes a more extroverted approach. He’s been known to include foams and deconstructed dishes on his menu. He’s not afraid of vegetarian no-nos like veal, sweetbread, and wild boar. He’s even experimenting with sous vide, in which food is vacuum-packed and slow-cooked in a water bath.
All of this makes dining at Bittersweet an experience quite unlike any other in town. And although there is an obvious worship of fresh ingredients, those ingredients are smoked and puréed, grilled and pickled, and layered and presented in a way that demands your attention.
Peterson’s cuisine is, in a word, inspired. Any restaurant can offer a Reuben sandwich. But at Bittersweet in late spring (when I sampled most of the menu), you can order a sweetbread Reuben appetizer. In the dish, three thick slices of caraway brioche stand in for the rye bread; cured sweetbreads take the place of corned beef; pickled cherry tomato halves replace the sauerkraut; and a gooey, melted Jarlsburg—forget Swiss—is drizzled over each open-faced bite. The result is a dish that uses the same streetwise language of a traditional Reuben but is far more fit for a sophisticated night on the town.
Peterson, who most recently was the chef at Bistro One on South Broadway, and his kitchen crew obviously put a lot of thought into presentation, and it pays off. That frisée salad? It isn’t tumbled and unruly like most salads. Instead, the frisée is neatly packed inside a cylinder of cured salmon and capped with a tidy poached egg.
The halibut, which is tender and flaky, arrives atop a thick disk of sweet and chunky heirloom tomatoes, and underneath both lies a long, flat, two-inch strip of creamy avocado. Pair the fish with the gazpacho—a vertical arrangement of avocado halves, cucumber and red pepper strips, and shaved octopus.
And wasn’t that clam chowder you ordered? Well, yes, but Peterson’s doesn’t look—or taste—like any you’ve had before. His is a deconstructed version, served in an oversize white bowl, in which a crispy potato croquette sits at the bottom. That is layered with a single top-neck clam on the half shell that’s finished off with a toss of crunchy pork cracklins. Right when you are about to ask where the chowder part of the chowder is, the server pours it tableside.
The creativity on display at Bittersweet, however, has a drawback, which is that some of the dishes are too bold in both flavor and amount. I was blown away by the halibut cheeks, served with crispy fried oysters and thin asparagus spears, and topped with béarnaise sauce. But I would have been doubly as satisfied with half as much food—the dish was simply too rich to finish.
I had the same experience with the poussin. This dish was beautifully presented, with four bone-in pieces of tender young chicken nestled atop a smooth hazelnut purée and drizzled with a grilled onion dressing. Plump, ripe figs and salty cubes of ham dotted the plate. Add it up, and you’ve got five distinct flavors competing for your attention instead of complementing one another.
My advice: Choose a couple of the lighter appetizers and then split an entrée with a friend. Also, ask your server for input on ordering: I found all of the servers to be extremely knowledgeable and willing to share an insider’s wink as to which dishes may be a bit rich.
The decor at Bittersweet combines elements of modern high style—i.e., Pollock-esque drip paintings—with rustic touches such as antique wooden fireplace mantels. Mostly, the relaxed urban ambience works, but if noise bothers you and you’re out on a busy night, ask to be seated in the back room. (Bittersweet has two distinct dining areas.) While the back room lacks some of the energy and charm of the front room with the bar, it is quieter. Both rooms open onto the patio in the summer, offer fireplace warmth in the winter, and provide views of those ultra- urban planter boxes year-round.
Gazing at all the growth in those planter boxes, you may wonder if Peterson isn’t just a bit worried all that ripe produce will prove too tempting for late-night passersby?
“If they grab a tomato, they grab a tomato,” he says—which may be the kind of attitude you have to adopt if you’re going to haul your garden into the middle of the city and put it on display. Then again, his response may be nothing more than the mark of a chef who truly cares about the integrity of his cuisine and wants to share it.